Spielberg, S. (2018). Ready Player One [Film]. Warner Bros. Pictures.
One of the hottest technology topics today is the rise of the "metaverse". Since Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the change of name of Facebook’s parent company to Meta and launched the video presentation of his company’s idea of the metaverse, this concept has greatly been up for discussions and debates.
But what does "metaverse" mean? A straightforward definition according to the Collins Dictionary is “a proposed version of the internet that incorporates three-dimensional virtual environments”. So, is metaverse a new concept? No. Is it something owned by Meta? No. Is it going to be revolutionary? It depends.
Guardian News. (2021). Facebook gives a glimpse of Metaverse, its planned virtual reality world. YouTube.
The metaverse can be considered as a way to use the internet in a manner that incorporates virtual tools such as holograms or augmented reality —figuratively, it would be like opening a new functionality tab on the internet browser of possibilities. The use of virtual reality (VR) is not a new concept but, until recently, it was mainly used in the gaming industry. Games such as Second Life, Arizona Sunshine, Astro Bot: Rescue Mission, Minecraft VR, Resident Evil 4 VR, or Star Wars: Squadrons, are already being played with VR. (One of the most famous VR kits, the Oculus series, is a Meta product).
The revolutionary potential of the metaverse lies in extending the use of VR to all sectors of society, from the current gaming sphere to sectors such as work-life, education, retail, legal, public institutions, etc., thus, creating a whole metaverse world worth living in. One of the main challenges, however, is the achievement of interconnectivity between platforms, where users could jump from one metaverse environment to another without barriers (e.g., from a Meta platform to one owned by Microsoft, IBM, or another organization). Another goal to be attained is the improvement of such technology to the extent that it allows users to experience quasi-real feelings and emotions with people, objects, and environments. To make the users feel and perceive them as if they were real. For example, going shopping in a virtual store, trying on the clothes with your avatar, and, if you like the clothes, buying them and having them shipped to you. Another example is going to a concert somewhere else in the world and having the same experience you would have if you were physically there. Finally, hugging or touching someone and experiencing the same feelings as if they were with you physically.
A great first approach to the metaverse concept is the movie Ready Player One, which was based on the book by the sci-fi writer Ernest Cline:
Warner Bros. Pictures. (2017). Ready Player One - Official Trailer 1 [HD]. YouTube.
Zuckerberg’s metaverse could be one of the many metaverse environments where users may end up interacting with one another.
It will be years before we can fully see and experience the metaverse, but it seems that the concept is here to stay. Accordingly, it is important that this idea is understood by as many people as possible, i.e. what it entails, what its potentials are—the good and the not-so-good ones. When the “internet” first appeared, no one quite knew or appreciated the revolutionary impact that it would end up having in our lives, and yet, here we are. Looking at the Ready Player One trailer, what’s most alarming is what the real world looks like in the movie. Hopefully, that reality will remain just a part of sci-fi, but one never knows… right?
We may be lacking a complete understanding of the metaverse sphere, but some issues can be anticipated, particularly as they are already showing up with the use of the current state-of-the-art technologies:
Digital rights (Protection of personal data and people’s habits and traits) — Governments and international institutions have barely started to comprehend and understand the harmful potentials of big data, artificial intelligence, cryptocurrencies, and related concepts, and the few existing regulations lack uniformity and appropriate mechanisms of responsibility attribution (who in the production chain is going to be responsible when a (meta)product or (meta)service harms a third party?). A switch to a much more integrated "virtual life" in our lives will hand, for free, lots of information about ourselves that can be monetized and used to improve our life, or not. Not to mention the misinformation and manipulation risks that have proved to be real.
(Cyber)crimes — Cybercrimes have increased exponentially over the past years and have peaked during the Covid-19 pandemic. Increasing each year, and with an estimated revenue figure of $265 billion by 2031, cybercrimes are a lucrative activity for criminals. Cybercrimes experts are continuously alerting us to phishing, ransomware, and related scams and piracy, counterfeits, and IP rights breaches—the latter especially relates to the rise of blockchain, crypto-assets, and NFTs. All the above will likely increase in the newly metaverse environment.
Centralization of power — Predictably, a few big tech companies will likely run the different metaverse environments where users will interact. If the metaverse ends up being widely used for several aspects of a user’s life, the big techs will gain even more power than they currently have, making the entire planet extremely dependent on their platforms, gadgets, tools, etc.
Addictions and lack of in-person social interaction — As framed by Peter Allen Clark, TIME Tech and Business Editor, in his article, "The Metaverse Has Already Arrived. Here’s What That Actually Means":
“If there were ever any hope of weaning children off-screen time, it was dashed by the pandemic. One German study published by DAK-Gesundheit found that usage of social media and video games was up by at least 60% in 2020 over 2019 among children between 12 and 17. Now imagine not just a screen, but a world.”
Inequality perpetuation and increase of economic disparities — As the world becomes more competitive and the human population increases, social disparities widen, and wealth is unevenly distributed between populations and organizations. Clark’s article is clear about this, as he includes a quote from sci-fi writer, Ted Chiang:
"'There’s no way the metaverse is going to help with things like income inequality, or food deserts, people who cannot buy groceries, disparities and access to health care,' says science fiction writer Ted Chiang, on whose work the 2016 movie Arrival was based. 'None of those things are things that you can deliver through the metaverse.'"
(Crypto)currency — How will the digital economy within the metaverse environment translate to economic earnings and benefits for users? Will they have to play-to-earn money? If users end up buying a plot of land in the metaverse, a new coat for their avatar, or a subscription fee to get access to certain tools or services, will they be paying with legal tender or are they going to use non-legal tender that would only be accepted in the metaverse? The latter does not seem to be very profitable for the businesses who see the metaverse as a new source of revenue, and have invested huge sums of money into it —$17M in 2020 and leaning toward an estimated amount of $184M in 2026. Along with the metaverse speculation comes the rise of cryptocurrencies and decentralized coins that operate through blockchain technology, the success of which is still being scrutinized but seems permanent nevertheless.
Climate impact and Energy pollution — The energy dependence of the technology sector is no secret and the whole world is currently at a critical phase of pollution and sustainability. Additionally, with the limited data available in this regard, the carbon footprint of technologies has turned out to be much higher than originally expected. Therefore, it is not difficult to imagine the massive amount(s) of energy and natural resources required to run an entirely new virtual world.
De Pablo, I. (2021). Metaverso [Illustration]. El Confidencial.
Is the world ready for the metaverse? A lot is yet to be seen regarding how all the issues raised above will end up materializing.
When dealing with new technologies, we must always remember one thing before jumping on board or engaging with new gadgets and experiences: the distinction between our digital life and our physical life is almost non-existent now. Our behavior, habits, and customs translate to our online activities and vice versa. Therefore, in view of the open issues that remain to be addressed and regulated, a nice approach would be to ensure that we are as much informed as possible regarding potential advantages and risks when interacting with new technologies. Essentially, that’s what we are trying to do here.
Collins Dictionary. (2022). Metaverse. https://www.collinsdictionary.com/es/diccionario/ingles/metaverse
Clark, P.A. (2021). The Metaverse Has Already Arrived. Here’s What That Actually Means. TIME Magazine. https://time.com/6116826/what-is-the-metaverse/
Chan, K. and O’Brien, M. (2021). ¿Qué es el ‘metaverso’ y cómo funcionará? Como si internet cobrase vida: 5 datos clave. Los Angeles Times. https://www.latimes.com/espanol/internacional/articulo/2021-10-28/que-es-el-metaverso-y-como-funcionara-5-datos-clave#:~:text=B%C3%A1sicamente%20es%20un%20mundo%20infinito,en%20smartphones%20y%20otros%20dispositivos.
López, J. (2022). Metaverso y derechos digitales. ECIJA. https://ecija.com/sala-de-prensa/metaverso-y-derechos-digitales/
Mcloughlin, M. and Cid, G. (2021). No lo llames metaverso, llámalo internet: qué hay tras la revolución que llevan 20 años vendiéndote. El Confidencial. https://www.elconfidencial.com/tecnologia/2021-09-07/metaverso-realidad-paralela-facebook-google-nft-criptos-que-es_3269502/
Wiener, A. (2022). Money in the Metaverse. The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/news/letter-from-silicon-valley/money-in-the-metaverse
Wiggers, K. (2022). The environmental impact of the metaverse. VentureBeat. https://venturebeat.com/2022/01/26/the-environmental-impact-of-the-metaverse/
Brooks, C. (2021). MORE Alarming Cybersecurity Stats For 2021! Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/chuckbrooks/2021/10/24/more-alarming-cybersecurity-stats-for-2021-/
Guardian News. (2021). Facebook gives a glimpse of metaverse, its planned virtual reality world. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SAL2JZxpoGY
Warner Bros. Pictures. (2017). Ready Player One - Official Trailer 1 [HD]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cSp1dM2Vj48
Matutina, D. (2021). Metaverse [Illustration]. Wired. https://www.wired.com/story/big-tech-metaverse-internet-consolidation-business/
De Pablo, I. (2021). Metaverso [Illustration]. El Confidencial. https://www.elconfidencial.com/tecnologia/2021-09-07/metaverso-realidad-paralela-facebook-google-nft-criptos-que-es_3269502/
Spielberg, S. (2018). Ready Player One [Film]. Warner Bros. Pictures. https://blogs.brown.edu/virtualreality/steven-spielbergs-idea-of-vr-ready-player-one/