As the virtual morphs into reality, we need expert collaboration and a global agreement to ensure that the world wide web of metaverses doesn’t turn into a dystopia
The metaverse has become a common noun, the capital ‘M’ has been dropped. As it becomes one of the most discussed topics in the winter of 2021, a range of issues have cropped up – from regulatory oversight, the need for a legal code, dominance of Big Tech, to transparency about personal data that these metaverses will collect. In the face of these challenges, today’s social media risks could seem like kids’ picnic.
Big Tech will control metaverses
So, what is metaverse? in simple terms, it can be defined as a convergence of the digital and the physical space driven by the need for remote work and collaboration. The metaverse, not unlike today’s internet, will likely be controlled by Big Tech, chiefly Google, Facebook, Apple, and the like. You’ll be either wearing AR glasses as you walk around the real world or headsets that will entirely immerse you in the metaverse while you sit comfortably on the couch. This will mean that zetta bytes of personal datawill be collected by these organizations, far more than what is being done in social media today.
…even predicting our emotional state
They will also monitor users’ facial expressions, vocal inflections, and vital signs (as captured by our smart watches), all the while intelligent algorithms predict changes in the emotional state of the wearer of the devices. This means the platform providers will not just know how we will act, but we will react, profiling ourresponses at the deepest level. That’s especially terrifyingsince problems created by social media will likely be amplified exponentially in this futuristic virtual landscape, and could stir up issues that could be overpowering if left unchecked.
While Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg’s awkward presentation of Meta (the umbrella company that now owns Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram) used a cartoon avatar of himself doing things like scuba diving or conducting meetings, he ultimately expects the metaverse to include lifelike avatars whose features would be much more realistic, and which would engage in many of the same activities we do in the real world—just digitally.
Creating unnatural versions of ourselves
Avatars in the metaverse could have far-reaching consequences for how people feel and live in the real, physical world. Ethics experts are questioning whether this will trigger issues around users trying to match the ideal body shapes of their digital avatars? How might these virtual versions of ourselves change the way we feel about our bodies, for better or worse? How will kids, who are already suffering in social media, be impacted? Avatars have been around in virtual reality games for a while now, but this time things are vastly different. The avatars of the metaverse will be participating in situations that might involve higher stakes than treasure in a race. In interviews or meetings, this self-presentation might play a bigger, far more consequential role.
What complicates matters is Meta’s announcement of Codec Avatars, a project within Facebook’s VR/AR research arm, Reality Labs, that is working towardsmaking photorealistic avatars. Zuckerberg highlighted some of the advances the group has made in making avatars seem more human, such as clearer emotions and better rendering of hair and skin. “You’re not always going to want to look exactly like yourself,” he said. “That’s why people shave their beards, dress up, style their hair, put on makeup, or get tattoos, and of course, you’ll be able to do all of that and more in the metaverse.”
That hyper-personalization could allow avatars to convincingly portray the lived experience of millions of people who, have thus far found the technology limiting. But people might also do the opposite and create avatars that are idealized, unnatural versions of themselves, lightening their skin to play into racist stereotypes, whitewashing their culture by changing features outright.
Challenges for the law
Beyond ethics, there are challenges for the law as well. As virtual worlds morph into our physical reality, the code that these worlds run on, might prevail over law. Law will need to rise to the challenge of ensuring that code adheres to the rules applicable in the physical world and conventional cyberspace. The risk is that the code in the metaverses might become the accepted norm, disconnected from established legal orders. Such a shift will see private actors potentially exerting control over our metaverse activity, and depriving us of protections developed in our legal orders over centuries.
Given that metaverse activity will realistically mirror individuals and businesses existing in the physical world, metaverse code will compete with the regulatory power of our legal orders. Existing laws will not always be suitable for circumstances arising in virtuality and new legislation will need to be developed. At the same time, regulation should not stifle the benefits that mixed reality environments could bring about in our lives.
Transacting in digital assets
Transacting in digital assets will also pose a significant challenge to regulation in the metaverse. Non-fungible tokens (“NFTs”) – which are digital assets that represent ownership in a unique item or content – may create novel business ecosystems in the metaverse. NFTs representing music or art, for instance, may involve royalty payments that are automated on the token being transferred between users. Law should ensure that the ownership and transaction in NFTs can be enforceable, as virtual users may be able to evade enforceability depending on their location or identity settings.
All of these issues around hyper-personalization, gathering risky levels of personal data, predicting or even in extreme cases influencing our emotional state, developing a new code of contract for transactions in digital assets, will require a completely new approach to be resolved. Metaverse privacy is going to be a burning issue too.
It will need collaboration between ethics experts, technology professionals, lawyers, psychologists, even medical professionals, and a global agreement to ensure that the world wide web of metaverses doesn’t turn into a dystopia.