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Last October, Mark Zuckerberg announced a change in the name of his company. Facebook was renamed Meta, reflecting his commitment to building something that, along with Web3 and NFTs, has become one of the words of the year: the Metaverse. That these have all become popular at the same time is not coincidence, as they are closely linked. Web3 will consist of a new Internet model based on blockchain technology (such as that which currently enables cryptocurrencies), and will be oriented towards the decentralization of the web as compared to the current platform model. NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, are digital certificates of ownership, and have spread in the artistic field by allowing the purchase and sale of goods that were previously not marketable, such as memes or GIFs. The Metaverse is promoted as a future virtual world that would combine emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), extended reality (RX) and blockchains, in which activities are expected to be developed linked not only to entertainment (video games, shows, sports) but also to education and work. In Zuckerberg’s words, it’s “an embodied Internet where, instead of looking at the content, you are inside it.”
These technologies will come together to build the Metaverse as a massive, interoperable network based on Web3. These two shouldn’t be confused as the same thing: Web3 is about who will own the Internet of the future, while the Metaverse is about how users will experience it. In fact, it could be said that the Metaverse as proposed by Zuckerberg is contrary to the principles on which Web3 is based. The objective of Web3 is to curb the control that large companies such as Meta/Facebook have over their users’ data, converting the users into the rightful owners through the acquisition of cryptocurrencies and NFTs, hence Meta’s attempt to anticipate this possible scenario and ensure its monopoly. This goal can be observed in a general way in the growing concentration of financial capital in the virtual reality (VR) industry, which has been much more important in its rise than simple advances in hardware and software. As the social studies of technology has shown, VR is not developed in response to rational technical imperatives but to a variety of social factors and interests of different actors, including companies. This explains why Facebook acquired the virtual reality company Oculus in 2014 for 2 billion dollars. Although it initially functioned as a stand-alone subsidiary, it ended up shaping the future of the platform, investing more than $10 billion dollars in Oculus Research (a mixed-reality research and development group renamed Reality Labs) last year. The goal is to conquer new spaces for massive data extraction and “further strengthen Facebook’s advertising arm,” as a recent report suggests.Egliston, B. & Carter, M. (2021). “Critical questions for Facebook’s virtual reality: data, power and the Metaverse”. Internet Policy Review, 10(4).
Beyond the political and economic challenges that this poses, there are also concerns about the possible negative effects the Metaverse could have on adolescents, especially in terms of mental health, sociability and identity. Some of the greatest risks are common to all social VR, the name used by some experts to refer to 3D virtual spaces in which multiple users can interact with each other through an avatar using immersive technologies such as goggles with a built-in screen, position sensors and controls. These risks include self-esteem and body image problems (such as “Snapchat dysmorphia” caused by beauty filters), addiction, physical after-effects (eyestrain, postural disturbances and sleep disorders) and exposure to violent or inappropriate content. As usual, there are those who dismiss these concerns as mere moral panic or pure and simple technophobia, presenting counterarguments about the positive applications of the Metaverse (and VR in general) in areas such as education, artistic expression and even psychotherapy, having been shown to be effective in reducing anxiety in hospitalized adolescents and in treating different phobias through gradual exposure to the stimulus in a safe environment.
These concerns are perfectly reasonable, after all, the Metaverse is designed for the youngest, who are the main users of virtual reality systems. According to a study,Maloney, D., Freeman, G., & Robb, A. (2021). “Stay Connected in An Immersive World: Why Teenagers Engage in Social Virtual Reality”. Interaction Design and Children (IDC ‘21). their interest in them is mainly due to the possibility of participating in immersive social spaces, participating in games and missions, creating content for other players and user-generated games, as well as the consolidation of strong emotional ties (something especially relevant during the pandemic, which expanded its use). However, that same study also shows the main concerns that deter adolescents, namely, fear of harassment and intimidation, and the tension between this immersive reality and the offline world. Perhaps for this reason, the most recent surveys reveal that only 38% of zoomers (people born between 1991 and 2017) show a genuine interest in the Metaverse. This is so for many reasons. In November, a beta tester of Horizon Worlds (the virtual world of Meta/Facebook) complained that her avatar had been fondled and the company held her responsible for not using the integrated security functions, such as the Safe Zone (a protective bubble that users can activate when they feel threatened to keep others from interacting with them).
This type of aggression and violent behavior is much more traumatic than in other digital spaces due to the degree of realism and immersion. Thus, in the words of Mary Anne Franks, “the prevalence and lack of a serious response to virtual sexual harassment reinforces the message that virtual spaces, like so many real spaces, are not for women.”Franks, M. (2017). “The Desert of the Unreal: Inequality in Virtual and Augmented Reality”, 51 U.C.D.L. Rev. 499. However, it has also been found that people tend to be more friendly and tolerant of female avatars, which, surprisingly, hasn’t caused men to change their avatar’s gender. A possible explanation based on another studyFreeman, G. & Maloney, D. (2021). “Body, Avatar, and Me: The Presentation and Perception of Self in Social Virtual Reality”. Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction, 4(CSCW3), … Continue reading could be that, because of the direct connection between the body and the avatar due to continuous tracking and real-time interaction, VR users choose to emphasize consistency and authenticity, that is, they tend to create a coherent self-representation of themselves similar to that of their physical “I.” This seems to derail VR’s promises of greater experimentation with new identities, though it does prove useful in reaffirming existing identities, especially with regard to gender. One of the study’s participants talks about her experience as a trans woman: “Using a female avatar makes me feel safe not only in VR but also in real life. (…) In VR you can be what you really feel you are inside. This experience gave me the confidence to start my transition in real life.”
Another of the false promises of VR has to do with its ability to generate empathy. According to this idea, embodying the avatar of a non-white person could help end racial prejudice. Considering that the race of an avatar is often disproportionately represented as white, and that racist behavior abounds in virtual worlds, this can only be classified as naive techno-utopianism or deliberate deception. In this regard, Lisa Nakamura’s analysis is especially lucid:
The idea of VR as an empathy machine that connects people across their differences is part of Big Tech’s attempt to rebrand VR as a remedy for the contribution of digital industries… the exacerbation of class inequality, the violation of user privacy, and the amplification of racism and sexism.Nakamura, L. (2020). “Feeling Good About Feeling Bad: Virtuous Virtual Reality and the Automation of Racial Empathy”. Journal of Visual Culture, vol. 19, no 1, 47-64.
This is just one of many examples demonstrating the ways in which VR (and, at times, the Metaverse) perpetuate, reproduce or even increase existing inequalities. From an intersectional perspective, it is important to point out the inequality in access due to gender, race, class or disability. Ableism is not usually taken into account despite the fact that, as Mary Anne Franks points out in the text cited above, “the complexity of certain virtual environments can make it difficult or impossible for people with intellectual disabilities to use them, and the inequality of access could lead to them being neglected or excluded by their peers,” for which “it is necessary to make equality an explicit consideration at each stage of the design process.”
This cannot be the only proposal to regulate the Metaverse and prevent a detrimental impact on teenagers. Although the ideal scenario would be the abolition of techno-capitalism in favor of social ownership and democratic control of digital infrastructures, it is still necessary to offer guidance applicable to any VR system. In her doctoral thesis,Maloney, D. (2021). “A Youthful Metaverse: Towards Designing Safe, Equitable, and Emotionally Fulfilling Social Virtual Reality Spaces for Younger Users”. All Dissertations. 2931. Divine Maloney offers some recommendations for a safe, equitable, and emotionally satisfying Metaverse for the very young: design virtual worlds with age in mind in order to meet the developmental needs of each group; experience social VR together with loved ones and friends in order to better manage any unwanted interactions and strengthen the relationship between parents/guardians and minors; educate young people in digital literacy; maintain transparency about standards and age-appropriate content; ensure the presence of moderators who intervene in case of conflict or aggression; foster a greater connection with the outside world through tools that allow the active participation of offline users; create greater interactivity in the game and in the promotion of creative activities; offer more realism and graphic fidelity to increase the sensation of presence and immersion; and, finally, reduce the entry barrier by extending its use among other segments of the population, especially adults.
It remains to be seen if the Metaverse eventually comes into existence or if it is just another mirage designed to turn hype into investment and thus maintain the Silicon Valley financial bubble. We are experiencing the same enthusiasm that virtual reality generated in the 1990s, when it seemed that everyone was going to live glued to an HMD lenses and the world was about to become a simulation. These cyberpunk-tinged fantasies, however, ran into the technical limitations of the time and the interest was gone as quickly as it arrived. Perhaps today we have the technology that will allow the definitive arrival of VR in the form of the Metaverse, but we lack the political frameworks to regulate it and the research to help address its challenges and avoid harmful effects, especially for a group as vulnerable as adolescents.
(*) The title refers to the movie No Country for Old Men.
Front picture: Hiroto Ikeuchi, courtesy of Hiroto Ikeuchi, @_ikeuchi
|Egliston, B. & Carter, M. (2021). “Critical questions for Facebook’s virtual reality: data, power and the Metaverse”. Internet Policy Review, 10(4).
|Maloney, D., Freeman, G., & Robb, A. (2021). “Stay Connected in An Immersive World: Why Teenagers Engage in Social Virtual Reality”. Interaction Design and Children (IDC ‘21).
|Franks, M. (2017). “The Desert of the Unreal: Inequality in Virtual and Augmented Reality”, 51 U.C.D.L. Rev. 499.
|Freeman, G. & Maloney, D. (2021). “Body, Avatar, and Me: The Presentation and Perception of Self in Social Virtual Reality”. Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction, 4(CSCW3), 1-27.
|Nakamura, L. (2020). “Feeling Good About Feeling Bad: Virtuous Virtual Reality and the Automation of Racial Empathy”. Journal of Visual Culture, vol. 19, no 1, 47-64.
|Maloney, D. (2021). “A Youthful Metaverse: Towards Designing Safe, Equitable, and Emotionally Fulfilling Social Virtual Reality Spaces for Younger Users”. All Dissertations. 2931.