Content Warning: sexual violence
The metaverse is one of those phrases where for far too long I have just nodded along, pretending I understand why soon it will be all-encompassing, without really understanding what it is. Every time I go online I feel more and more out of touch with the digital goings on of today — and I’m only 23. This jump into the digital realm may seem overwhelming, but here is a breakdown of what it’s all about.
Where did it come from?
The word was introduced in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 science-fiction novel, Snow Crash, where Stephenson’s definition encompassed a virtual space; incorporating extended reality and the internet. This creation of a parallel world is exactly what the tech giants are hoping will become possible, in the very near future.
A 3D expansion of computing as we know it. From a world where not too long ago, sending a video through your phone seemed too futuristic, this evolution could reach the point where media becomes three-dimensional. It’s a world where you could really live as an avatar.
What is it, really?
The metaverse is a virtual reality that hopes to make all of our current daily activities possible in a virtual space — from shopping, to socialising, to working and so on. The ownership and trading of virtual items has become ever more popular through the rise of NFTs (non-fungible tokens, i.e. tangible items such as artwork reproduced in the virtual world), giving us an insight into what exactly we might be shopping for in the metaverse.
It is currently possible to buy and sell assets in the metaverse to make your version of it more customised, such as virtual fashion and avatars. However, it may feel impossible to actually enter the metaverse. Currently the ever-expanding world is mainly home to gaming and entertainment, as well as socialising via avatars, which are the most easily adaptable frameworks to represent humans in the virtual system. However, as the rise in NFT ownership rapidly advances and cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin are pushed to the forefront, much more of our interactions will be based in the virtual world.
Is this expansion necessary?
We already have our own problems in our current world; we are simply moving them to another — out of sight, out of mind. What exactly are the benefits of the metaverse?
The metaverse is said to bring accessibility to the centre stage; overcoming obstacles to make a fulfilling daily life more readily available, such as disabilities that may prevent people from doing something in real life (travelling to new places, working from home is more accessible). Other aspects aimed to improve are accessible travel (around the world from your living room), increasing technological literacy and skills, reducing anxiety of face to face interactions (your avatar may act as a mask and can help build confidence). Creating job opportunities in another world, increasing the ability to self-express and allowing long-distance friendships and relationships to grow somewhat naturally. This hyper-real video game will also allow companies to trial new machines on a virtual platform, before implementing them in real life — saving time and resources.
Are we simply moving our problems to another realm?
Allowing people to hide behind an avatar, protecting them from identification has already arisen as a problem through numerous reports of sexual violence in Facebook’s metaverse. As Meta opened up its first VR social platform Horizon Worlds, hosting film nights and meditation sessions, allowing those at a distance to intimately connect. However, late last year, a beta tester for the site wrote, “sexual harassment is no joke on the regular internet, but being in VR adds another layer that makes the event more intense. Not only was I groped last night, but there were other people there who supported this behavior which made me feel isolated in the Plaza.” After the incident, Meta reported it and explained they have a feature that allows people to block others if this interaction takes place, which the tester hadn’t used. This reaction blamed the victim and as Arwa Mahdawi, a Guardian columnist, wrote, “it’s old-fashioned misogyny repackaged for the digital age.” The block feature places you in a bubble to stop people from interacting with you; allowing people to only have a normal experience on the platform if they are open to harassment.
It also leads us to question, how free and customisable will this space be? It may be the case that the world is controlled by the same tech companies that dictate our own, or perhaps it will be an opportunity to escape this reality. Right now, this is still unknown, but with Mark Zuckerberg at the forefront of the metaverse’s expansion, it seems that the second option is much less likely.
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This outcome may make you feel less than optimistic and as Mahdawi points out, it was Zuckerbeg’s Facebook that was born out of FaceSmash, a site to rate your female classmates. So, it is no wonder that the problems that we face daily, will likely be realised virtually. Still in its early days, we will have to wait and see if the metaverse could be the answer to problems of accessibility as we move more and more online.