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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Metaverse

You’ll be hearing this word a lot over the next few months and quite probably longer. It’s not just because the social media site Facebook has changed its name to Meta in a bid to re-invent itself and dodge growing criticism of its tactics. Metaverse is the new byword for the next incarnation of the Internet, an immersive virtual world beyond artificial and virtual reality built on technologies and concepts of both.


Science fiction writers in the early eighties foresaw the Metaverse in their depictions of a dystopian future, one in which people interacted almost entirely in a simulated universe taking on personae, forms and abilities through enhanced/idealized versions of themselves. Perhaps because science fiction writers seem to have a pessimistic view of the future (and it’s hard not to share some of that feeling these days) their characters are subject to many of the same ills as exist in our present world but on an epic scale.


One might conclude there is some fundamental human need to engage in an all or nothing fight, whether between good and evil, an enemy du jour or life and death. It is a stage and narrative arc that would be familiar to any writer or gamer. It would be easy but terribly misguided to presume however that video games as precursor–much less the Metaverse in whatever form it may take, are a simply a form of escapism. No doubt they are that but something far more as well; they are a mirror held up to our collective psyche. In the Metaverse we actualize all of the emotions, wants and desires we harbor behind the guarded doors of our real-life identity.


Psychologists can weigh in on whether this is a healthy outlet—especially if those parts of our psyche that are explored are of the less savory sort. What should concern us more is the potential blending of fantasy, to put a kinder face on it, with actuality. When the lines blur, what is acceptable in our virtual world will no longer bear any relationship to the real one, and isn’t that the point?


Even in its most benign form the virtual reality we already inhabit encourages behaviors that to be charitable we might describe as distortions of reality. Faces and bodies are filtered and Photoshopped to a point they are unrecognizable. Aspirational photospreads depict our idealized choices in how we look, what we eat food, where we live, work, and play, all fantasy versions constructed to impress and mask who we really are. Wanna-be influencers on YouTube and TikTok go to extraordinary lengths –the more outrageous the better, to capture viewers and live the easy life they pretend is already theirs. And Facebook, Reddit and other discrete forums have become echo chambers in which extremist views, made up facts, and state manipulated propaganda vie to present dire alarms that have made a minefield of the social media landscape and a mockery of fact and truth.


Perhaps you think I am being an alarmist. I assure you I am not. In fact, I suggest that the behavior described above is merely the beginning. The universe we increasingly occupy in the virtuality of the Internet has empowered average people to become virtual terrorists, narcissistic sociopaths, and political saboteurs. Admittedly those are very provocative terms but I believe they are accurate descriptions of what we have seen emerge in the last decade. When social media and virtual environments promote dialog that advocate the killing of one’s political opponents, facilitate doxing and other dangerous actions that move beyond the Internet into the lives of real people, and when errors or intentional manipulation of algorithms and virtual agents can affect people’s rights, health and welfare we have already witnessed the early stages of a virtual Potemkin village being constructed right before our eyes. How long before the occupants can no longer distinguish between the virtual world and reality, how long before rhetoric becomes action?


In truth no one knows how the Metaverse in whatever form it takes will play out. Whether it will become a safe outlet for play acting our worst behaviors or a leap into mass psychosis, only time will tell. We can only hope that those who are building this brave new virtual world will be instructed by what we have already done to pervert simple tools for social interaction. I’d like to remain optimistic, but we have a history of beating plowshares into swords.

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