Connect with us

Hi, what are you looking for?

Tech & Science

Op-ed: Stumbling through the metaverse and the question of ethics

When the metaverse finally emerges, it will need a corresponding social and ethical code.

Enthusiasts say the metaverse would eventually allow online experiences, like meeting a friend, to feel face-to-face thanks to virtual reality headsets. — © AFP
Enthusiasts say the metaverse would eventually allow online experiences, like meeting a friend, to feel face-to-face thanks to virtual reality headsets. — © AFP

Every year brings forth new technology phrases (sometimes ‘technobabble’). For 2022 the standout phrases have been ‘Metaverse’, ‘Web3’ and a continuation of ‘NFTs’. Initially such words are followed by a dumbfounded look and confused discussion. Then, after a period of time, many become part of common parlance.  

The area that is attracting the most attention – and money – is the metaverse, not least due to the public activities of the company Meta (the parent company of Facebook and Instagram). Metaverse is a contraction of ‘meta’ and ‘universe’, being first dreamed up by science fiction authors during the pioneering days of the Internet and the World Wide Web.

As to what the metaverse is, perhaps it is best to picture a virtual world in which we elect to spent part of our time living, working, shopping and interacting with other people, doing so from our homes, computers, smartphones, headsets and so on. This artificially constructed world is the metaverse.

This hypothetical iteration of the Internet as a universal and immersive virtual world is best accessed through virtual or augmented reality, through the use of headsets designed to draw the participant inwards, making them less conscious of the outside environment.

At present, no form of the metaverse – at least not as a single, continuous digital realm – exists. Mark Zuckerberg’s vision remains one locked at the planning stage. Issues of software development and hardware standardisation are preoccupying the time of IT professionals.

How to deal with harassment in the virtual world is posing a challenge for builders of the metaverse
How to deal with harassment in the virtual world is posing a challenge for builders of the metaverse – Copyright AFP Ishara S. KODIKARA

When the metaverse finally emerges, it will need a corresponding social and ethical code. As interacting with the metaverse becomes more ‘real’, then the moral codes that are part of our daily lives will need to be considered. Living in the metaverse is not the same as playing a video game, where unrealistic acts of heroism or villainy can be performed through acts of extreme violence.

The first ethical question is one of ownership. Will companies like Meta simply create the metaverse and unleash it as an evolving digital world or will they own it and commodify it? Who will regulate what happens?

The second area is with information privacy. More detailed interactions will provide more opportunities for companies to collect users’ personal information. This could be enhanced further through making in-universe purchases or through biometric data collected from wearable virtual and augmented reality devices.

A third area is with user addiction. What happens if the metaverse starts to become preferable to the ‘real’ world for too many people? Will this cause issues of addiction or create new forms of mental illness? Furthermore, how will the human brain address the hyper spatiotemporality of the virtual world?

A fourth and related area is with physical health. Will an over reliance on the metaverse and the resultant sedentary lifestyle further societal problems of obesity and cardiovascular disease?

Human influencer Mutchima Wachirakomain says she is not worried about the rise of virtual rivals. — © AFP

A fifth area is with a breakdown of acceptable behaviour. Already social media suffers from threats and harassment. How will virtual crimes, from theft to like sex abuse be dealt with? Will there be – should there be – penalties for when avatars uses the virtual world of the metaverse as a channel to sexually harass another avatar?

A sixth area is the spread of hate and social discontent for the metaverse development may magnify the social impacts of online echo chambers and digitally alienating spaces?

Some of these issues may seem like questions for dystopian fiction yet each presents a challenge for the coalescence of the digital and physical worlds. Given the way humanity has stumbled through social media and acceptable behaviours and regulation, leaving these ethical questions to last minute will not be helpful and the time to discuss and debate them is now.

Avatar photo
Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

You may also like:

Business

If you are a manager, how should you ensure that you’re doing everything you can to protect your workplace and workforce?

Business

Most Asian markets rose Monday, tracking a bounce on Wall Street at the end of a painful week for investors.

Life

Actinic keratoses (also called solar keratoses) are dry, scaly patches of skin that have been damaged by the sun.