Metaverse, what social challenges await us

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Metaverse, what social challenges await us

Written by Marilù Mastrogiovanni

If you think that the “Metaverse” is an invention of Mark Zuckerberg and his company “Meta”, you are wrong. It was in 1992 that Neal Stephenson coined the word “Metaverse” in Snow Crask, one of the most iconic novels of cyberpunk literature. Stephenson’s Metaverse is a “road (that) looks like a great avenue marking the […]

If you think that the “Metaverse” is an invention of Mark Zuckerberg and his company “Meta”, you are wrong.

It was in 1992 that Neal Stephenson coined the word “Metaverse” in Snow Crask, one of the most iconic novels of cyberpunk literature. Stephenson’s Metaverse is a “road (that) looks like a great avenue marking the maximum circumference of a black sphere with a radius of just over ten thousand kilometres. In all, it is 65,536 kilometres, much longer than the maximum circumference of the Earth”.

It is a virtual but real world: it is located “in a computer-generated universe” through which Hiro, the protagonist of Snow Crash, travels thanks to “the machine” that “draws it on his glasses” and “pumps it into his headphones”. This “imaginary place called the Metaverse” is a universe built in the image and likeness of the physical world: in the Metaverse, too, companies have to apply for permission to build roads and cities, there is bureaucracy as a social structure and corruption as an aberration, private and public property, social classes, poverty and wealth.

In Stephenson’s metaverse, poverty and wealth depend on access to more or less powerful technologies and software. Those who have money (i.e., technology and software) can colonise the ‘new world’, building cities made up of neighbourhoods, streets and houses inhabited by people: ‘The people’, Stephenson writes, ‘are software called avatars, i.e. ‘audio-visual bodies’ through which people can interact in the metaverse with other avatars who are simulacra of other people. Even the term avatar is a product of Stephenson’s imagination: it is, in fact, a neologism of his own. As in reality, the avatars will be a representation of the social classes to which the “physical” people belong: those with more money will be able to afford high-resolution avatars, while the simulacra of the less well-off will be black-and-white and low-resolution. You could say, then, that the digital divide is also theorised in Crash Snow.

Almost thirty years after the publication of what is considered a milestone in cyberpunk literature, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, launches his Metaverse project. It is 28 October 2021, and in a letter he presents his idea of an “embodied internet”: an internet made flesh, living “in” and “through” the bodies of its users: “The next platform will be even more immersive, an embodied internet where you are in the experience, not just looking at it. We call this the metaverse, and it will influence every product we create.

From that moment on, the Metaverse triumphantly enters the lives and imaginations of us all.

Our everyday Metaverse

In fact, even before Zuckerberg launched his new “Meta” brand, children and adults were already interacting with the Metaverse without calling it that and without being aware of it.

Role-playing games, so-called MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Games), Second Life, Active Worlds can all be considered protometaverses.

The protometaverse of Fortnite is inhabited by more than 350 million registered users, 35% of whom are women.

Like Hiro in Snow Crash, Fortnite players use skins after buying them: there are skins for all economic possibilities, but those with more money can inhabit the Fortnite world with much more fun and much more chances to live a long time, just like in the physical world.

But, to take just one example, we also inhabit the metaverse every time we order a takeaway pizza through a delivery app, or every time we buy a book online, or when we pay our taxes online. All of these transactions require the use of something called blockchain, a technology that represents a true metaverse where online transactions are safe from hacking.

Moreover, the Metaverse is inhabited by NFTs (a non-fungible token or non-fungible voucher), unique and original works of art that could be called works of art, and we ourselves become “inhabitants” of the Metaverse every time we access peer-to-peer functionalities (P2P that allow the direct exchange of information, in any format, between interconnected computers) when we request, for example, loan application and granting services, insurance services, logistics and, of course, online gaming and gambling. The Metaverse is a persistent, synchronous hypermedia ecosystem, inhabited by networked media bodies, facilitated by connected devices (Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality), but today it is so hidden that we often do not even realise that we reside in it all day long.

For a fair Metaverse

In Snow Crash, the Metaverse is inhabited by rich and poor, easily identifiable by the way they dress, i.e., by their avatars.

Already today, in our “everyday Metaverse”, technology can be a factor of intersectional discrimination: you must own it to access the services of the Metaverse, and you must know how to use it.

That is:

  • To own it, you must have money.
  • You must be connected to an ultra-fast network, so you must live in the connected part of the world.
  • You need to be competent and/or educated to use it; you need to have the skills to do it.
  • Be relatively young (older people have more difficulty navigating digital ecosystems).

The fear is that we are building metaverses, all of them male, young, white, Western, rich, able-bodied, replicating the ugly copy of an unjust and exclusionary, racist, and patriarchal world.

Many are asking, and UNESCO is leading the way, how we can do this, so that together we can build a metaverse that does not inflict the wounds of the physical world but creates new ones.

According to UNESCO, by 2030 some 700 million people will ‘reside’ in the Metaverse, and the risks of discrimination against non-Westerners, women, and members of LGBT+ communities are significant.

There could be episodes of systematic racism, micro-aggressions, creation and dissemination of racist content, episodes of homo-lesbo-transphobia, exclusion of groups of people because of their gender identity or sexual orientation. The risk of marginalisation also affects women, who could be exposed to gender-based violence (cases of virtual rape have already been recorded in female avatars) and to stereotypes stemming from a patriarchal culture, which could also permeate the metaverse.

The issue was discussed at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2022 and 2023, but was underestimated by Meta, which, through Chris Cox, product manager of Zuckerberg’s colossus, defined the Metaverse as “a mere technical evolution of the internet”, thus downplaying, if not ignoring, the social implications of this new mass media ecosystem. Instead, according to some digital anthropologists, mass mediologists and sociologists, the Metaverse will shape new social norms and standards, which is why it needs to be ethically constructed and regulated.

What we know so far is that the Metaverse can produce more information, but also increase the risk of misinformation:

  • Children will need to be further protected from the risk of encountering inappropriate content.
  • Discrimination and inequality could increase and diversify or amplify in the virtual world.
  • We will have many more opportunities to socialise, but fragile segments of the population will be more exposed to loneliness, both physical and virtual.

That is why on 11 July the European Commission sent a communication to the Parliament for a “strategy” on virtual worlds, called the “Metaverse Strategy”, which outlines the way forward to build safe, fair and just virtual worlds.

The vision is there, but the road ahead is still open. The challenge is open and concerns us all.

complementary activities

An EU initiative on virtual worlds: a head start in the next technological transition
Lost in the metaverse? How digital anthropology can help leaders navigate uncertain futures
Recommendation on the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence

EASY

Metaverse, what social challenges await us

Written by Marilù Mastrogiovanni

The concept of the Metaverse was invented in 1992 as a parallel universe built in the image and likeness of the physical world.

If you think that the “Metaverse” is an invention of Mark Zuckerberg and his company “Meta”, then this is fake news.

It was in 1992 that Neal Stephenson coined the word “Metaverse” in Snow Crask. It is a virtual but real world “in a computer-generated universe”. This “imaginary place called the Metaverse” is a universe built in the image and likeness of the physical world, where companies have to apply for permission to build roads and cities, and where there is also bureaucracy as a social structure and corruption as an aberration, private and public property, social classes, poverty and wealth. Those with money (i.e., technology and software) can colonise the ‘new world’, building cities made up of neighbourhoods and streets and houses inhabited by people: ‘People’, Stephenson writes, ‘are software called avatars, i.e. ‘audio-visual bodies’ through which people can interact in the metaverse with other avatars who are simulacra of other people. Even the term avatar is a product of Stephenson’s imagination: it is, in fact, a neologism of his own.

Almost thirty years after the publication of this landmark work of cyberpunk literature, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, launches his Metaverse project. It is 28 October 2021, and in a letter, he presents his idea of an “embodied internet”: an internet made flesh, living “in” and “through” the bodies of its users.

From that moment on, the Metaverse triumphantly enters the lives and imaginations of us all.

Our everyday Metaverse

In fact, even before Zuckerberg launched his new “Meta” brand, children and adults were already interacting with the Metaverse without calling it that and without being aware of it.

Role-playing games, so-called MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games), Second Life, Active Worlds can all be considered protometaverses. The protometaverse of Fortnite is inhabited by more than 350 million registered users, 35% of whom are women.

But we all inhabit the Metaverse every time we order a takeaway pizza through a delivery app, or every time we buy a book online, or when we pay our taxes online, to name a few examples. All of these transactions require the use of something called blockchain, a technology that represents a true metaverse where online banking transactions are safe from hacking.

Towards an equitable metaverse

Technology, and therefore the Metaverse, can be a factor in intersectional discrimination.

  • You must have money to own it.
  • You have to be connected to an ultra-fast network; therefore, you have to live in the connected part of the world.
  • You need to have the skills and/or education to use it.
  • Be relatively young (older people have more difficulty navigating digital ecosystems).

The fear is that we are building metaverses, all of them male, young, white, Western, rich, able-bodied, replicating the ugly copy of an unjust and exclusionary, racist, and patriarchal world.

This is a problem also raised by UNESCO, which says that by 2030, some 700 million people will be ‘living’ in the Metaverse, with the risk of systematic racism, microaggressions, the creation and dissemination of racist content, episodes of homo-lesbo-transphobia, the marginalisation of groups of people because of their gender identity or sexual orientation.

What we now know is that the metaverse can produce more information, but also increase the risk of disinformation:

  • Children need to be further protected from the risk of exposure to inappropriate content.
  • Discrimination and inequality could increase and be diversified or amplified in the virtual world.
  • We will have many more opportunities to socialise, but vulnerable people will be more exposed to loneliness, both physical and virtual.

That is why on 11 July the European Commission sent a communication to the Parliament for a ‘strategy’ on virtual worlds, called the ‘Strategy for the Metaverse’, which outlines the way forward to build safe, just and fair virtual worlds.

The vision is there, but the road ahead is still open. The challenge is open and concerns us all.

An EU initiative on virtual worlds: a head start in the next technological transition
Lost in the metaverse? How digital anthropology can help leaders navigate uncertain futures
Recommendation on the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence

☑️ Test your knowledge

Reading comprehension test. The concept of the Metaverse was invented in 1992 as a parallel universe built in the image and likeness of the physical world.

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Who invented the Metaverse?
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