Sandra Helou of Zilliqa writes that new virtual worlds are brimming with opportunities. But what if real-world issues are exaggerated in the metaverse?
The world got its first taste of a parallel digital universe in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 science fiction novel “Snow Crash.” The metaverse, which predates non-fungible tokens, has been a part of the literary and entertainment canon for nearly 30 years. The metaverse, which is frequently depicted as a virtual escape from the constraints of reality, appears to be a logical next step as we consider where we’re headed as a society.
With so much of our lives already taking place online — from our own digital representations on social media platforms to the extent to which we rely on online marketplaces to shop for leisure or necessity — the infrastructure is already in place. However, as projects, startups, and large corporations alike seek to capitalize on the metaverse trend, we must pause and ask ourselves: what are the risks in store?
Is this real life or just a fantasy?
We are now witnessing the beginnings of a new phenomenon in South Korea. With rising property prices, socioeconomic inequality, and bleak career prospects as a result of the coronavirus pandemic’s devastation, Generation MZ is rushing to the metaverse. Buying and selling plots of land becomes a very real possibility in the metaverse, and when combined with real-world monetary value, it acts as a leveling force in a society where the odds aren’t always even.
Generation MZ is defined as the age group that has grown up with digital connectivity since birth, and it includes both millennials and Gen Zs. This new segment of society has had to deal with the realities of a “untact” economy more than ever before, as it pertains to a “contactless” state of affairs — appropriate, given the impact of a pandemic that has demanded social distancing.
Untact is a concept that describes “a future in which people increasingly interact online and businesses replace humans with machines to protect themselves from the effects of rising wages and a rapidly aging workforce.” South Korea has already committed to becoming a global leader in the development of technologies and infrastructure for an increasingly fractured world. Indeed, its citizens are among the most active users on metaverse platforms such as Earth 2 and Decentraland.
South Korea, as well as other markets such as the Philippines, where citizens have flocked to virtual worlds such as those offered by Axie Infinity, demonstrate how persistent structural inequalities drive people to seek alternatives. Although we are not yet in a dystopian future, the catalysts are similar. People will want to maximize their returns in the hopes of making any gains possible, which is a similar trend we’ve seen with digital assets in the face of rising inflation, currency depreciation, and economic insecurity.
Digital divides are widening.
Similarly, what about the inequalities that might arise when it comes to accessing the metaverse? Much has been said about Facebook’s entry into the space, which was largely made possible by its Oculus business unit. Critics have quickly pointed out that the entry of big tech into the metaverse simply detracts from the core tenets of where the internet is already heading in terms of the rise of Web 3.0 — a more decentralized, equitable online ecosystem. With Facebook at the helm, the metaverse is likely to become just another opportunity to monetize ever-expanding swaths of user data while harkening back to the same issues of surveillance and accountability that exist in the virtual world.
Meanwhile, the growing inequalities that we’ve already seen in the digital divide may be amplified in the metaverse. When engaging in immersive, continuous 3D landscapes, equal access to the same tools and infrastructures will most likely necessitate not only a significant amount of computational power, but also high-speed internet access and top-of-the-line headsets. Similarly, with advertising likely being a key component of funding “closed” or corporate-backed metaverses, will inequality be determined by who can afford an ad-free metaverse or whose avatar is of higher quality? Do we not risk creating a new divide between haves and have-nots?
With so many aspects of life now being lived online, including education, career, and even dating, it will be critical to level these infrastructural access points to the metaverse.
A flaw in the matrix
Jean Baudrillard, a French philosopher and sociologist, coined the term hyperreality to describe a state in which reality and simulation are so intertwined that we lose sight of the distinctions between the two. According to Baudrillard, the simulated world will eventually matter more than the “real,” as it will be the source of all meaning and value. Will there ever be a state in which we only want to be plugged in, similar to how Generation MZ now finds that flipping real estate in Decentraland provides far more satisfaction?
What do we want the metaverse to be based on if, eventually, the concept of the metaverse becomes reality in and of itself? Looking to “Snow Crash” as a cautionary tale, we see the rise of city-states ruled by the interests of big business — inequality eventually triumphs, and the metaverse instead serves as a virtual escape, an idealistic distraction from reality’s ruins.
We have the opportunity to create something truly amazing as the collective blockchain ecosystem — whether that’s NFT projects, play-to-earn games, or virtual worlds — in collaboration with a growing number of programmers and UX designers around the world. We can create a metaverse that is accessible, fair, and beneficial to everyone, no matter who they are or where they are, thanks to a decentralization ideology. Let us not squander this opportunity; we don’t need to borrow from reality — we can do more.