The Metaverse: A Limitless Reality?
Imagine if there existed a 3-D world that allowed users to essentially live and invest in a fully alternative reality. In this world, the possibilities are nearly endless. Participants can forge social connections, interact with one another as avatars, attend staff meetings with virtual coworkers, or even meet a friend to grab coffee or watch a football game. People can go on vacation, go shopping, open a business, buy a house—you name it—all behind the comfort of their digital screens. You can even attend a live concert by major artists, including Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande, as their avatars perform.
Recently, what might have started as a fantasy concept has come to life.
Or, virtual life.
It is called the Metaverse.
So who created the Metaverse? While many believe it to be Mark Zuckerberg, CEO and co-founder of Facebook, the man who actually coined the term “metaverse” is author Neal Stephenson. In his 1992 novel “Snow Crash,” he envisioned lifelike avatars who met and interacted in realistic virtual reality environments and 3D buildings. Zuckerberg, however, is the current CEO of Meta, and he describes his vision for socializing in this alternate reality in a recent video, focusing largely on the so-called “boundlessness” of its social possibilities. He asserts that the defining quality of the metaverse is the “feeling of presence” it produces via a newly redeveloped VR headset.
Psychological experts like Colin Ellard (PhD), professor of experimental psychology at the University of Waterloo in Canada, note that the term presence is one long-used by virtual reality researchers in reference to the feeling of being somewhere other than one’s real physical location. He notes that the timing of the emergence of the metaverse is particularly interesting in that it aligns with what many Americans describe to be some of the most difficult hardships the ongoing pandemic has produced thus far: anxiety, depression, and loneliness as symptoms of physical separation from one another.
While experts like Ellard would love to attest to the idea that the Metaverse is a solution to these issues, he acknowledges that these simulated experiences simply cannot remedy the lack of physical presence Americans face; in other words, virtual reality will never amount to the physical feeling of being somewhere. It simply won’t appeal to all of the senses—nor will these fantasy lives contribute anything at all to America’s already-dire need for greater presence as social beings. After all, many of us remain glued to our smartphones, scrolling mindlessly (and often endlessly) through various social media feeds, and the Metaverse takes it a step further.
Now, we can grow personally and professionally in a fake world—one we can opt out of at any time. We can travel anywhere we desire, meet exciting new people, and ascend the bounds of reality. The question remains: exactly how big will the metaverse become, and what might that mean for the social lives of humans? A recent report by Grayscale Research estimates the virtual world could be worth over $1 trillion in annual revenue.
But at what cost?
As a sort of digital Utopia, it is no doubt the metaverse will provide an elevated reality for its users; in addition, however, it will pave the way for billions to disconnect from the reality of society as it exists. This could easily result in a rapid decrease in concern for real world problems, and with it a lesser sense of social responsibility. As the meta-experience, a reality over which participants have far greater control, becomes more immersive, physical reality becomes less appealing. In turn, real-world problems, such as healthcare and education affordability, economic and racial inequality, and climate change fade into the distance as the option to tune into the reality of one’s own desire comes to prominence.