Future of the Metaverse

My contribution to a report by Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center and Pew Research, The Future of the Metaverse.


Opportunities for fraud and scams will abound. As well, there is the risk of a non-traceable shadow economy developing. It will be hard for people to grasp the idea that something could be both digital and ‘real’ and, despite the reassurances, it will be very hard not to believe that they could simply cease to exist. The danger here is that people will think of very real things – like, say, digital currency debts – as non-real, and suffer harmful consequences. Complicating matters will be the fact that digital objects may also embody artificial intelligence.

By 2040 (probably much sooner), it will not be possible for most people to distinguish between avatars representing humans and AIs. The proliferation of AIs will enable actors with more resources to simulate a much greater presence online (just as we have seen with social media bots). A lot of these will be laughable (there will be the metaverse equivalent of the Nigerian prince), but there will also be serious cases of impersonation and worse. It is perhaps too early to demand specific legislation, but it is not too early to develop frameworks describing what will be acceptable and unacceptable uses of the metaverse both legally and commercially.

Having said all that, despite the risks, we will not be able to resist developing, entering and using the metaverse. It will be very difficult to enjoy flat-screen media entertainment after watching an immersive movie or sporting event. Today’s games are not yet more compelling in VR, but as the interface improves play will be much more fluid and natural, making traditional gameplay on a screen with controller or keyboard seem awkward. Just as it’s hard to get up from the television or pull the plug on a video-gaming marathon, it will be difficult to put down the controller. Psychologists will undoubtedly talk about dissociation disorders afflicting people after long VR sessions.

Having said all that, the metaverse will eventually draw us together. Just as radio and television created the common experience, just as social media created shared memes, we are going to find we share our world more deeply and meaningfully with people (and ideas, and representations) we could not have imagined before plugging in. being closer to each other isn’t always pleasant (as we’ve certainly learned!) but being closer leads to deeper dialogue, greater understanding, and more empathy. No, this is not universal – the divisions in our global society will also be magnified.

We will need to ensure that these divisions are not incentivized and monetized, as they are in some social media today, because the experience will be that much more personal, the hurt caused by these divisions is that much greater. More, because digital resources are not scarce in the way that physical resources are scarce, there will be more opportunity for people in less-advantaged positions and societies, providing they can gain access to the network.

We saw manufacturing develop worldwide with the development of a global supply chain infrastructure. People worldwide can today offer digital services thanks to the global internet. A person does not need to own a factory or a farm to earn wealth in a digital world. This depends, though, on a shared digital infrastructure. If the inhabitants of the metaverse are merely tenants, then most likely they will be excluded from any prosperity the metaverse may create.

Decentralization is the great promise of the metaverse, especially some of the enabling technologies such as blockchain networks and self-sovereign identity. In a truly decentralized system each of us might enjoy more autonomy to design our own lives and our own worlds. If we are indeed moving toward a world of less regulation and oversight, it will have to be a very different from today’s world. Personal autonomy and self-governance can thrive only in a world where authoritarianism and coercion are difficult, and where people are protected from the ill effects of inequity and exclusion.

Without mechanisms to ensure reasonable levels of personal freedom and prosperity, we can enter a dystopian world very quickly. Without regulation, not only governments, but corporations, schools, gangs and even individuals can use their freedoms to oppress others. The rise of the metaverse will lead to a renewed discussion of rights. This discussion will be partially focused on diversity, equity and inclusion, reflecting the current dialogue flowing from events in the physical world, but will it also reflect the requirement to enable people to participate fully in a digital society? Issues such as access, consent, transparency and openness, ownership and association, among others, will shape the great debates of the 2020s and 2030s.


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