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Thursday, December 16, 2021

The Metaverse: A Bridge Too Far

Where and what is it?

By Jack Caswell, Progressive Charlestown guest contributor

By now you have probably heard about the metaverse.  Depending on the source, the metaverse is already here or is quickly arriving.

Mark Zuckerberg, the founder, chairman, and chief executive officer of the social media colossus formerly known as Facebook, has renamed the platform “Meta” in recognition of digital technology’s brave new world.  Facebook’s recent data privacy scandal and acknowledgement that its products have harmful effects on adolescents undoubtedly hastened the name change, but the company is obviously looking to the future, and that future is the metaverse.

Bill Gates, the billionaire Microsoft founder, recently predicted that the metaverse will host most office meetings “within two or three years.”

In its simplest terms, the metaverse is a virtual world in which users (or visitors, or inhabitants?) can – or will soon be able to – design and construct virtual homes, other edifices, or even islands where they can virtually travel on virtual vacations. The metaverse will allow people to create, buy, sell, and invest in art or other virtual assets, including digital currencies, non-fungible tokens (NFTs) among them. 

Speculation is rife that future surgeons will train in the metaverse using virtual implements on virtual patients.  Undoubtedly, the metaverse will eventually be used as a training tool for a range of skills and professions. At this point, it appears there is no limit to what the metaverse will be able to do or offer.  And that is the scary part.

The name alone – metaverse – is enough to give this technophobe pause.  I have owned my smartphone for three-plus years, and I still approach it like a scorned lover, not knowing if, where, how, or when to touch, and if I dare do so, I brace for the potential consequences.  My phone is full of surprises, and most of them are bewildering. Usernames and passwords still drive me bat(bleep) crazy. Rest assured that I will not boldly go into the metaverse if I go at all.  

Images of people wearing headphones and goggles and staring into a computer screen throughout the day and into the night conjures images of a dystopian science fiction that spells humanity’s doom.  Mental health professionals have already concluded that the Covid pandemic has deprived kids of social interaction, which has been detrimental to their mental and emotional development and has led to their corollary – depression. The metaverse will assuredly do for the mental health of adolescents what Donald Trump has done for democracy.  If you’re okay with that, then God bless.

I understand the desire – and even the need – to escape from the real to a virtual world.  From my mid-teens to mid-30s, I escaped by consuming mind-altering substances such as magic mushrooms, and indulging in unrealistic fantasies about what I wanted to be when I grew up.  The metaverse is assuredly a much safer and healthier escape. 

The real world is quite scary.  The Biden administration is stoking tension with China over Taiwan and with Russia over Ukraine, two tinderboxes on the brink of full-scale conflagration.  A significant majority of the Republican party appears more willing to provoke civil conflict than preserve a republic that has been in place since 1789. 

Inflation is at its highest rate in 30-plus years.  Schools have tragically and inexplicably become the 21st Century versions of OK Corral.  Covid-19 has become Omicron-21, and there seems to be no end in sight, while the ideological wars over “to vax or not to vax” rage unabated.  Whom to trust? What to believe?  The Internet is more a part of the problem than it is part of the solution.

The metaverse undoubtedly has its advantages. Virtual travel will unclog highways, reduce fuel prices and automobile insurance rates, and undoubtedly make authentic air travel more convenient.  As a bonus, less fossil fuel consumption will be beneficial to the environment and forestall global warming, at least until the cryptocurrencies unleash their super-nebulous carbon emissions.

If the metaverse promotes technological developments and enhances the training and development of skilled professionals – especially those in the medical field – humanity should benefit immensely.  Of course, for every Albert Einstein there lurks a Victor Frankenstein, so vigilance is paramount.

If you create your own virtual island, you become the unquestioned, unchallenged monarch of that island. If you desire to behead any rebellious avatar who inhabits your realm, you won’t have to answer for it.  You can create your own religion and have as many paramours as your heart desires, and you will rule for life.  As the poet John Milton said, “The mind is a place in itself, and can make a Heaven of Hell or a Hell of Heaven.”

The more that people dabble with and trade in virtual currencies, the more Uncle Sam’s legal tender will be in circulation for the rest of us.  Er, on second thought…the one-percenters will get that surplus, too.  However, there is no telling what kind of digital wealth you might be able to amass in the metaverse.  You may be able to use those NFTs to buy another virtual kingdom in addition to the one you’ve already built.  Your socio-economic status in the real world will become obsolete…until you shut down the computer and walk out the door.

While your avatar attends a virtual meeting in the metaverse, you can do what I wanted to do in every meeting I ever attended – fall asleep.

If kids are socializing in the virtual world, parents can take comfort in knowing that their children are home and safe and less inclined to sneak out their bedroom windows in the middle of the night.

If virtual sex becomes a thing (and I would not doubt it), the number of unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases will plummet. And think of the bodily enhancements you will probably be able to make on your avatar.  

I’m sure there are a plethora of other benefits the metaverse is poised to bestow on humanity that my limited imagination fails to grasp.  Still, there is something eerily disconcerting over the whole concept of a metaverse, at least from my perspective.  

The more we plug into the cyberworld, or the metaverse, or what have you, the more it will control and even dominate our lifestyles.  Granted, the same was and is said about the “boob tube” or the “idiot box,” and humanity seems to have withstood that technological innovation, for better or worse. 

Still, the metaverse seems so removed from reality that it will take a monumental effort to bridge the gap between the virtual and the real. Or maybe it becomes the new reality, and that will definitely be a bridge too far.

Jack Caswell is the author of Secret Societies & Classic Literature and a contributor to Southern Rhode Island newspapers as well as Progressive Charlestown. In his former lives, he was a sports writer and an English teacher.