A Reality Check for the Metaverse

When the World Wide Web was made public in 1993, it was both celebrated for the technological progress it represented and maligned for its risks of abuse. Almost thirty years later, the advent of the metaverse, which has been called the “internet on steroids,” is inspiring the same mixed bag of reactions.

The metaverse is a virtual reality world that utilizes technologies such as 3D and artificial intelligence that will allow internet users to have a three-dimensional, multi-sensory experience of whatever information they’re seeking rather than the traditional two-dimensional experience of reading text and watching videos.

According to Matt Snider and Brett Molina of USA Today, a version of the metaverse already exists in the gaming world, but is now being expanded into “an online virtual world which incorporates augmented reality, virtual reality, 3D holographic avatars, video and other means of communication. As the metaverse expands, it will offer a hyper-real alternative world for you to coexist in.”

In other words, instead of just accessing the Web for information, now you can actually live in it.

“Supporters of the metaverse envision its users working, playing and staying connected with friends through everything from concerts and conferences to virtual trips around to the world,” Snider and Molina write.

Because some of the main components of the metaverse are already in existence, such as ultra-fast broadband speeds and virtual reality headsets, this could all become mainstream within 10 years.

Mark Zuckerburg, CEO of Meta, formerly Facebook, is at the forefront of the drive to make the metaverse a reality for us all.

“The next platform and medium will be even more immersive and embodied internet where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it, and we call this the metaverse,” Zuckerburg said after revealing the company’s rebranding in October of 2021.

His version of the metaverse has been described as being “virtual everything.”

“You attend work meetings as an avatar using the Quest VR headset and use a device on your wrist to secretly text friends,” writes Michelle Santiago Cortes for Mashable. “When you go outside, you’ll wear smart glasses that offer an augmented reality as well as record what you see and hear. The metaverse will be accessible through phones, computers, wearable tech, and headsets (or a combination of these) and it will be where you work, shop, exercise, socialize, watch movies, and game.”

Microsoft is also planning to be a player in the metaverse and has already announced plans to bring holograms and virtual avatars to Microsoft Teams this year. In 2023, they’re planning to add 3D virtual connected spaces for retail and workplaces. The U.S. Army is already working with Microsoft on an augmented reality Hololens 2 headset for soldiers to use for training purposes.

Although it’s become the buzzword of the day, the metaverse is still very much in the “visionary” stage.

According to Andrew Hutchinson, writing for Social Media Today, “For all the discussion of the next stage of digital connection, and a theoretical digital world where anything is possible at any time, the truth is that we’re not even close to this being an actual reality, and any business that tells you otherwise, or pitches itself as ‘metaverse ready’ and the like, is simply not being upfront.”

For all the hype, the invention of the metaverse is not exactly opening to rave reviews.

Hannah Levintova of Mother Jones writes that Meta’s big rollout of its metaverse plans “may be a lot less about building the all-encompassing virtual world that Zuckerberg is pitching, and a lot more about rolling out a shiny distraction from all the controversy swirling around the company.”

Levintova goes on to criticize the people who are designing this new virtual world as being a far cry from the typical American. “They’re among the lucky few who have spent the pandemic in gilded lifeboats, working from plush home offices, riding their Pelotons, and padding out their already ample savings.”

After nearly two years of social upheaval and economic near-ruin caused by the pandemic lockdowns, the metaverse is the last thing on people’s minds.

“There’s also the premise that lots of people have the disposable income to invest in the tools necessary to access the metaverse: The Oculus headset, for instance, currently retails for between $300 and $400—while nearly half of Americans would have trouble covering a $400 emergency expense.”

Even though Facebook has invested billions along with 20 percent of its global workforce to work on augmented and virtual reality products, Levintova correctly points out that the customer base for this kind of product – namely virtual reality (VR) gamers – is very small. “VR gaming makes up just 0.4 percent of spending on gaming, in part because it’s just too expensive,” she writes.

What about the dangers of the metaverse? Just like the advent of social media and its ability to connect with anyone anywhere introduced a variety of risks to users’ identity and personal safety, the metaverse comes with its own risks.

For example, a woman recently reported being groped on the metaverse. “Sexual harassment is no joke on the regular internet,” she warned, “but being in VR adds another layer that makes the event more intense. Not only was I groped last night, but there were other people there who supported this behavior which made me feel isolated in the Plaza [the virtual environment’s central gathering space].”

This, and other kinds of abusive and violent behavior in the metaverse, are just as toxic in VR as they are in real life.

“At the end of the day, the nature of virtual-reality spaces is such that it is designed to trick the user into thinking they are physically in a certain space, that their every bodily action is occurring in a 3D environment,” says Katherine Cross of the University of Washington to MIT Technology Review. “It’s part of the reason why emotional reactions can be stronger in that space, and why VR triggers the same internal nervous system and psychological responses.”

As for Christians, we should all be wary of the kind of group-think that might be imposed upon us by the unofficial Lords of the Metaverse – the Mark Zuckerburgs and his legions of thought police who regularly censor any content that doesn’t fit their ultra-liberal worldview.

“If Christians want to continue to live in the world God created and do the work He sent us to do, we must consider the risk in handing over the reins of our daily experiences to these forces,” writes David Larson for Crisis Magazine. “There are some forces that are too strong for most people’s wills to resist—like opioid or meth addictions. The ‘old’ internet has been able to create multiple near-irresistible forces (social media, streaming pornography, video games, etc.). An enhanced, immersive super-internet would undoubtedly have the power to absorb entire lives into a world of distractions that people will not be strong enough to pull away from.”

Larson gives a very prophetic warning about the Metaverse that all Christians should take to heart now, while this technology is still in its formative stages.

“Before the Metaverse fully emerges (likely in the next decade), some serious prayerful discerning is necessary on whether, or to what degree, we should enter it. Because while we may gain an endlessly fascinating digital world, we could also lose our very real souls.”

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