The World Economic Forum (WEF), the annual meeting of global political, economic, industrial, academics and non-profit organisation leaders, met last week in Davos Switzerland. This year’s WEF meeting set out to address eight key issues currently affecting global security and stability. One topic on this year’s agenda was “The Metaverse.”
The WEF aimed to define and build an “open and inclusive” metaverse.
“We aim to foster collaboration among multiple stakeholders to build the metaverse in an integrated and open way, and to help it fulfil its promise by transforming consumer experiences and business models across industries.”
In sum, it was proposed that the metaverse could be a force for good in an uncertain world.
The Metaverse is hailed as the next phase of the internet but what is it?
The concept of the metaverse has been around for a while, but came further into the spotlight when Mark Zuckerberg renamed his company “Meta” in 2021.
At the WEF Metaverse meeting last week, CEO of Magicleap Peggy Johnson defined the metaverse as “a blending of your physical and your digital worlds.”
“Often the dialogue around the metaverse is centred around virtual reality, where you might out on a headset and enter another world,” Johnson said. “But there’s also augmented reality where you still see your physical world but you augment it with digital content in front of your eyes.”
What the Metaverse will look like and consist of when finalised is debated, but it is mostly agreed that the Metaverse will be a catch-all term for many replications of the physical world in a digital context. Interactions will seem real through simulation with 3D holograms or avatars, allowing conversations in a completely immersive and realistic environment through “digital twins” that simulate real-world scenarios.
In essence, the metaverse will encompass augmented reality, the digital economy and Web3, and is expected to significantly change the way we interact with technology.
The Metaverse could have a positive role
In the coming years, the Metaverse could transform education, job training, recruitment, e-commerce, healthcare, and travel. It could thus have a positive societal influence by enabling people to interact with each other and experience new places they otherwise wouldn’t be able to. In other words, the Metaverse offers us the opportunity to expand on the world we live in to make it “better.”
Interest in the metaverse has grown hugely in the last six months with involvement from big brands, such as Nike’s with its Nikeland and Gucci with its Gucci Garden. However, the full potential of the metaverse is yet to surface, and the next few years will see many more uses of the metaverse.
Over time, there could be an interconnected world of metaverses, as it is likely that tech firms such as Google and Apple may create metaverse platforms of their own.
The Metaverse has downsides and more serious risks
The Metaverse is flawed by its exclusivity to only those in society with access to technology, as is often the case with new, emerging technogies. Dependency on the metaverse could then divide society rather than unite it.
Metaverse environments also raise concerns over data collection and will considerably complicate data privacy, creating new challenges for validation and identity authentication.
Then there are the risks of harassment and damage that could (and already do) occur in the Metaverse.
In 2021, co-founder and vice-president of metaverse research at Kabuni Nina Jane Patel shared her experience of being “verbally and sexually harassed” within 60 seconds of logging onto “Horizon Worlds.” She reported that several male avatars “virtually gang raped” her, took photos of her and shouted crude remarks.
In Channel 4’s documentary “Inside the Metaverse: Are you Safe?”, aired this April, Yinka Bokinni undertook a similar investigation. Bokinni entered the metaverse listed as a 13-year-old girl, but was soon subject to disturbing graphic scenes and harassment.
“Within the first 10 minutes of putting on a VR headset and entering a chat room, I saw underage kids simulating oral sex on each other.”
There was also much racism:
“I came across one user who was spewing the most disgusting language I’ve ever heard in my life. I’m talking extreme racism – hate speech, listing the kinds of people he hated, the kinds of people he wanted to kill. It was just so violent.”
Although Bokinni tried to “find good things to latch on to,” she says that the “bad stuff kept coming.” This climaxed in one moment when seven users surrounded her and tried to force her to remove her safety shield so they could do things to her body.
“I tried to run away, but they backed me up against a wall, trying to grab at me, making sexual comments. It was the virtual equivalent of sexual assault,” Bokinni commented.
From this experience, Bokinni concluded that the main issues seemed to be monitoring and reporting bad behaviour and indecencies, and how “real” everything felt. The VRchat app she was using, where users can create “rooms” within which they interact as avatars, is supposed to be suitable for seven-year-olds. With her profile set at age 13, Bokinni found she could access many deeply disturbing things. After three trips into the metaverse, Bokinni realized that she herself was becoming “desensitised” to “extremely violent language that was homophobic, racist, sexist.”
Although Bokinni recognised that some apps may have better content moderation than the VRchat she was on, it is clear that comprehensive legal change is needed, and, as a first step, the onus must be on the creators of this technology to take responsibility for making these technologies safe, instead of users moderating content; but unquestionably, the overall “toxicity” of the environment makes this challenging.
A threat to child safety
Avatar-based platforms are often aimed at children, but in the light of the aforementioned examples of Patel and Bokinni’s experiences of posing as children on these sites and being exposed to sexually explicit interactions, concerns in terms of child safety on these platforms must be raised.
The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) warned of the dangers of the metaverse for children, calling out technology companies for not adequately safeguarding children’s safety, which, as Andy Phippen, Professor of IT ethics and Digital rights at Bournemouth University argues, cannot be tackled by tech companies alone.
Demands for companies to prevent such incidents, such as putting more age verification measures in place, have been around for a long time. However, reliable online age verification is difficult to impose without infringing upon data privacy concerns. It is also difficult to police communication through algorithms with great accuracy, and constant human moderation on all interactive online spaces is needed, which would require a huge investment effort.
VRChat does provide tools to block abusive users and report them, which could mean a user has their account removed, but this does not prevent disturbing experiences from taking place in the first place.
Phippen argues that other stakeholders can also play an important role. If parents are going to buy their children VR headsets, they need to consider safety features and monitor usage, or perhaps check the apps before their children start using them.
A 2018 study by virtual reality research agency The Extended Mind found that 36% of males and 49% of females who use VR technologies regularly reported having experienced sexual harassment.
And now, proposals such as those discussed at the WEF meeting calling for establishing the metaverse as an educational venue for children through virtual learning, and thus reshaping the future of education, could cause serious damage if proper attention isn’t paid to the risks of allowing children to have free/unsupervised access to the metaverse. This, as Meta’s Global Affairs President Nick Clegg pointed out, would “require a distinct moderation approach.”
The #Metaverse will be the next playground for the Great Reset & the Fourth Industrial Revolution #4IR. The WEF believe the #Metaverse will signify the next step in our digital evolution, and it's already targeting the next generation.pic.twitter.com/D0dwseSbVo
— Sikh For Truth (@SikhForTruth) April 7, 2022
But as Facebook’s chief technology officer Andrew Bosworth admitted in a leaked internal memo last November, moderating behaviour on the metaverse “at any meaningful scale is practically impossible” – and seems even less feasible if we consider Meta’s current approach to internet policing.
The Metaverse, Clegg explains, is “just a sort of philosophically, technologically and legally different phenomenon because you’re dealing with something which doesn’t stick around and it’s not persistent, and so you simply cannot moderate it in the same way.”
Indeed, Metaverse interactions are different. They are immediate live speech rather than posted text, so social media rules on content are difficult to apply. Because of this, Meta may end up being more “hands-off” with regard to some of its services and what content is allowed.
All this gives children safety advocates more reason to fear for children using the metaverse on a mass scale. Meta’s plans to provide “industry-leading parental controls in this space” based on “age-appropriate experiences” in the metaverse just may not be enough.
The regular internet is plagued by harassment and hate speech. Since this is unlikely to disappear in the metaverse, and is even likely to have a more forceful visual impact, it becomes vitally important that we establish governance processes to ensure that the metaverse does not worsen society or harm children.
Like Internet Protocol standards, the metaverse will need similar globally accepted safety standards. The future of the metaverse comes with great uncertainty, but the discussion of the metaverse at the WEF signals that we are at a crucial point in time where it could still be guided in the right direction. To do that, much ethical, legal, and philosophical debate to arrive at workable solutions is needed.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com. — In the Featured Photo: Metaverse Graphic. Featured Photo Credit: Pixabay.