When discussing movies and TV programs, people often ask me whether some scientifically inaccurate plot feature bothers me. Usually, I answer no because I grant quite a bit of artistic license to the producers as long as they tell a good story. What disrupts my enjoyment far more is when the plot gets human nature wrong. I think the Star Trek series consistently gets human nature wrong when it comes to the holodeck. A physical trip to the holodeck allows the visitor to step into any virtual world—from the most beautiful vista on a distant planet to the quaintest bistro on the homeworld. With this unlimited capacity to simulate any environment, the crew of the Enterprise never seemed to venture into more sordid options.
While the holodeck exists only in the world of science fiction, many companies are working diligently to make similar technology a reality. Enter the metaverse.
What Is the Metaverse?
According to Meta/Facebook, “3D spaces in the metaverse will let you socialize, learn, collaborate and play in ways that go beyond what we can imagine.” So, you could describe the metaverse as a digital platform that people with appropriate electronic tools can enter and interact in—in ways limited only by our imagination and future advances in technology. Unlike the Star Trek holodeck, we enter the multiverse from the comfort of our own home or wherever we find convenient. Just don a pair of virtual reality (VR) glasses, log into the online platform and explore the metaverse. But is this a good thing?
What Is the Promise of the Metaverse?
The metaverse offers a number of promising opportunities. Most people are tired of staring at a screen with many small panels containing hard-to-see images of colleagues or family. Such meetings in the metaverse would happen in a digital room where you move around, shake hands, sit on chairs, and look directly at people to converse. From a medical perspective, doctors currently develop specialized expertise to treat patients. However, instead of only treating people capable of traveling to the doctor’s office, the metaverse utilizes basic technology to remove the physical boundaries and spread that doctor’s expertise around the world. In today’s classrooms, students may read about the Grand Canyon, study some images, or maybe even watch a well-produced video. The metaverse would allow students to traverse trails down to the Colorado River, scale walls as they investigate the various layers, or even burrow deep into the walls to find fossils.
What Is the Peril of the Metaverse?
Alongside the promise that the metaverse brings comes an equally impressive set of perils—particularly those that harm our relationships. We are designed for relationship and need face-to-face contact for good health. As the metaverse becomes more realistic, many people will inevitably sacrifice the difficulties of in-person relationships to seek the comfort and supposed safety of online interactions. That sacrifice will lead to greater isolation and loneliness. According to one director of a decades-long study on relationships, “Loneliness kills . . . it’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.” Another researcher echoes that sentiment, noting that “when the study began, nobody cared about empathy or attachment . . . But the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships.” Even the much less invasive use of gaming and social media has resulted in substantially worse relationships than before those technologies became prominent (for example, see here1 and here2). And Star Trek never seemed to address the possibility of people using the holodeck for sexual pursuits. But we would be naive to ignore the almost certain increase in pornography and more serious sexual deviancy that the metaverse will bring.
It’s Not the Technology, It’s the Humans
Some people envision the metaverse as an enhanced digital world without the time, space, and financial constraints of our physical universe. However, the metaverse is simply a tool—in fact, a tremendously powerful tool—and like all tools, the metaverse will be wielded by humans. The technology that enables a specialized doctor to enter the metaverse and treat patients in remote villages also permits con artists to prey on victims around the world. Educational opportunities like touring the Grand Canyon or the Louvre or fantasy worlds like Avatar can also bring disenchantment with the more mundane day-to-day experiences of life—leading to depression and even addiction to the metaverse.
As technology advances, the metaverse will present great opportunities to help and care for people. However, the inherent human involvement—both in developing and using the metaverse—will inevitably bring the same set of problems that we have faced since the dawn of humanity. The metaverse holds great promise, but also great peril.
1. Joanna E. Lewis, Mia Trojovsky, and Molly M. Jameson, “New Social Horizons: Anxiety, Isolation, and Animal Crossing during the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Frontiers in Virtual Reality (March 30, 2021); doi:10.3389/frvir.2021.627350.
2. Susan Landau and Trent Nguyen, “Effects of Gaming on Children’s Brains: Depression and
Social Isolation”, Advances in Social Sciences Research Journal 9, no. 6 (September 25, 2019): 291–302, doi:10.14738/assrj.69.4856.