Understanding societal implications of the Metaverse implementation and envisioning an inclusive and ethical evolution of physical-digital convergence
Entering the Metaverse
The Metaverse has moved out of the sci-fi realm and into virtual reality (VR), promising us a future complete with the ability to experience immersive virtual worlds, and augmented spaces and realities. It’s being hailed as the future of gaming, a way to communicate with friends and family who live far away, and even as a potential solution to some of the world’s most pressing issues, such as education, healthcare, and agriculture. The buzz and excitement surrounding this technology are justified, as are the profound implications it portends to have on business and society.
That’s why, as we build technology platforms and use cases that will operate in the Metaverse, we should remember to factor in the context of the societies they will impact. Moreover, with the rapid digitization of the healthcare, finance, education, and governance infrastructure, digital inclusion is increasingly turning into a question of inclusion within the fabric of the society at large – these place immense responsibility on next-generation hyper-scale digital platforms such as the Metaverse, to be decentralized, designed for inclusivity and accessibility, and co-created with extensive user participation and testing.
What’s happening in the Metaverse now?
There’s no denying that the Metaverse will be a significant global economic driver. Early predictions suggest that it will grow into a $10-$30tn industry within a decade, with leading use cases emerging in the education, healthcare, digital collaboration, content and media, and gaming industries. Moreover, technological evangelists concur that the Metaverse will reveal VR in its most immersive form to the users, powered by hardware that lets them interact with digital systems using new developments in bioinformatics. This has, however, led to debates about whether and how the Metaverse should be regulated, and in the process, the following questions are being raised:
How much information can users safely share in the Metaverse? While leveraging immutable ledgers could enable accountable and transparent participation in the Metaverse, users could risk onloading their biometric and brainwave data on these digital systems forever. Also, should young users get limited time in the Metaverse? Being developed to be highly immersive, the Metaverse could risk attracting teens and young adults to spend more time in the virtual world and, in the process, compromising more intimate social-physical relationships with the world.
In addition, critics have also been advocating that the Metaverse be run in a decentralized manner. Owing to the depth and scope of implications it could have on the world – these concerns seem valid as futurists see the Metaverse as the next frontier of the evolution of the internet itself.
Metaverse challenges : socio-ethical implications
With the Metaverse, we can create a global classroom, making quality education and learning available to all. On paper, that’s the promise the Metaverse holds. However, at least in terms of today's thinking, this demands expensive technology and high bandwidth. So, underlying the promise of bringing people together lies the danger of isolating those who cannot afford, or do not have access to, the necessary equipment.
Connecting people with diverse beliefs and backgrounds generating interactions, awareness, and understanding. As technology blurs the lines between the virtual and the real worlds, what we say and how we interact with people within the Metaverse will have the potential to have an impact, both positively and negatively, as it might do in the real world. Racism, cyber-bullying, and harassment won’t vanish. This will call for laws and policing to be adapted and updated in today's context.
The Metaverse can allow participation in activities independent of the physical state, allowing especially abled people to interact in ways impossible today. Access and accessibility are related but different. How can we ensure that those who want to participate in the Metaverse can really do so? For example, how can VR, AR, and haptic technology be designed so that people with disability can effectively use them?
Learning Assisted Platforms, with visual overlays, haptic sensors, and access to vast medical libraries, can provide invaluable guidance to medical staff and monitoring surgeons to help avoid mistakes. Neither are genuinely infallible, though, and errors will be made; The concept of risk in the Metaverse will need to be explored, and the legal basis for accountability developed. For example, if the surgeon over-rules the platform and saves the patient, they will be a hero, but if they don’t and lose the patient, who is legally responsible? Where does the fault lie?
The Metaverse will be designed and developed to become highly immersive, aiming to create parallel worlds indistinguishable from the real world. As a result, training platforms will become invaluable as they become perfect replicas of the real world, allowing scenarios to be run that would otherwise be impossible to simulate. However, the more real the platform becomes, the greater the possibility of people having trouble distinguishing between what is real and what is a simulation. This could lead to social isolation, behavioral changes, and addiction.
The potential of the Metaverse is enormous, and we can create a replica of the real world, with everything that is good and bad, or reimagine something different and better that is accessible, inclusive, and safe for everybody.
Organizations such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the World Economic Forum are working to provide access to 2.9 billion people for last mile digital connectivity and affordable digital services that will improve the quality of their lives. Digital Inclusion Navigator: A platform to help bridge digital divide for billions is trying to play a significant role in this space, Navigator is open to everyone, and will convene and share best ideas of the digital inclusion policymaking community the world over.
However, with all the best intentions, to extract the best of the metaverse - thoughtfully planned governance principles, creating and enforcing protocols, and devising laws that establish trust within the Metaverse and simulate intense social debate on the impacts of the Metaverse are extremely necessary. Then, to establish rules to ensure that the platforms operating in and on the Metaverse are developed to be safe, accessible, fair, and inclusive to all, we can ensure that the Metaverse brings positive impact through the proliferation of digital technology over the coming decades. Our singular mission must be to ensure that everyone is inter-connected and has global access to the digital services, Wi-Fi, and resources that are paramount to lead a life of dignity. A meaningful connectivity and seamless technology should be widely available and a right for all.