Save the date: February 6 marks the first ever metaverse wedding.
Dinesh Sivakumar Padmavathi and Janaganandhini Ramaswamy from Tamil Nadu have invited 2,000 people to their virtual reality reception. Guests will be able to attend in avatar form — each avatar will be dressed in a digital sari or suit — and will be able to interact as if they were in the same room. There’ll even be a ghost avatar of the bride’s father, who died last year. “Because of the pandemic, a physical, real kind of reception is not possible with the huge number of people attending,” Padmavathi, 24, has said of the ceremony. “So, we decided: let’s make it in the metaverse.”
It’s certainly a step up from a Zoom call. So… could this really be the future? Virtual weddings and back-from-the-dead avatars? Well, it seems that big tech, some of the world’s most illustrious fashion brands and a rapidly expanding list of celebrity early adopters are banking on it. Most famously, the Silicon Valley behemoth Facebook rebranded to Meta last October — a statement of intent as they move to become an integral part of the immersive, 3D, computer-generated experiences that make up the metaverse.
Following in Mark Zuckerberg’s footsteps, the likes of Snoop Dogg and Paris Hilton have already staked their claims to plots in the virtual world. The former is gearing up to launch the “Snoopeverse”, a virtual mansion where people will be able to attend concerts and pool parties (early access passes start from $2,000), while the latter’s island on Roblox has already become a hot party destination for the metaverse’s young and well-heeled. Not wanting to be left behind, brands including Nike, Gucci, Burberry and Louis Vuitton have begun experimenting with digital clothes (purchased as NFTs) for our metaverse avatars.
As Reese Witherspoon tweeted last month: “In the (near) future, every person will have a parallel digital identity. Avatars, crypto wallets, digital goods will be the norm. Are you planning for this?” It’s a salient question during a time of massive flux. But beyond the basics of where, who and how much, questions of safety have also begun to arise. Much like the real world, the metaverse has the potential to be a dark place — unlike the real world, there are no laws to govern it. And every day new stories are surfacing which attest to the fact that the virtual world may well be a more frightening than the real one.
In December reports surfaced that a beta tester of Meta’s Horizon Worlds (the company’s work-in-progress platform which allows people to chat, game and attend events in VR) had detailed in the official Horizon Facebook group about how her avatar had been groped by a stranger.
Last weekend, 43-year-old Nina Jane Patel made similar claims, saying that her avatar was sexually “assaulted” by three male avatars within a minute of her logging onto Meta’s Horizon Venues (the digital experience which allows people to watch online events). “The space you enter is a lobby,” said Ms Patel. “…Within 60 seconds, three male avatars, who all had male voices, came towards me and touched me inappropriately… Before I knew what was happening, they were taking screen shots… While doing that, they said things like, ‘Don’t pretend you don’t love it.’” Ms Patel had to remove her VR headset to make the avatars stop but despite the fact that it happened in virtual reality, she still found herself feeling anxious about the encounter afterwards.
Elsewhere, children’s charities have issued warnings over the safety of young people on the platforms. As Andy Burrows, head of child safety online policy at the NSPCC, said: “With a virtual experience, the potential for harm is really magnified. With real voice chat, it is obvious if you are talking to a young child so their vulnerability is amplified, they are hyper-visible.”
Roblox is one of the world’s most popular gaming environments for children, with more than 150 million users — half of whom are under 13 years old. It is arguably also one of the safest: the site is moderated and chats are filtered to search for inappropriate language. But many have argued that it’s an outlier in the metaverse, which remains largely lawless and difficult to moderate.
The metaverse has the potential to be a dark place — unlike the real world, there are no laws to govern it
Even assuming that we come to a point where virtual reality spaces can be policed (or at the very least properly moderated), the question remains: how do we live well, with meaning and purpose, when the majority of our lives are conducted online?
It’s a question that experts have been puzzling over in recent months, but philosophically, it’s nothing new. As far back as 1974, Robert Nozick asked: if you could permanently plug into a machine that could give you any experience you desire, would you do it? He argued that most wouldn’t. Sure, you could program it so that you walked on the moon, won an Olympic medal or lived a long and happy life with your soulmate, which in theory all sounds pretty nice. But when it comes down to it, did you actually do those things?
To the American philosopher, any experiences undergone while plugged in — no matter how meaningful or good they felt — would be an illusion. It just wouldn’t be “real”, and subsequently would never constitute the best life someone could lead, even if your “real” one was boring, painful or boringly painful. Even further back — in 330BC, to be precise — Plato examined the tension between fantasy and reality. Still, for a long time, these fictional thought experiments were just philosophy seminar fodder. They’d occasionally appear in pop culture, like in The Matrix or The Truman Show. But the verdict was always the same: reality is more meaningful.
Until now. Philosopher David Chalmers is the co-director of the Centre for Mind, Brain and Consciousness at New York University. In his new book, Reality+, Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy, he argues it is absolutely possible to live a good and meaningful life in VR.
“We’re conscious beings who find certain things meaningful and valuable: relationships with other people; having goals and achieving them; attaining knowledge and understanding,” he says. “You can do all those things, in principle, inside a virtual world.” According to Chalmers, and as recent reports seem to highlight, the metaverse will be just as horrible and wonderful as physical reality. Granted, it will take a few more decades to create a wholly faithful replica of our physical world online, but when we do it won’t be second-class reality, it will be a totally valid place for people to exist.
“A lot of people think that virtual reality is an illusion, that it’s not real. But I say that it has causal power, it exists outside of our mind, and is not an illusion. Sometimes virtual worlds are just escapism, but not all of them. People actually build communities and genuine relationships and have genuine projects that they care about.”
Thomas Metzinger, professor of theoretical philosophy at Johannes Gutenberg University, is less convinced. He points instead to the fact that we’re plugging into a world that will be fully owned by someone else. “The actor behind the metaverse, Mark Zuckerberg, is not an actor who is interested in the mental health or mental autonomy of his customers,” says Metzinger. “They just want to shape billions of consumer minds so they raise the profit of the company.”
For Metzinger, in an ideal world the metaverse would be treated as public infrastructure like telephone lines or streets. “It must be freely available to everybody and it cannot be tweaked by market interests,” he continues. Unfortunately, he doesn’t see this happening.
Chalmers too is concerned about the potential corporate takeover of the metaverse. “The hope is that there’ll be many different forms of virtual realities and ways of organising society and virtual worlds,” he says.
It is a large field experiment, we may not be ready for it — or maybe Zuckerberg will create a feeling of meaning
Ultimately, however, he acknowledges that “not everyone will be reflective about this, it’s possible to be, but not everyone will be”. Many social media platforms are just plain addictive, and it’s easy to get caught in endless scrolling on platforms that see us as consumers, not citizens. “It’s a large field experiment,” continues Metzinger. “We may not be ready for it. Maybe Mark Zuckerberg will manage to give you that feeling of meaning. Perhaps you don’t have any real friends, but you have lots of virtual friends. Still, what happens when they take off their headset and they’re just alone in their room on their bed, and suddenly realise that maybe it only looked meaningful?”
The answer seems to lie in the idea that the virtual world can be given meaning depending on what you do with it. A friendship that is conducted entirely online can feel just as real and meaningful as the friendships cultivated down the pub or around the water-cooler. Then again, many of you would surely be repulsed by the idea of never seeing a loved one in the physical world, even if the metaverse succeeds in fully replicating the sounds, feel and sensation of being right next to them in a virtual world.
Thanks to successive lockdowns, we have a good idea of what it’s like to exist largely online. In fact, it’s probably what’s driving this sci-fi future we’re all scrolling into. We’ve already attended concerts in Fortnite, and although restrictions just lifted, the switch to a more online existence is showing no signs of slowing down. Whether we’re truly ready for it remains to be seen.