Five reasons to question the metaverse

** Nuria Oliver (**

English adaptation to the original article published in Spanish by EL PAIS, el 25 Agosto 2022 , authored by Nuria Oliver, Cecilia Castaño y María Ángeles Sallé

In July 2021, Mark Zuckerberg announced the beginning of a new chapter not only of his company – with its new name, Meta, but of the Internet with the development of the so-called Metaverse. While the concept of the metaverse is not new, the change of focus in one of the most powerful companies on the planet, owner of the three largest social networks in the Western world with billions of users, marked the start of months of hype. In fact, analysts, such as skyQuest estimate that the global metaverse market will exceed 700 billion USD within 5 years, with over 37% growth in the 2020-2027 period.

The metaverse was introduced in 1992 by Neil Stephenson in his novel Snow Crash. Strictly speaking, it is defined as a single digital world, universally available 24/7, where we can interact, have relationships, and carry out all kinds of transactions as if it were the physical world. An idealized vision of the metaverse opens the door to a potentially perfect digital world, where we can adopt different personalities, achieve our dreams, overcome our limitations, travel without restrictions, access unlimited entertainment, develop our creativity and finally have success in life, or rather, cyber-life.

Following Stephenson’s novel, numerous science fiction works have described similar concepts. Unfortunately, the vast majority of metaverses outlined in the science fiction literature show a dystopian and undesirable future: they exist as an escape mechanism for humans in the face of a miserable life in a planet so deteriorated to the point of being uninhabitable, controlled by dictatorial regimes and where the only hope is to find refuge in the digital world, frequently controlled by omnipotent corporations, fascist governments, or Artificial Intelligence systems.

Knowing these visions, I am puzzled by the widespread excitement and billionaire investments to build the metaverse. Why would we want, as a society, to develop a virtual world so we can spend most of our lives glued to a screen?

There are at least five major reasons why I believe we should question the development of the metaverse.

First, for economic reasons: with high probability, the growth of the metaverse and the wealth it may generate will not be distributed homogeneously neither geographically nor socio-economically and demographically in society, benefiting mostly the richest and most powerful companies, to the detriment of the rest. Over the past 15 years we have witnessed the unprecedented growth in wealth and power of an oligopoly of American and Chinese technology companies, an increase in the wealth of the ultra-rich (1% of the world’s population) and a widening gap between those who own the most and those who have the least. We have no guarantee that this pattern will not replicate—or even magnify—with the development of the metaverse.

Second, for environmental reasons. Thanks to the metaverse, we would no longer have to travel or go to work, thus reducing our carbon footprint. However, the development of the metaverse entails an immense energy consumption and therefore a possibly greater contribution to carbon emissions. For example, it is estimated that training a single current model of Artificial Intelligence – omnipresent in the metaverse – emits more than five times the CO2 emitted by a car in its entire useful life. Beyond Artificial Intelligence, the metaverse needs to store and process huge amounts of data (our entire life will be digitized) and generate high-resolution 3D images, graphics, and videos so that our experience is immersive. In addition, the use of the necessary hardware to operate in the metaverse (virtual or augmented reality glasses, powerful computers, screens …) entails a considerable environmental impact both in its production and distribution, and in its disposal, as it is not biodegradable material. Impact that we would probably not be aware of, as we would most likely be distracted enjoying an idyllic vacation in the digital version of Bora Bora, playing the latest version of Second Life, or virtually attending a mega-concert of our favorite group.

Third, for reasons of public health. Humans haven’t evolved to be staring at screens for most of the day. The physical impact of excessive use of screens is diverse, including problems in vision and posture, sleep disturbance and increased obesity due to a sedentary lifestyle. Beyond the physical consequences, we cannot ignore the effect on our mental health (anxiety, addiction, isolation, cognitive dissonance…). The Homo sapiens is a social species. We need to interact with the physical world: talk, share, collaborate, co-exist… we need to feel the closeness of other people and nourish ourselves from their physical contact, as well as experience with all our senses the physical environment where we live. During the two years of the COVID-19 pandemic we have witnessed first-hand the devastating impact of social isolation. And while digital interactions may be better than a lack of interaction, they are very limited when compared to the richness, multimodality, and complexity of face-to-face interactions.

Fourth, for social reasons. We face immense challenges in the 21st century that threaten our existence, such as climate change, the energy crisis, the aging of the population or pandemics. We have set ourselves ambitious goals for the planet with the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. In response to what social challenge do we need to build the metaverse? How does it help us fight poverty, eliminate hunger, ensure access for all people to clean water, clean air, renewable energy, quality health and education, promote gender equality, or regenerate and preserve our precious and reviled planet? In addition, cultures feed on the connection between bodies, minds, and the environment. The human experience is an embodied experience. The focus on the metaverse distracts us from the complexity and diversity of biological life, distances us from nature and makes invisible –even more so than today– those who make life possible through care, with the social and gender consequences that this entails.

Fifth, for ethical reasons. There are fewer and fewer aspects of our existence outside the control of technology companies that collect massive amounts of our data through our interactions with digital services and applications. With the metaverse, our complete life experience could take place in the digital space and thus be susceptible to being captured, modeled, influenced, and monetized by the developers and sellers of services in the metaverse. The implications on people’s privacy, transparency, control, autonomy, and well-being are immense.

Today, more than ever, we should remember that not all technological development yields progress. Technology is a necessary but not sufficient tool for progress. If we aspire to leave a better world for future generations; a fairer, more sustainable, more livable, and prosperous world, we should, as a society, collectively decide in what kind of technological development not only want to but should invest.

In my case, the answer is clear: a technological development focused on people, the rest of living beings on the planet and the planet itself. That is why I have co-created the Institute of Humanity-centric AI (ELLIS Alicante), one of the few research foundations devoted to scientific research on human-centric AI. This view seems incompatible with the view of the metaverse. Therefore, I propose that we invest in building a better physical world. Let’s build the matter-verse of our dreams—with or without the metaverse—and certainly avoid building the metaverse of our nightmares. We have time, but the clock is ticking.