Will the metaverse lean more toward dystopia or utopia? If you base your answer solely on Hollywood’s vision of the future, you might say the former, considering that blockbusters like The Matrix and Blade Runner paint an ominous future where technology has helped fuel massive inequality and human suffering.
But that’s just one vision. In many ways, humans have been exploring metaverse-like worlds for decades, through text-based role-playing games to Second Life to the consumer-grade VR systems that have become popular over the past decade — and we’ve done it all without ushering in a dystopia.
The metaverse soon will enable immersive, collaborative, and social experiences that could change not only leisure but also learning. For young students, the technology could replace paper mache models of volcanoes with something very much like The Magic School Bus.
That’s not to say there aren’t legitimate concerns about the metaverse, especially when it comes to questions about who owns what in this emerging world. Matthew Ball, author of The Metaverse, explains more in this interview with Big Think.
MATTHEW BALL: It's common to hear the criticism that the Metaverse is an inherently dystopic ideal. And the challenge, of course, with that is while many people are familiar with the term, there is disagreement over whether or not this is just some conquest to techno-feudalism, which is to say if big tech owns the atoms of the places that we work and, in some regard, own potentially the cryptocurrencies we're paid in, that we find ourselves in a form of 'virtual indentured servitude.' The fact that the Metaverse is being ushered in- or seems to be by big tech corporations, and that the term itself is originated from the dystopian science fiction novel, and all of its antecedents were largely dystopic in tone seem to reaffirm that hypothesis.
I'm not convinced and, in fact, I would argue that the etymology, or the history of the term is the easiest one to disabuse. So you'll find that the essence of most fiction is drama, and human drama tends to be the most satisfying. There's a reason why you don't see many fictional novels set in utopias. They're not much fun; there's not much human exploration there. And so yes, when you take a look at "Snow Crash," "Ready Player One," "The Matrix," most examples like that are dystopic. But counterbalancing that are the actual experiences designed to realize the Metaverse. Not just "Roblox" today, or "Second Life" in the 2000s, but the experiences that actually date back into the 70s, what we called, 'Multi-user shared hallucinations'- text-based virtual worlds. They were designed for totally different ideals. And that was fun, experimentation, exploration, communication- why? Because, of course, no one's going to sign up, least of all stay in a virtual space that is dystopic. And so, I would argue that no matter how scary the term's origination is, the soon-to-be hundreds of billions of hours that have been spent in metaverse-like experiences spanning four generations of human history have had a totally different tone. Real-time-rendered virtual worlds and 3D simulations are largely limited to consumer leisure, a tiny portion of it at that.
But that's actually a fun way to talk about one of the most frequent criticisms about the Metaverse, and that's that we will find ourselves isolated from one another, locked away in our homes with a VR headset strapped to our face, reluctant to ever do anything "real." The truth is, the primary draw of time for the Metaverse is likely to be the dominant use of leisure time today-and that's television. In the United States, 300 million Americans watch an average 5.5 hours per day of TV. More than two-thirds of that time is done alone. Almost all of it is done sedentary. One of the reasons why I think the Metaverse is likely to have strongly positive impacts on society is just substituting time from a disengaged solitary activity to one that is active, that is social, that is designed for engagement. One of the most important ways to understand the positive effects of the Metaverse, or 3D-real-time rendering is to take a look at education. It remains deeply unequal globally, largely inaccessible to most, and geographically discriminatory. We hope that the Metaverse brings to life much of what we imagine "The Magic School Bus" to be.
We're visual and experiential learners. But papier mache, baking soda, and vinegar for a volcano only goes so far. We learn about physics today in a textbook. And yet, in these 3D environments you can download course packs right now from Epic or Roblox that allow you to build complex Rube Goldberg machines, see how gravity plays out under different Gs. And these classes can be live-performed, they're infinitely re-playable, they're available to all, they have no marginal cost for delivery. I'm not saying it's a panacea- inequality of education and opportunity will endure- but I really do believe that these capabilities significantly constrain that gap. At the end of the day, the Metaverse will be what we make it: who runs it, how they run it, the ways in which society is, and is not integrated into it, it's democratic and non-democratic nature, those are up to us. The Metaverse is coming, there's no turning around on 3D-real-time rendering on graphics-based computing. If there's an organic desire for a new interface we're going to go there. But if we, the constituents, don't want it to be dystopic but, more importantly, if we want it to be a strong force for good in a way over the last 15 years maybe it wasn't, we need to be educated, we need to lean in, not resist.