The metaverse: Will it consume my life and soul?

The metaverse: Will it consume my life and soul?

Donning cumbersome headsets, I can jack into the new "digital oasis" where thousands of others will likely migrate. At my fingertips, I can do practically anything from work and play to hanging out and shopping when in fact I am alone in a room. This is the metaverse, or the virtual world that will be the next chapter of the internet.

In late October, Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg changed the parent company's name to Meta in line with his plans to create the so-called metaverse. He also unveiled a new blue infinity sign at the company's headquarters. The rebranding does not apply to current platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp, but points to where the company is going.

Coined in the 1990s by the sci-fi novel Snow Crash, the term "metaverse" has grown in popularity to the extent that it has entered this year's top word list of the Collins Dictionary. Two more trending tech terms have also become words of the year: "crypto" (cryptocurrency) and "NFT" (non-fungible token). This reflects the digital revolution taking place at the forefront of our lives.

The advent of the metaverse requires some serious thought. I have seen one experiment where a person spent 24 hours living in a virtual environment. After customising her avatar, she gamed and interacted with other Lego-like users. It may have looked like a simulation video game, but it will definitely evolve over time.

For me, the metaverse is an expression of our postmodern culture. As suggested by its prefix, this condition comes after "modernity", which corresponds to the age of reason in the 18th century. It embraces the idea that language can represent the external world and convey meaning. In postmodernism, however, the idea of a stable reality disappears. There are no originals, only copies or "simulacrums".

I harbour many concerns over the potential impact of the metaverse. According to the Electronic Transactions Development Agency (ETDA), Thai internet users spent 11 hours and 25 minutes a day on average surfing the web last year. Facebook was the most popular social media platform.

First, the hyperreality of the metaverse can replace real life because virtual technology can simulate and stimulate human experience much more than screen-based media. It can bombard users with heightened tactile sensations to get them hooked. Will they leave the virtual world when they have everything at their disposal? Future digital natives may have difficulty distinguishing between their virtual and real lives.

Second, users will face the challenge of authenticating other avatars and information in the metaverse. An "infodemic" will definitely make its way into the virtual world, because many pieces of misinformation will have been circulated across various channels. Unless media literacy is up to scratch, fake news will eventually pollute the ecology of the metaverse.

In addition, a virtual identity raises other issues like personal freedom and accountability. The virtual world will take another 10-15 years to become "real", but such questions can serve as thought experiments. How far do users have to obey the law? Will they face legal action for activities that "virtually" harm other users or challenge national security? What if some users defy traditional values? Are demonstrations acceptable in the metaverse? Can people establish their own government there?

The metaverse will also heighten the intrusion of big tech companies into our hearts and minds. Remember your frustration when Facebook went down for nearly six hours in early October? This highlights our over-reliance on social media platforms. Users may get the impression that these tools empower their life, but they pay a heavy price for that by giving their personal data to the platform. Algorithms can curate like-minded information and advertisements, keeping users stuck in an echo chamber.

With the advent of the metaverse, virtual technology can have access to our movements, interactions and maybe inner thoughts. In this case, I think we should respect the right to opt out from social media platforms and the virtual world. Individuals should not be forced to use these channels when they take part in daily activities. Those who refuse to jump on the bandwagon should find ways to form communities off the grid.

Many years ago, I read the satirical novel The Circle by Dave Eggers. It envisions a dystopian future for the eponymous tech giant where a protagonist works and embraces the culture of total transparency. One of its devices, TruYou, stores a user's information ranging from social media profiles to personal interests. The novel culminates in a disconcerting passage where know-all technology can track even those who opt out of the circle.

So take my body, mind and time, but please leave me my soul.

Thana Boonlert

Bangkok Post columnist

Thana Boonlert is a writer for the Life section and a Bangkok Post columnist.

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