The Metaverse and its Numerous Concerns

There is a lot of buzz being generated around the “Metaverse,” which can be defined as a virtual reality-based shared digital world in which users (through their “avatars”) can enjoy three-dimensional, multi-sensory experiences. This rapidly-evolving, technology-driven paradigm is a huge shift away from the present, where digital interactions are based on text, audio and two-dimensional images/videos. The excitement around the Metaverse is due to the immense possibilities that exist around how it can be used for social interactions, commerce, media & entertainment, education, manufacturing, healthcare, defense etc. Not surprisingly, many companies, even in India, are investing in Metaverse capabilities.

While the potential for metaverse cannot be denied, it is just as important to recognize and acknowledge that there are several grey areas around this paradigm. If timely actions to prevent the misuse of the metaverse are not taken by the global community, we run the serious risk of opening a new Pandora’s Box. And once the proverbial genie is released from the bottle, it is virtually impossible (pun intended) to put it back inside.

The Potential Dangers of the Metaverse

 
What are the biggest fears surrounding the Metaverse? Concerns have been expressed from different quarters around issues relating to the privacy, safety and well-being of people who are active in the metaverse. In the current scenario, people use social platforms to connect with each other. If someone with whom I do not wish to engage seeks to connect with me in a basic digital world, I can easily deny the friend request. Even after having granted them permission initially, I can choose to block such persons. During the time they have permission to engage with me, the worst that can happen is that they send unwanted texts, audio messages or images and videos.

This is bad enough, but in the metaverse, the kind and nature of obscene or harmful content will change drastically; consequently, so will the impact of such material and experiences on vulnerable segments of society. 

For example, in the metaverse, it is quite possible for complete strangers to enter someone else’s personal space – without the latter being aware of who the former is. Given the multi-sensory capabilities of the metaverse, which includes haptic technology (the sense of touch), the experience and impact can be far worse. Arguably, the metaverse (as it exists currently) lends itself more easily to bullying, sexual abuse or intimidation. Indeed, there have been recent media reports that some VR-based games that are accessible to young children contain inappropriate content. 

AI-driven deep fakes can further muddy the waters by creating and distributing patently false content that is almost impossible to detect as fake. There is enough fake information circulating on Whatsapp as it is, think of the danger of content that purportedly shows politicians or others saying things designed to inflame emotions.

NFTs will be key to the evolution and growth of the metaverse, providing owners of physical assets such as paintings and IPR such as rights to music, movies etc. new avenues to monetize them at scale. Cryptocurrencies and tokens are likely to form the principal currency in the metaverse, powering commerce and payments. As of now, cryptocurrencies are anonymous and independent of mainstream banking and financial systems. 

In the absence of regulations that are uniformly enforced globally, such parallel payment systems can be easily misused for illegal and immoral activities and transactions, including child sexual abuse. It is likely that fraud and crimes will increasingly crisscross between the current digital world and the metaverse (and perhaps the physical world), making them harder to detect and bring the perpetrators to book.

Addressing the Issues Surrounding Metaverse 

 

A multipronged approach is key to addressing the potential dangers of the metaverse. It is vital to frame appropriate legislation and arm various regulatory agencies with the power to catch and punish violators is vital. The basic premise around legislation has to be this: if something is illegal or against the law or generally accepted social mores in the “real”, physical world, it must be treated the same way in any parallel “virtual reality” based universe.

However, legislation alone cannot secure the metaverse. It will be essential to hold creators of content and platforms that enable distribution and access responsible for violations. The metaverse infrastructure needs to be designed with more intent to put in place appropriate safety mechanisms right at the beginning. As a global society, we must learn from our experiences with the downsides of social media platforms (false information, cyber-bullying, digital fraud etc.) and take preemptive actions that can prevent problems before they become common. This is significant because changing processes after people have grown accustomed to them is never easy; also, some damage may have already occurred. It may also be necessary to think of ways to incentivize good behaviour in the metaverse.

The metaverse is expected to surge ahead quickly on its evolutionary path. Its trajectory cannot be predicted in advance, therefore, what is needed is constant vigilance and for global action to be taken in a concerted manner. The UN system is supposed to be the primary keeper of international order. A number of events over the past couple of decades have painfully driven home the point that the UN architecture needs an urgent and major overhaul. As part of this exercise, it may be useful to establish a new global body tasked with the responsibility of overseeing and governing the metaverse. Regional political/economic blocs must be encouraged to ensure that their members comply with rules and regulations related to the metaverse.

The metaverse is expected to surge ahead quickly on its evolutionary path. Its trajectory cannot be predicted in advance; therefore, what is needed is constant vigilance and for global action to be taken in a concerted manner.

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