The average American currently spends over 7 hours per day looking at a screen, with Gen Zers averaging over 9 hours per day. These numbers have been steadily increasing since the popularization of mobile internet.
Now, again here we stand at the precipice of the next internet revolution. If the metaverse does truly become something that many people will be spending most of their waking hours in, then shouldn’t we tread carefully into this new realm?
If something has the power to absorb the attention of humans for over 50% of the hours that they are awake, then it’s not unreasonable to say that that something has the potential to shape the course of civilization and humanity as a whole.
Since last November, we have witnessed an unprecedented level of hype about the metaverse, but how about the potential problems of the metaverse?
Here are 7 potential problems that the metaverse could bring to the world:
1) The Metaverse Could Dramatically Increase Physical Inactivity
Already, inactivity is one of the biggest silent killers in the modern world. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), physical inactivity is the 4th leading risk factor for mortality, and people who are physically inactive have a 20-30% increased mortality rate compared to those who exercise for even just 30 minutes per day.
People may end up becoming so engrossed in the metaverse that they neglect to take care of themselves, including exercising.
Perhaps, between work, play and socializing, you spend almost every waking hour in the metaverse. If you’re spending 14 hours a day in the metaverse, then why go through the time and pain of going to the gym to bulk up your real physical body? You could just easily adjust your avatar to make it more muscular.
The world could see a massive spike in inactivity-related illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
Exercising in the Metaverse?
However, a potential solution to this problem is that people could just exercise in the metaverse through various different physically-active virtual games, in a similar style to Wii Fit. Perhaps there will even be metaverse “gyms” (but I’d imagine people would first need to buy some sort of physical VR treadmill, VR elliptical, VR stationary bike or VR resistance training equipment).
This would definitely be better than no exercise at all, but wouldn’t allow people to get out into the sunlight; lack of sunlight (vitamin D) can contribute to a variety of different physical and mental health issues, including depression.
2) The Companies Controlling The Metaverse Will Know Everything About You
To date, many big tech companies have not had the best track records when it comes to managing users’ data, to the extent where private data has even been used to attempt to influence elections.
Data is modern gold. Big data is currently an over $200 billion per year industry. If people begin to access the metaverse even half as much as they currently access the traditional internet, then companies are going to be wanting to get a piece of that data goldmine. Like hungry wolves, they’re going to charge headlong into building, and thus controlling, the metaverse. The race to develop the metaverse that we are seeing now may in actuality be the race to control the next big repository of data, possibly the biggest ever.
In the last few years, whether knowingly or unknowingly, we’ve given tech companies knowledge of our:
- Email addresses
- Activities on social media (likes, comments, etc)
- Search history
- Browser history
- Locations of our homes (approximate or exact)
- Locations of frequently visited places (through GPS)
- Private photos (in the cloud)
- Personal beliefs
- Spending habits
- Facial structures for (facial recognition)
But in the metaverse, they’ll be able to get so much more.
If you spend most of your time in the metaverse, then the companies controlling, monitoring and moderating the metaverse will be able to know absolutely everything about you. They’ll have a front-row seat to observe exactly what you do all day every day. They might even end up knowing more about you than you know about yourself.
Tracking Biometric Data in the Metaverse
Meta’s upcoming new VR headset, “Project Cambria”, will contain technology that will track your eye movements and facial expressions. It’s extremely likely that someone will collect this valuable data; just like how now someone collects data on where your mouse hovers and clicks on a webpage, and how long you pause for while scrolling through your newsfeed.
Owners of your metaverse data will understand your true feelings about different things. They’ll be able to listen to everything you say and how you say it, including the tones and emotions in your voice. They’ll be able to observe your facial expressions and eye movements as you say or hear things. Eventually, they might even be able to see how you physiologically react (dilated pupils, flushed face) to different visual and audio stimuli.
Through voice and biometric analysis, they could discover what you’re truly passionate about and what you’re truly afraid of. This type of data would be particularly valuable data for media companies, influential corporations and governments who often gear toward mass public opinion manipulation practices.
Organizations could then create media content that invokes maximum amounts of fervor or fear, as that is usually the type of content that sees the most engagement. Once they know absolutely everything about you, they’ll understand how to manipulate and sway you.
All of the complex data collection and categorization in the metaverse will most likely be done through lightning-quick algorithmic processes by sophisticated AIs capable of simultaneously collecting, categorizing, storing and possibly selling data from hundreds of millions of users.
And of course, through data collection, they’ll know exactly what types of products and services you’re likely to spend money on.
3) The Metaverse Is Likely to Be the Next Evolution in Aggressive, Intrusive Advertising
Everyone will most likely have their own “home” or “space” in the metaverse. This virtual space of yours could be where you work, relax and “meet” family and friends. What’s to stop any number of people from coming and “knocking on” your digital door? Except rather than physically knocking, it will probably be more like an avatar or hologram just instantly appearing in your “home”/”space” to advertise something to you, just like YouTube advertisements instantly appear in the middle of videos.
Whether controlled by real humans or bots, metaverse “door-to-door” salespeople could be the next advancement in advertising. It would be like door-to-door sales, telemarketing and digital marketing all rolled up into one massive monstroserous hybrid, the evolutionary apex of marketing.
Maybe the metaverse will allow adjustments of settings to prevent strangers from intrusively coming into your “home”/”space” to advertise to you… But maybe it won’t. Think about this: Right now, can you turn off sponsored ads and prevent them from appearing on your Facebook newsfeed?
Having a stranger come into your virtual home every hour to deliver a few-minute sales pitch may be the price you have to pay for using the metaverse. However, perhaps you could be able to stop these intrusions if you pay for the premium version of whichever metaverse your “home”/”space” resides in.
Furthermore, there could be hordes of salespeople (avatars controlled either by real humans or by bots) wandering around public areas of the metaverse, aggressively trying to grab your attention like living incarnations of popup ads.
On top of that, almost everywhere you go in the metaverse is likely to be forcefully bursting with colorful, 3D, flashing, moving, living advertisements. It could easily be enough to cause sensory overload or motion sickness.
4) The Metaverse Could Be the End of Me-Time
By default, Facebook Messenger tells people if you are currently “active”. It also tells people when you were last “active”, and it tells people if you’ve seen their messages (this is a setting that can’t be turned off). Personally, I find these functions intrusive enough, but the metaverse could take intrusiveness like this to the next level.
Perhaps you are in your metaverse “home” or “space” streaming a movie and relaxing with some much-needed me-time. Someone on your friend list comes and “knocks” on your digital door. You don’t answer, because you’re relaxing and don’t feel like talking to anyone at that time. However they see that you are currently “home” (“online” in the metaverse), so then they think you’re a massive jerk for ignoring them, or they think that you don’t like them.
Now imagine that same situation, but this time your boss (or a client) wants to get you to do some extra work for them. There’s no escape. You could be watching a movie in your metaverse “home”/”space” and then all of a sudden some important work documents literally popup in front of your face.
Or how about this, perhaps you are “out” with some friends at a public place in the metaverse, playing games and socializing. What if your boss or a client decides to pop up in front of your face on a video call, or even just instantly “teleport” to your location to “pop in” on you and your friends? I’m sure there’ll be an option to “block” them, but then they would probably know that you blocked them.
5) The Metaverse Could Amplify Internet Dehumanization & Harrassment
Over the last few decades, we’ve all too often witnessed the internet and social media turn what were once people into virtueless, inhuman entities. Just go play an online shooter game for a bit and there’s a pretty good chance that you’ll hear a bunch of adolescents yelling at each other to kill themselves. Or try going to certain types of Facebook or Reddit groups, and posting something that deviates from “what people are supposed to say” in that group; people will say things to you that they would never say to somebody’s face.
This type of style of communication has now become the norm in many places across the internet. The anonymity, polarization and perceived distance caused by the internet often bring out the absolute worst qualities in human beings. All across the internet and social media, people treat each other like they are speaking to inhuman bots that it’s their mission to psychologically destroy. The metaverse could amplify the intensity of this type of behavior.
Trolling, insults and harassment in the metaverse could become almost as close, uncomfortable and psychologically harmful as in real life, especially as metaverses begin to look more and more life-like.
At the same time, the metaverse will still exist on the internet. That means that the metaverse is likely to still be a place that manufactures trolls in excess, due to the internet’s inherent anonymity, perceived distance and lack of consequences that carry any real significance.
Delivering the worst of both worlds, harassment in the metaverse could be just as common as it is over the traditional internet, yet seem just as real as harassment that occurs in real life.
6) A Growing Distance Between Your Metaverse “Reality” and Actual Reality
The internet has allowed people to seek out and consume only content that they agree with, while ignoring content that they disagree with. Taking this to next level, social media platforms often use algorithms to try to only show you content that you agree with, as this is what generates the highest levels of content engagement. This aspect of the internet is one of the primary causes of societal divisions today. How will this phenomenon evolve into the metaverse?
In the metaverse, rather than only being exposed to posts, articles and videos that you agree with, you will only be exposed to entire realities that you agree with.
Everything that you don’t agree with could be made non-existent in your virtual world. Perhaps you don’t like some harsh truths about reality; you could live in a world where nothing makes you think of anything that makes you feel uncomfortable. To generate the most engagement from you, the metaverse will ensure that your “perfect reality” remains undisturbed from reminders of societal issues and perspectives that you don’t want to think about.
In your individually-tailored version of the metaverse, there may be nothing and nobody to challenge your “reality”. There won’t be any chances for you to empathize with or consider alternate perspectives. Anything that disagrees with the schemas in your mind can be made to disappear forever from your world.
Think of the long-term effects on the human psyche that would be caused by prolonged living in a “perfect reality” tailored exactly for you.
After spending a significant period of time in your “perfect world”, what if one day you decide to go out into actual reality? How would you ever be able to mingle with and talk to diverse types of people? How could you cope with a world where not everything and everyone behaves exactly how you think they should?
When you finally take off your VR headset and go out to engage with the real world, it most likely will be a very rude awakening. The more time you spend creating and living in your individually-tailored metaverse “reality”, the more difficult you will find actual reality.
Eventually, people will want to spend more and more time in their tailored metaverse “realities” to avoid the increasingly unpleasant experience of coping with actual reality. It could become uncannily similar to a cycle of drug addiction. Many people could become like junkies, reluctant to wake up from blissful dreams.
Surrounded by AIs
You no longer have any human friends who share your beliefs as to how the world should be? Well, you can be surrounded by advanced AI avatars that behave and talk just like real people, AIs that unconditionally think that you are the greatest person to ever grace the Earth.
These AIs will agree with everything you say. They’ll encourage and solidify all of your beliefs and ideas, no matter what, as long as they can keep you engaged in the metaverse for as long as possible, and show you an advertisement every now and then.
Or perhaps, even more insidiously, they may subtly nudge you toward ideas that align with the company or organization that sponsored the creation of these “free” AI friends.
7) Loss of Self-Esteem, Social Skills and Feelings of Connection when in the Real World
In the metaverse, you can be a god in your perfect world. You can give your avatar the body, face, hair and attire that you’ve always wanted to have yourself. Friendly AIs will compliment and praise you all day. There will be a near-limitless amount of dopamine-stimulating games and experiences that you can trigger at the snap of a finger. You’ll be able to go rapidly teleport around the metaverse with the attention span of a goldfish, consistently finding something new to make you feel like the king of the world.
When you leave the metaverse, you’ll be back to your life, a life that has been neglected due to the countless days you’ve spent immersed in the metaverse. Reality will go from being colorful, reinforcing and instantly gratifying (in the metaverse) to being dull, sluggish and possibly clinically depressing. There won’t be anything shiny to catch your attention, reward you or cause your brain to fire off a shot of dopamine.
In the metaverse, you’ll feel confident talking to the computer-generated faces of other people’s avatars. Furthermore, you’ll be speaking from behind the powerful mask of your own avatar. But the more time you spend socializing in this way, the more your real in-person social skills will slowly disintegrate.
In the real world, without your perfect avatar to represent you, you’ll eventually just feel awkward, inadequate and uncomfortable in your own skin. Real face-to-face social interactions will seem unpleasant and strange.
These effects will be greatly amplified in children, whose minds are still developing. Their minds will be formed inside of the metaverse and their minds will form in response to the sensory stimulation of the metaverse. Eventually, the metaverse could manufacture a generation that perpetually feels uncomfortable and out of place in the real world, like a fish out of water. It may even eventually become difficult to differentiate AI from human.
The metaverse may contain all of these problems and more. However, the giant corporations that are the most heavily invested in the metaverse will more than likely ensure that the metaverse becomes an indispensable part of the life of any money-making, socializing member of modern society. Society will end up being structured in a way so that you will need to use the metaverse in order to be anyone of any merit. Making income and building relationships without using the metaverse will become increasingly difficult.
Imagine your life without a smartphone or mobile internet. 15 years ago, the first popular smartphones came out. Now, modern life is basically impossible without one. Today, the first metaverses are rapidly in development. 15 years from now, how tightly intertwined into our lives will the metaverse be?
This article was originally written on January 23, 2022.
The metaverse will change the world, this is almost certain. Whether the changes will be mostly good or mostly bad remains yet to be seen. This article focused on the possible negative changes brought on by the metaverse. For an alternative perspective highlighting some of the likely positive changes that the metaverse will bring, check out the article below:
Although the possible problems of the metaverse discussed in this article have the potential to be civilization-shatteringly severe, that’s not to say that they can’t be worked through and solved. Better yet, these problems could be prevented altogether if they are taken into consideration early enough.
What do you think? Do you think the changes brought on by the metaverse will be mostly positive or mostly negative? Can you think of any other potential problems that the metaverse may bring? Let’s hear about it in the comments.