Katleen Gabriels is a moral philosopher specializing in computer ethics at Maastricht University. She conducts research into the relationships between morality and computer technologies.
“To be honest, if it were up to me, I’d get rid of it all.” “Stay right here, you shouldn’t go all virtual.” Those are the words of a Flemish couple who are approached on the street by a television crew from the Flemish Public Broadcasting (VRT) about Metaverse. “The what?”
While watching the entire clip, an instant ‘Groundhog Day’ feeling overtook me. Where else had I heard this before? – In another excerpt, that same discourse on virtuality presented by entrepreneurs and strategists as an enrichment and hype, and from the mouths of such a couple, as an impoverishment?
Nowhere does the broadcasted clip make the connection to any earlier developments, such as the hype surrounding the three-dimensional virtual world Second Life in 2007. That is a missed opportunity. Back then, people were also amazed by virtual museums, virtual parties and virtual concerts where you could go with your avatar, dressed according to the latest virtual fashion trends. Fifteen years later, the Metaverse is being reported on with the same level of astonishment. While paying ‘real’ money for virtual property is really nothing new, nor is a ‘sandbox’, where you can experiment and design to your heart’s content, or ‘real’ companies that set up virtual offices on 3D immersive platforms.
Virtuality as an enrichment
Nuance disappears when you present technological developments in a black and white way: Virtuality as an enrichment (don’t miss out on this opportunity!) versus seeing it as an impoverishment (stay away!). The concept of hype versus rejection is not a valuable framework for defining these technological evolutions. So many expectations were projected onto Second Life at the time that it was impossible to live up to them. That virtuality would only lead to an impoverished world has long been debunked. Online experiences are simply part of our experienced reality nowadays. Online and offline identity are tightly intertwined. The corona crisis just made it very clear how valuable online contacts are, especially when we are physically cut off from each other.
Since Facebook announced its change of name to Meta back in late October, renewed attention has been paid to the concept of the Metaverse. Of course, the comparison with Second Life is not entirely justified. Unlike in 2007, the focus of the messaging around it is (thankfully) much less on sex. And unlike the developers of Second Life, Linden Lab, Facebook/Meta has a lot more money to invest in bringing together different kinds of ‘realities’ – virtual reality, augmented reality, physical reality – and combining them with different experiences, such as shopping, meeting up with friends, working or gaming. Moreover, Facebook/Meta, via WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook, Oculus, etc., is already an integral part of our daily lives, so the threshold or reluctance to be a part of it is much lower. Facebook already has a staggering 3.6 billion users. And the world also looks different than it did 15 years ago as far as cryptocurrencies are concerned.
The Flemish couple is reminiscent of the well-known clip “Using mobile phones in 1998” from Dutch program maker Frans Bromet, in which he took to the streets with a camera to ask Dutch people whether they were planning to buy a mobile phone. Each and every one of them thought it unnecessary, for reasons that were quite normal at the time. After all, there really were still phone booths in the streets.
In 2019, a camera crew from the Dutch tv show ‘De Wereld Draait Door‘ tracked down the same people. It turned out that they all had smartphones since then. You simply cannot imagine what you will one day find ‘normal’ and how you will adapt your own behavior accordingly. Also, anyone who never imagined that they would ever need a smartphone will most likely drive back home now if they forget to take that small gadget with them. The couple who disapprove in this piece of reporting, will probably be dancing as avatars with their grandchildren in a hip virtual club in the Metaverse ten years from now.
No, there is no need to return to a completely offline life and abolish virtual life (which is not possible at all anyway). More than anything, it is important to follow developments as closely as possible and to take a nuanced but critical approach to them. And to have a healthy dose of curiosity. In 2014, I earned my PhD on a study about morality and virtuality, which also involved spending a lot of time in Second Life. Time to dust off my avatar.
About this column
In a weekly column, alternately written by Eveline van Zeeland, Eugène Franken, JP Kroeger, Katleen Gabriels, Carina Weijma, Bernd Maier-Leppla, Willemijn Brouwer and Colinda de Beer, Innovation Origins tries to figure out what the future will look like. These columnists, sometimes joined by guest bloggers, are all working in their own way to find solutions to the problems of our time. So tomorrow will be good. Here are all the previous articles.