It’s cool summer evening in 2030, and my 16 year old daughter and I are walking our street, stargazing through augmented reality glasses. Above us, the majestic night sky is clear, layered with information about distant stars that are configured in constellations like Pegasus, whose legend I use to teach lessons about life. It’s a beautiful moment.
Further on, we pass a wooden fence marked with a litany of curses and insults. I see the graffiti through my glasses, but my daughter, whose glasses are adjusted to filter out inappropriate content, cannot see it. She also does not understand the cause of the restlessness written on the faces of people nearby.
I am excited about the first possibility, but worried about the second. While I appreciate the opportunity to protect my teen from inappropriate content, I also understand the importance of having meaningful conversations about why certain words and actions can harm others. It cannot happen if children never experience it.
We continue to walk and see a young homeless man begging in front of the store. Here, the role of parental controls is more obscure. Inadvertently or on purpose, an algorithm classifies her lying posture on the sidewalk, tattered clothes, and a note asking for money as inappropriate for children, and makes her appearance and surroundings more harmless. While modifying and structuring our experiences of the world may seem far-fetched, for years we have constantly learned the impact of similar algorithmic biases writing of what is shown to us online.
What would make my daughter ask questions about important societal issues like homelessness and empathize with those who experience it if in her world she never sees it? What if others, who prefer an “idealized” world, also choose these settings in their AR glasses? How can we have meaningful conversations about how to address these challenges if a large portion of the population is unaware of the true conditions in our community?
We are closer to dealing with these kinds of moral issues than you might think. Facebook plan now pursuing Mark Zuckerberg’s vision of moving from a social media company to a ‘metaverse company’ – and we have already seen an overview of what it might look like with Workrooms bringing a sense of presence and selected gestures. Media fragmentation and echo chambers have already shattered our shared reality. Left unchecked, the Metaverse can only make matters worse. It won’t be long before each of us is able to live in an entire world suited to our personalities, interests, and tastes, which can further erode our shared experiences and make a meaningful connection more difficult.
Collective experiences are essential to our ability to bond and cooperate. Much of the divide we see today is the product of our vivid digital realities. When we don’t have the same problems, it’s hard to come together to develop solutions and empathize with others. Filter bubbles are ultimately a problem of empathy.
The reality is that we already live in an almost endless number of realities online. A few moments after starting to browse, our web experiences diverge. We each see very different things depending on who we are, where we live, what content we consume. The things we love resurface over and over again in different forms, with each new iteration more alluring than the last. Ultimately, our online life is entirely our own, which can lead to selective and self-reinforcing worldviews – and therefore alternate realities.
Not only do many (if not most) of us still struggle to tell the difference between what is true and what is false, we often don’t realize that these experiences are heavily influenced by outside actors with a program, whether it is as mundane as selling a new product or as sinister as shaping political beliefs and sowing discord. The metaverse will apply this dynamic to real-world interactions.
Time and time again, when companies develop new technology, they rarely do so considering the possibility of adversaries. We saw it with baby monitors, TO THE, and of course social media platforms. The metaverse is not immune. It’s not hard to imagine infamous actors directly injecting extremist or toxic content into metaverse experiments.