Is the metaverse really the future we want?

Written by Tom Greenwood - April 22, 2022

There’s been a lot of hype about the metaverse in the past few months since Facebook rebranded its parent company as Meta and announced that it was becoming a metaverse company. When I’m giving presentations about the future of the internet and sustainability these days, the metaverse is increasingly a topic that the audience wants to know about. 

The truth is that I think most of us, even those who work in the digital sector, are still trying to wrap our heads around exactly what the metaverse is, let alone what it means for society. But Mark Zuckerberg has told us that it’s the future, so unless we’re happy to let him decide the future for us, we better start paying attention.

In this post, I’ll try to clarify what the metaverse is, highlight the issues that I think we need to discuss as a society, and ask whether it’s really the future that we want. 

What is the metaverse?

The truth is that there doesn’t seem to be a single clear definition of the metaverse, but the concept originated in the 1992 science fiction novel Snow Crash and represented a future iteration of the internet as a universal, immersive digital world that is not limited to flat pixels on a screen but is much more immersive. 

People are now using “metaverse” as a buzzword to represent a huge variety of digital services from augmented reality apps to anything that uses a virtual reality headset. In practice though, it represents a space where we can do “real life” things in a digital version of reality. 

A key part of the metaverse concept is that it is device-independent and is not owned by a single vendor, just like the internet as we know it. Considering this, it’s interesting that there are already a lot of so-called “metaverses” that are entirely private and controlled by private companies. These early metaverses are nearly all in fact computer games, or in some cases, virtual gaming arcades where you can explore and play games. They are not really the metaverse, even if they have a lot of things in common.

These virtual reality world’s are almost certainly the future of the video game industry, but we’re being told that the metaverse is going to become a part of normal life. Are we really going to attend meetings wearing virtual reality headsets, go to work at a virtual office and see our friends and colleagues as 3D avatars hanging out in a virtual park?

The future of work, according to Meta, looks like a slightly creepy animated movie

Well, let’s just say that this really takes off and does become a normal part of most peoples work and social lives. What could the downsides be? 

Is the metaverse a betterverse?

Sorry, I couldn’t resist the cheesy heading!

I’m going to take a look at some of the risks I see in mass adoption of the metaverse concept in everyday life. I’m aware that I might sound like a luddite, but I’m all in favour of new technology in places where it can truly benefit society. The metaverse however, seems to offer very few tangible benefits while bringing with it a number of very serious risks. Here are my main concerns:

Big tech controlling reality 

If a true metaverse is going to be developed as a single digital world then just like the internet, theoretically, it should be open and provide a universal technology that anyone can interact with and build content for. Meta (aka Facebook) says on its website that “The metaverse isn’t a single product one company can build alone. Just like the internet, the metaverse exists whether Facebook is there or not.”

This might be the case, but with company’s like Meta leading the charge, we have to ask whether they can really be trusted to shape this future digital world in a way that is best for society rather than in a way that serves their own interests.

Even on the regular old internet as we know it, we are increasingly seeing big tech shape reality, through various forms of censorship of information, through the promotion or demotion of content and by increasingly herding people away from the open “web” towards closed online platforms controlled by big tech. Not to mention their terrible track record in respecting people’s privacy.

They already have unprecedented power to shape our perception of reality, even to the point that they can influence democratic elections. What could the consequences be if we let them take us out of reality itself and into a virtual reality of their own creation? 

Degrading physical health

We all already spend too much time on the internet. The simple truth is that we have not evolved to look at screens made of pixels and tap away on little keyboards. The human body is incredibly adaptable and resilient, but the more time we spend doing things that we have not evolved to do, the more strain we put on our bodies, our minds and our senses, particularly our eyesight.

Now, I will concede that advances in technology have the potential to free us from our desks, allow us to move more throughout our days and communicate in more natural ways than typing, and I’m optimistic that this will happen. 

Where can I get a glass of water in here?

However, I don’t think that the metaverse itself is specifically offering us this. The metaverse as a concept is potentially more likely to have us lose ourselves in a virtual world where we forget our bodies, move even less, and ignore our basic physical needs like drinking water and going to the loo. And surely, staring at digital screens just centimetres away from our eyeballs is a recipe for accelerating an epidemic of declining eyesight. If we want to live long and healthy lives, I would argue that we need to be more present in the real world. The metaverse will take us in the wrong direction and contribute to the degrading health of society.

Burdening mental health 

Perhaps of even greater concern than impacts to our physical health is the potential impact on mental health. It’s now clear that digital technology, particularly social media, can be extremely damaging to our mental health. 

The metaverse offers to make our digital lives even more immersive, blurring the boundaries between reality and virtual reality. Not only is it mentally exhausting to constantly process the abstraction of living in two separate yet overlapping worlds, but the risks to mental health from social pressures, trolling and the constant promotion of consumerism are likely to amp up the mental health challenges far beyond what we have seen so far.

Add to this the fact that good mental health requires us to spend quality time connecting with other humans in person and spending time in nature, soothing all of our senses. The metaverse poses the risk that we’ll spend less time giving our minds the things they truly need and substitute them for inferior digital replacements.

Our ability to communicate will also be greatly hampered. It is not an accident that humans have more facial muscles than any other primate. Our ability to communicate subtle cues through our body language and facial expressions is a part of what makes us human and is central to our ability to function well as individuals and as communities. The crude avatars that we might become in the metaverse will never come anywhere close to what nature has already perfected. What might this do to our own emotional and social development, not to mention the functioning of our societies?

We owe it to ourselves to be wary of the mental health risks and learn from the past, not to blindly assume that this time everything will be different.

Accelerating climate change

I’ve spoken a lot about the environmental impact of digital technology. The latest report from researchers at Lancaster University estimated that the internet (in all its parts) produces 2.1-3.9% of all greenhouse gas emissions globally. Considering that global aviation produces 2.1%. We also produce roughly 50 million tonnes of electronic waste every year globally.

We urgently need to reduce the energy consumption of digital services and reduce the need to constantly upgrade to the latest computer hardware. A growing number of people like our team here at Wholegrain are working hard to make this happen, but the metaverse threatens to take us in the opposite direction.

An artists impression of Meta’s new data center in Zeewolde, Netherlands. It is estimated to consume 10% of the whole country’s wind power capacity.

Rendering 3D worlds in real time will require billions of new electronic devices and far more computing power (and therefore energy) than rendering flat web pages or even rendering ordinary video. That’s part of the reason why the metaverse hasn’t happened until now, because we didn’t have the computing power. If the metaverse becomes widely adopted in a way that replaces many of our simpler, more efficient digital technologies, the increase in energy required will be enormous. 

Some advocates of the metaverse argue that technologists will find ways to make this much more efficient in years to come, and no doubt this will be true. However, it will inherently always be far less efficient than less immersive experiences and as a result it will slow or halt our ability to reduce energy consumption of the internet as a whole. It’s a classic example of Jevon’s paradox, that as we make things more efficient, we find inventive new ways to consume even more of them. As we make computer technology more efficient, the metaverse is just the latest way of us consuming all of the efficiency gains that we’ve made.

Furthermore, I believe that one of the biggest barriers to solving the ecological crisis is our disconnection from nature. If as a society we retreat further away from nature, immersing ourselves in digital fantasy lands where we don’t need to observe the wonders and complexities of nature, the chances of us adapting to a sustainable future will significantly reduce. 

The metaverse might be a virtual world, but it poses a very real threat to the viability of the real world in which we all exist. 

Is this the future we want?

I often say that we should apply minimalist thinking to every aspect of a digital project, and one of the easiest ways to start this thinking is by asking “Do we really need this?”. We can ask this question about content, design features, images, video and lines of code, but we can also ask it about projects and technologies themselves.

So when contemplating the advent of the metaverse, we must ask whether we really need it? Just because Zuckerberg & Co have decided that this is our future, doesn’t mean it must be so. We have the opportunity and the right to decide what type of future we want, and to stand up for a future that is good for us as human beings and as a society.

It may well be the case that virtual reality will become commonplace in video gaming and that there will be some useful practical applications that emerge from virtual reality tech more broadly. However, when it comes to the metaverse in a true sense, as a single digital reality where we work, rest and play, I think we should stop and think before we dive head first into the VR headset.