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Surreality of Metaverse

Metaverse relies on the fact that an experience is an experience, whether real or virtual and has the same impact on the mind. Over the last few decades, the experiences generated by computers, artificial intelligence and the internet together have been successful in recreating and resembling real life experiences to ever greater degrees. Interactions between humans and computers have become richer and the richness has been transformed into addiction, with the result that human needs for human-to-human contact have been subjugated to the needs of computers to digitise everything including emotions

GOVIND BHATTACHARJEE | New Delhi |

The protracted lockdown forced upon us by Covid19 during the last two years has taught us and made us adapt to many novel things like online learning, online video conferences, online workplace and online entertainment.

It could be quite disorienting at times, bordering almost on the absurd and the bizarre. We humans have not evolved to explore our world that way, sitting at a desk, staring at a screen and beating at a keyboard, but through physical movements and touch by using our hands.

No wonder, at the slightest relaxation of the tough protocols people tend to throw all caution to the winds and resort to normal behaviour which is based on physical contact and face-to-face interaction without which the normal ebb and flow of life is impeded, and our existence takes on a dreamlike incongruity and illusion.

Mark Zuckerberg, whose company is in trouble at home and abroad for many reasons, not only rebranded Facebook as Meta Platforms, ostensibly to distract attention from its recurrent troubles with regulators and taxmen, now wants to take this surreality of our existence one step ahead, by promising to build a “Metaverse” ~ a virtual reality construct that will supplant the Internet, and merge virtual life with real life so as to create and satisfy endless imaginary possibilities for everyone.

Facebook has already created an unreal world where everyone is perpetually happy about sharing mutual happiness at the negligible cost of invading everyone’s private space and filling these with the most trivial details of one’s life to spread happiness in the Universe. The metaverse would be much more than augmented reality. Online communities started long back during the 1980s and then transmuted into social networks of today.

But metaverse would be a virtual gated community where Zuckerberg would be the gatekeeper to control and monitor all visitors, to analyse their preferences and then bombard them with advertisements to create unlimited wealth for himself. Instead of a Utopia as promised by him, it may well turn out to be a nightmarish dystopia in which our identity, privacy and liberty would get a new meaning altogether, a construct in which everyone contributes to create a reality that Zuckerberg solely owns, a Matrix that acts solely according to his wishes.

Apparently, and hopefully, it is still a work in progress and will remain so for quite some time to allow us to experience, cherish and remember what ‘real’ reality is like, before the distinction slowly starts getting blurred by virtual home, virtual gravity, virtual imagination and virtual conflicts.

Though the company has now abandoned facial recognition on its Facebook app, Metaverse would develop new ways to track people’s behaviour, physical movements and expressions to animate their avatars with real-world emotions to make and keep them permanently addicted to their virtual and augmented reality headsets, just like the gaming companies that create video games to keep our children permanently addicted to these perilous pursuits to earn profits.

Imagine what is being touted as Web3, a 3D construct to replace today’s 2D internet, powered by blockchain, cryptocurrencies and non-fungible tokens, as a much magnified version of Linden Lab’s hugely popular game Second Life where virtually one can not only go to live concerts, press conferences and attend college classes or even buy land, shop, and meet friends, but can do things that are physically impossible, like flying or getting teleported to anywhere in the world, and you get a sense of the unreality of this dystopian world.

The lure of earning endless profit by keeping people permanently addicted to this new age opium is too irresistible for others as well, as Microsoft and Nvidia, whose boss Jensen Huang equated it with “a virtual world that is a digital twin of ours”, have also joined the bandwagon. It is worrying because it might be a reality in the not-so-distant future and will create an all-consuming world of virtual reality to give us a wholesome immersive experience compared to which our realworld experiences may appear rather dull.

Metaverse, just like video games, relies on the fact that an experience is an experience, whether real or virtual and has the same impact on the mind. Over the last few decades, the experiences generated by computers, artificial intelligence and the internet together have been successful in recreating and resembling real-life experiences to ever greater degrees.

Interactions between humans and computers have become richer and the richness has been transformed into addiction, with the result that human needs for human-to-human contact have been subjugated to the needs of computers to digitise everything including emotions. As Microsoft engineer Alex Kipman has questioned, “Why don’t we ask technology to understand our world? How do we get digital technology to come out into our analogue space, as opposed to trying to get us into the digital space?” As long as the ilk of Zuckerberg, Satya Nadella and Huang exist, this is unlikely to happen.

The processing power required to transform the 2D internet into an immersive and networked 3D world may not be available right now, but it would only be a matter of time before the huge investments made by them would translate into reality to rob us even more of our real-world experiences of sight, sound, touch, smell and taste using our natural senses.

So far computers have not been able to go beyond sight and sound ~ would touch be the next in the 3D Web? In the metaverse, the virtual avatars of ourselves would become like real-life extensions of our own physical bodies, assume different personalities and exercise limitless virtual powers to defy all natural laws.

What internet is to websites, metaverse would be to the digital environment created by many interconnected virtual worlds. Though initially it might be less than the physical world, but with increasing sophistication, it may eventually supplant it in a way as to have a profound impact upon how societies, economies and governments function all over the world. The word “metaverse” is often traced to Neal Stephenson’s 1992 dystopic, cyberpunk novel Snow Crash, but it is not science fiction. Our real and virtual lives already have a large amount of overlap ~ with the help of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), the two worlds are increasingly becoming interwoven.

As Peter Allen Clark wrote in ‘Time’ magazine, Covid has made VR “less of a novelty and more of a quality-of-life tool”. Technology is perpetually evolving and as it evolves, its novelty wears out. Today we have LiDAR scanner ~ an AR-based tool integrated into new iPhones that can take a 3D scan of our surroundings and ARpowered wearable goggles that can add 3D images on top of the real-world environments to augment the user’s view; in ten years’ time, they will just be a pair of sunglasses with the power to bring the metaverse experiences.

Facebook, Microsoft and Samsung have already made millions of dollars through immersed VR. Metaverse will bring in a far larger overlap between our physical and digital worlds, promising richer experiences, more wealth, greater socialization, higher productivity, and better entertainment than are available presently. In that sense, metaverse is not even a new concept ~ in Second Life, we had 3D worlds, an economy, live events, workplaces and everything that simulated real life experiences.

Metaverse will be built by bringing together all the components which exist even today through the works of millions of creative individuals and companies. But make no mistake, there will not be any invisible hand of the market to allow free and fair competition and to ensure equitable distribution of the rewards – the gatekeepers like Zuckerberg will control everything and appropriate most of the profits. In real life today, we have cyborgs who, being aided by implants, have been able to overcome their physical disabilities to some extent. Now we will have a new generation of ‘metaborgs’ who will overcome all physical barriers and limitations of our mundane human existence.

They would be able to control the laws of physics and chemistry, and possibly even turn themselves into a mathematical equation, as Jarom Lanier, a virtual reality pioneer, has speculated, in order to gain the kind of “rapid body intelligence that’s possible”. Will it take us down a slippery slope where we are nudged to substitute the virtual for the real, where we can seamlessly flit in and out of the immersive virtual world to forget our real-world troubles? Will it redefine morality, aesthetics and even reality? Would we spend the rest of our lives just looking at our computer screens through glasses and interacting with it through headsets?

(The writer is a commentator, author and academic)