Environmental impact, addiction, personal data: the questions posed by metaverses

This article is published in collaboration with Binaire, the blog for understanding digital issues.
One often hears in discussions about metaverses statements such as "we shouldn't miss the train". Should we therefore launch into the metaverse only because others are doing it? What if they got into it for the wrong reasons, would we follow them blindly? Another question present in many minds: what would happen to us if we did not follow the movement?
The metaverse is the hope for some that virtual reality will finally find its flagship application for the general public, that what it allows today in particular contexts will become possible on a large scale, in more varied contexts: apprehension of complex situations, immersion in a task, training without consequence on the real world.

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What technologies are metaverses based on?

It is the hope for others of a diversification of online social interactions, of their passage to a larger scale, of their integration into a unifying environment. It is the hope that these new interactions will make it possible to (re)create links with people who are currently isolated.
It is also the hope of a new web also built by and for the benefit of its users, and not only that of commercial platforms.
It is finally – and probably above all, for its current promoters – the hope of the emergence of new economic behaviors, the hope of an online commerce revolution, the hope of significant financial results in the real world. .

What are we going to do in these metaverses?

"Prediction is very difficult, especially when it comes to the future." What will the metaverse be used for? Spiritual communities are already planning to gather there. We can bet that it will not take long for services for adults to develop there; we know that “the Internet is made for porn”. Beyond these risk-free bets, let's try to imagine what metaverses could allow…
Imagine a city center or a virtual shopping center whose stores allow you to access goods and services from the virtual world and the real world. How does it differ from today's online shopping? You could be assisted in the shops of the metaverse by virtual characters, avatars of human beings or artificial intelligences. You could go there accompanied. In the shops where, by passing from one to another, it would be possible for you to meet people you know (in the real or virtual world) and interact with them.
We could see uses of the metaverse develop in the field of health. Virtual reality has already been used for many years to treat cases of phobia and post-traumatic stress. These therapies are based on a gradual and controlled exposure by a caregiver to a digital representation of the object causing the phobia.

More questions than answers

Who can actually access it? It will undoubtedly require a "good" network connection and a high-performance terminal, but beyond that, won't the differences between the metaverse and the web introduce new barriers to entry, or new brakes? The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has established rules for this content accessibility to all users, including people with disabilities (WCAG). How long will it take for similar rules to be defined and enforced in the metaverse? On the web, there is no preferred location for a site, the notion of location having no meaning. In a virtual world partly based on a spatial metaphor, location will matter. We are already seeing large brands rushing to acquire space in the proto-metavers, and individuals paying high prices for “homes” close to those of stars. Who will be able to afford a good location for their virtual store in the future?
In France, ANSES – which has been studying the impact of digital technologies on health for several years – is likely to have work. New forms of harassment have also been reported in metaverses, which are particularly violent due to their immersive and real-time character. In response, Meta recently implemented a protective measure in Horizon World and Horizon Venues that prevents avatars from approaching closer than one meter away. Will other measures and regulations need to be put in place?
We have seen the development on the web and social networks of mechanisms for collecting personal data, targeted marketing, manipulation of content, misinformation, etc.
If it becomes the privileged place of our online activities and that these diversify, do we not risk exposing an even more important part of ourselves? If these activities are increasingly social, grouped together in a single universe and materialized (so to speak) through our avatars, will they not be observable by a greater number of actors? Will we have to juggle between different avatars so that our work colleagues do not recognize us during our nocturnal activities? Can we afford different avatars? What will be the equivalent of the advertising content currently pushed on the web? Significant and constraining changes to the virtual environment? "This shortcut to your group of friends allowing you to escape a tunnel of billboards is offered to you by Pizza Mario, the pizza you need" Will blockchain technologies allow you on the contrary to certify the authenticity of messages or experiences and prevent their alteration?
Who will regulate the metaverse? In the digital world, standards sometimes take time to establish and do not necessarily evolve very quickly. When it comes to technical standards, it's not a problem: the HTTP protocol remained frozen at version 1.1 from 1999 to 2014, and that did not prevent the development of the web. When it comes to regulating uses, behaviors, it can be more problematic. So far, we can rejoice or be sorry, the web sector has been poorly regulated. Those who define the rules are often the first players, who are in fact the first with the means to play, that is to say the major players on the web today. If tomorrow, part of our personal and professional activities take place in metaverses created by them on the basis of non-European hardware and software infrastructures, what will be the role and the relevance in these worlds of the European states? If these worlds are created by transcontinental collectives and self-managed by individuals, will the situation be more favorable to these states?
Finally, but this is not the least important, from a much more pragmatic and shorter-term point of view, one can question the relevance of embarking on the development of metaverses at a time when we are all already confronted with the consequences of our activities on the environment. Virtual tourism may help reduce our carbon footprint, but won't the ecological cost of implementing metaverses (virtual reality, broadband networks, blockchain, etc.) outweigh the savings? generated? The assessment must of course take into account the actual uses of metaverses, their usefulness and their positive impact on society.

To conclude

Neither hell nor paradise by construction, metaverses have both positive and negative facets, like many other technological innovations (such as artificial intelligence, for example). We tend to overestimate the impact of new technologies in the short term and underestimate their impact in the long term, it is the law of Amara. The metaverses as they are described to us will undoubtedly be difficult to implement. Nothing says that those who will try will succeed, that the environments produced will be massively used, that they will remain so in the long term or that we will be able to afford it (for environmental reasons, for example). Things being launched in any case and the announced investments amounting to billions of euros, we can at least hope that interesting things will result from these efforts and that we will know how to find a use for them.
So what to do? Remain passive, observe the attempts to implement metaverses by non-European actors, then use them as they may be delivered one day? Oppose it now, considering that the potential benefits are much lower than the risks? We propose an alternative path consisting of developing reflections on this subject and exploring in a controlled manner the possibilities opened up by the underlying technologies, in other words, playing an active role in trying to build virtuous approaches, even if it means abandon them – publicly explaining why – if they do not meet our expectations. We are convinced that an exploration carried out in a rigorous manner to assess the risks and benefits is clearly preferable to an a priori unsubstantiated rejection.
To read the long version of this article, go to Binary.

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