Christians, Beware the Metaverse

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I try my best to temper my tech-skeptic instincts, but despite these efforts, I can’t help but consider all the worst possibilities of the coming “Metaverse.” In fact, the more I read about it, the more I think Christians should start preparing for it now, before we, along with our family and friends, are pulled into a life far from the one God created for us. 

For those unaware of this Metaverse, here are just a couple of recent updates.

This week, Facebook announced plans to change its name to “Meta” and rebrand itself as a Metaverse company rather than a social media company, betting its future on the importance of this development. Facebook/Meta also announced that it is hiring 10,000 people in Europe alone to advance this project. And Epic Games announced they are putting $1 billion toward building the Metaverse.

So, what exactly is this Metaverse? In short, it will be the new version of the internet. Experts say it will not exactly replace the internet, it will just absorb it and take it to the next level—the “Internet 3.0,” according to Ronke Babajide writing on Medium

Virtual reality and augmented reality will fully integrate with the world around us, they say, so we won’t need to look down at screens all the time (that part actually sounds pretty nice). If a friend wants to speak with us, we won’t have to read a text or an email or speak on the phone; a digital version of them—like a Princess Leia hologram in Star Wars—will emerge and simply tell you the message they wanted to deliver. If you’re hungry, maybe a character from your favorite show (whatever those will look like) would pop up and suggest you get something from the new restaurant down the street.

To navigate this world, each person will apparently need an avatar, a kind of digital representation of themself. If you think the world has gone crazy with navel-gazing Millennials self-actualizing by “identifying” as whatever feels right in the moment, wait until turning from a man to a woman (or a man to a rabbit) just takes a click of a button rather than surgery and hormones. 

This description is from the Oct. 22 Vanity Fair piece titled, “The Metaverse Is About to Change Everything:” 

…you could imagine wearing your digital avatar out in the real world, where other people who are wearing headsets see an augmented version of their reality, including you dressed up as your digital avatar, which could also change based on who is looking at you. Maybe you come across as a three-headed puppy with multicolored pigtails to your kids, but a professional in a suit to your coworkers. In this scenario, you could play a game of Pac-Man in the real world, running around trying to capture virtual coins that no one else can see, or evading multicolored ghosts who want to eat you alive. You could sit in a coffee shop in New York while a friend sits in a coffee shop in Paris, and both have a ‘real’ coffee together, even though you’re not in the same place.

The way you will be fed these images, sounds, and other input will, at least initially, be through headsets and glasses. Ray-Ban, in partnership with Facebook, has created Stories, a line of sunglasses that look just like their traditional lines but can do many of the things your smartphone allows you to do, like take videos, talk on the phone, listen to music, and post things to social media. Hear Mark Zuckerberg describe Ray-Ban Stories here. Zuckerberg is making these glasses, along with a program for business meetings called Horizon Workrooms—think Zoom meets virtual reality—as early efforts to contribute to this infrastructure. 

While a lot of the other early work for the Metaverse has been done by video-game companies, like Epic Games, Babajide says, “The Metaverse won’t be a game world. It’ll never ‘reset’ or ‘pause’ or ‘end,’ it’ll go on indefinitely like the real world. It’ll be synchronized with our real world and there will be no limit to the ‘users’ of this digital world.” 

This is what Zuckerberg said, too, in his comments about the Ray-Ban Stories: “You don’t have to choose between being on your device or being fully present. We believe that this is an important step on the road to developing the ultimate augmented reality glasses.… Imagine seeing holograms, turn-by-turn directions or being able to play chess on a table in front of you with your loved one 3,000 miles away, right from your glasses.”

As a chess player, and for so many other realms of life, this sounds amazing. But my problem (or, if I’m honest, one of many) is the first part about not having to decide whether to use your device or not because it’ll just be part of your continuous experience. At least with our current form of the internet, by choosing to look down at my screen, I am aware that the world on the screen and the world outside of the screen are two different realms. Some people may be addicted to their screens, so the choice isn’t fully voluntary, and other people may trust what they see on the screens too much, so it twists how they see the real world, but there is at least this choice and separation. 

But what happens when there is no choice to pull a device out of your pocket and look at that physical item? What if, as Babajide said, this mediated experience is fully immersive and never pauses or ends? Well, we should certainly make sure we trust whomever we give this power over our reality to. This is the power to edit our perceptions, and therefore thoughts, in real time. 

Maybe it’s not always on an important subject. For example, if I run out of ice cream, an advertiser would almost certainly be given some kind of access to that moment in order to sell me more ice cream. A cow could perhaps appear and ask if I want more Blue Bell chocolate-chip cookie dough. If I were obese, maybe my doctor or the Department of Health and Human Services would get to chime in too. Certainly invasive, but not entirely dystopian.

But on more serious topics, like voting and the moral and religious values we live by, how would the Metaverse augment (edit) our experiences? At the moment, Facebook, Google, Amazon, and the rest already edit which viewpoints are presented to us, and in what way. I’m highly dubious that they would cease doing so once the internet becomes the Metaverse. They would almost certainly continue to tell us which opinions are to be mocked and despised and which are to be approved and celebrated. 

The ways they would do this in a Metaverse would be much more subtle than the warnings we see on unapproved Facebook posts that get fact-checked or marked as “misinformation.” No, if somebody told us about Jesus or the importance of the nuclear family or anything else unapproved, the Metaverse would have a vast palette of distractions to throw in the way. Maybe a pretty woman would enter the digital room and give the young man attention. Maybe his favorite comedian would pop up with a new joke. It would be more like Cass Sunstein’s book Nudge than Machiavelli’s The Prince.

And we don’t have to wonder about what kind of values this Metaverse would want to reign supreme. The very nature of the thing reveals them—the medium is the message, as Marshall McLuhan once said. And this medium needs people who are, above all else, individuals. For these extremely customized worlds to work—with products, experiences, and interactions designed precisely for that person and their “self-actualizing” desires—any obstacles to expressive individualism must be cleared from the field.

Do you think the Metaverse would see a tight-knit family as helping or hindering this work? True friendship? Religion? Community? Even if the developers initially claim they can enhance these elements of life, the nature of a reality where each individual is god of their own custom universe is inherently destructive to the true purpose of those individuals, who were not created to be God but to serve God. Our second highest obligation after love of God is to love our spouse, children, friends, and community. A world that sidelines the centrality of these relationships—by filtering them through avatars, marketing, and superficial dopamine chasing—would very likely lead to what C.S. Lewis called the “Abolition of Man,” people who are no longer human. 

If Christians want to continue to live in the world God created and do the work He sent us to do, we must consider the risk in handing over the reins of our daily experiences to these forces. There are some forces that are too strong for most people’s wills to resist—like opioid or meth addictions. The “old” internet has been able to create multiple near-irresistible forces (social media, streaming pornography, video games, etc.). An enhanced, immersive super-internet would undoubtedly have the power to absorb entire lives into a world of distractions that people will not be strong enough to pull away from. 

Think of what the updated version of pornography would be like (or probably don’t) if the consumer is fully immersed in an experience indistinguishable from reality. Think of what the updated version of video games would be, with adventures far surpassing any previous generation’s imagination that you could disappear into for days. Think about what “social media” would mean if you can just enter each “friend’s” post as they travel to Portugal or snorkel in the Bahamas or attend a concert.

Before the Metaverse fully emerges (likely in the next decade), some serious prayerful discerning is necessary on whether, or to what degree, we should enter it. Because while we may gain an endlessly fascinating digital world, we could also lose our very real souls.

By

David Larson is an editor and/or writer for a number of publications and has a masters in theological studies from Spring Hill College. He lives in North Carolina with his wife and daughter.

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