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What the pandemic tells us about the metaverse

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

It’s a common refrain, the ultimate pitch point on the benefit of the metaverse idea that is meant to make us all buy in and tag along; the metaverse will bring humans closer and deepen our relationships. Zuckerberg said as well that it will help people “feel present with the people we care about.” We’ll all be fine wearing glasses and spending endless hours in an alternate reality and humans will get along and forge these amazing new societies and cultures. In reading articles and comments around the metaverse, one thing is quite apparent. None of these people understand human social behaviours, cultural elements of societies or basic human psychology. It’s hammer/nail time on steroids. They should look at the pandemic.

As a digital (cultural) anthropologist, I study the intersection of humans, technology, culture and social behaviours. I use this for UX strategies for companies building digital products and services. I help organisations build digital strategies to engage from a human-centric perspective rather than just a “user”. So I see a lot of how humans engage with technology and the views of how they will with the metaverse ignores everything about human social behaviours and cultures. I’m not averse to the metaverse, but we should temper expectations beyond the hype and not discount the humans who will be using it.

Despite the rapid spread of omicron, many school jurisdictions are putting kids back into classrooms. Some are delaying, but not by much. Why? Virtual learning as a consistent methodology has not worked as planned. A recent study (here), but Jess Whitley, Ph.D.of University of Ottawa and Miriam H. Beauchamp, Ph.D. of the Royal Society of Canada showed that extended periods of online learning lead to depression, social anxieties, exacerbation of chronic health issues and family disruptions. There are other studies showing similar results.

Adults have spent endless hours on Zoom, Teams, Google Meet and other video meeting apps. Often, many report times of their brain seeming to do a quick shut off. This is called an “attentional blink”, where your brain literally does shut off for a millisecond to reset itself. Why? Because of the way it processes information. It has to reset. Unlike computers, brains do not have multiple processors. It’s why humans can’t multitask, despite the common myth. We get eyestrain and headaches and feel mentally exhausted at the end of the day. Many workers want to go back to office in various formats, some full time, others a day or two a week. Point is, they want to be able to go to a physical space. Why?

Humans are highly social animals. In the technology world we can use text (language), voice (also language), images and video quite well. What doesn’t work so well? Non-verbal cues. And non-verbal cures account for over 70% to 90% of our communication with one another. The subtle shifts in eye movement and facial expressions, movement of legs, arms and shoulder shrugs. And scent. How we move when next to another person. All these send information to us that shapes how we think, engage and react. We are extremely far from any technology that can replicate our subtly body movements. We would have to literally be covered in sensors. Communication to servers would have to be instantaneous with a neural connection and an AI engine that deeply understands an individual (as if that isn’t fcreepy enough!). This is economically unlikely, let alone technically.

From a cultural perspective, it is also highly unlikely strong, meaningful cultural elements can be established that last for any sustained period. I research cultural behaviours of groups online, have done for over a decade. One key thing about online social groups? They’re highly amorphous. They shift constantly. A few may engage over a period of several years, but even group founder(s) will move away after a few years. More than 3 years is unusual. Online groups are very shallow in terms of culture, reciprocity is information and that often has a lifespan and so its value is limited.

Social media was supposed to bring us closer together. That was also the message of Zuckerberg in the early days of Facebook, so was Twitter and others. So far, it has helped foster political polarization and been a great benefit to authoritarian governments to monitor their own societies. Social media has great benefits, but it also has some powerful downsides. Eventually, as we evolve cultural norms and social behaviour rules, regulations/laws and etiquette, social media will get better. When? Who knows.

The metaverse, if it should ever come to be and if it does, any experienced technologist who’s honest, will tell you that it won’t be the way we think it is today. It does offer some compelling benefits such as virtual healthcare, amazing games, a reward system such as Social Tokens to reward creators, interesting new ways to collaborate and the opportunity to test new ways to connect with technology. But it will not bring humans as a global society, that much closer.

The pandemic has taught us the limitations of humans with screens and alternate realities, the impacts of sustained digital technology use on child and adult psyche. That the metaverse should be any different is to disregard everything we know about human social and cultural behaviours and expect an instant change from millions of years of evolution by putting on a set of VR goggles. Humans did not just decide to climb down from the trees, stand up on two legs and start walking one fine sunny day.



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