Building our understanding of the Metaverse
We have a responsibility to shape a better future.
The evolution of the internet (web 1.0 + web 2.0) has provided us with a sense of fear as well as hope. The problems technology has solved and also created are multi-faceted, complex and dynamic. As the dawn of Web3.0 is upon us — NFTs, DAOs, DeFi, Blockchain technology and VR/AR/XR and allthings “the Metaverse”— the question is will its evolution continue to provide innovative solutions and will web 3.0 provide solutions to some of the global challenges we face?
Today, right now — we have the opportunity to guide and shape the future.
I work at the intersection of arts, culture, mental health, psychology and technology — because of this multi-disciplinary experience, I’m acutely aware that the field of virtual reality, which forms the basis for the Metaverse, utilizes terminology “borrowed” from psychology, mind/body wellness and mental health practices. Terminologies such as:
Embodiment, Presence, Immersion, Multi-sensory Integration, Interoception, Proprioception, Sense of Agency, Bodily Consciousness
“Tech leaders” of the Metaverse speak of presence, immersion, agency, ownership, integration, but I wonder if they know the original intention of these terms? The context of their use in virtual reality has now morphed to describe the abilities of technology to design and build synthetic, immersive virtual environments with increased and improved function and fidelity. Meanwhile these virtual environments are actually encouraging a sense of dis-embodiment, reduced presence, removal of agency in our organic, biological word. Indeed, somatic practitioners, body-based mental health practitioners, mind-body facilitators truly know the original intent of these words —
The Metaverse is the representation of possible worlds and therefore possible selves, with the aim of making them appear, and feel, as real as possible.
All the senses are implicated in the development of the body schema, including aural, haptic, gustatory, visual, olfactory, kinaesthetic, vestibular, and somatic sensory patterns. Vision provides optic information about the form of our bodies; the vestibular senses provide us with knowledge of the body’s positional relation to the environment; while the somatic senses provide us with tactile and positional information about the body in space.
The phenomenological philosopher Drew Leder has emphasized how the body tends to become within our conscious awareness mainly in times of illness, tiredness, or when there is difficulty in accomplishing a practical activity. In contrast, in our everyday activities, we are largely unaware of our bodies. Rather, we are engaged with and immersed in our various practical activities. On these occasions, we do not have to consciously think of how to walk, run, reach, grasp or other similar activities. Therefore, bodily awareness is precognitive for much of the time.
What are the implications on our authentic bodily awareness in the Metaverse?
Central to much of this research is the organizing principle of a body ‘schema’ or ‘scheme’. The body scheme is a well-established concept in the psychological sciences that refers to the implicit knowledge of the relational position of one’s body and its parts in space and time. The body schema is conceived of as dynamic and relational, being constantly restructured by the acquisition of new skills and movements. It is assumed that awareness (both conscious and unconscious) and movement of the body, enable the functional distinction between the nature of the physical body and that of our extended body in space. As such, the body scheme provides the basis for meaningful human interaction within the environment.
What is historically novel — creating not only new psychological risks but also introduces questions about the ethical and legal complexity caused — is the integration of the conscious and unconscious mind of a physical human beings into the digital Metaverse.
Our organic bodies and brains, have evolved under very specific conditions and over millions of years, now interwoven and informationally integrated into technical systems for representing possible realities. Increasingly, it is not only culturally and socially embedded but also shaped by a technological niche or “AI”, driven by autonomous dynamics and ever new properties. This creates a complex involution, a feedback loop or information flow in which the biological mind and AI influence each other in ways we are just beginning to understand. It is these complex relationships that makes it so important to think about the ethics of the Metaverse in a critical, evidence-based, and transparent manner.
So what am I trying to say? In summary — if we’re going to use the terminologies of embodiment, presence, immersion, multi-sensory integration, interoception, proprioception, sense of agency and ownership, in the context of the Metaverse and the technology that supports it. We must use these terms in their holistic sense as they relate to both the virtual and organic worlds to ensure the context of relational human interaction is understood in its entirety by not only humans, but the AI the Metaverse will build….
Nina Jane Patel, Kabuni Co-founder and VP of Metaverse Research, Movement Psychotherapist and doctoral scholar at University of Reading.
*Opinions are my own.