Since Facebook changed its name to Meta in October 2021, it has revealed its goal to build a “metaverse.” This possibility makes me dubious, intrigued, indifferent, excited, irritated and even depressed. Today, I aim to explain what a metaverse is—and how it could affect health, social structures, economics, and ecosystems.
What is a metaverse?
A metaverse1 is a persistent, three-dimensional (3D) virtual place wherein visitors can interact. Because of virtual reality (VR) headsets, a 3D screen or projector, viewers perceive distances and depth—just like they can already experience proto-metaverses on a “flat” TV screen.
Commonly, metaverse visitors use an “avatar” to define how they look, move and talk. Users appear according to their preferences—not necessarily reality.
In reality, your body senses the world and interacts with it. In a metaverse, you need a virtual reality (VR) headset, a VR treadmill, in-hand controllers or motion trackers to reach an “immersive” illusion. Minecraft, an early version of metaverse, only requires a keyboard and screen to control your avatar, chat with others and build your own world. In the future, we will likely “feel” objects through “haptic” gloves or even full body suits. Holographic projections, VR glasses or even contact lenses will likely remove burdensome headsets.
Some metaverses accept digital currencies for buying and selling virtual (or real) goods. In real life, a title proves that you own a house or car. In the metaverse, a non-fungible token (NFT) stored in a digital safe called a “blockchain” proves ownership of objects.
Some metaverses blend real and virtual worlds. In augmented reality (AR), you see the real world with a virtual overlay of text, logos, directions, pictures, 3D objects, Pokemons or your boss’ face looking like a pig. With AR glasses, you could redecorate your home, walk around your neighbourhood in 1950 or see Pompeii during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
What is common to all metaverses is their “persistence”: after you shut down your VR headset or computer, the virtual “you” might remain… or virtual trees could grow on your street. If you’re unlucky, someone might rob your house and kill your avatar! (You might be notified on your real cell phone, and invited to pay to start a new “life.”)
To access the metaverse, you need the same infrastructure used to browse the web, post videos, send emails or pay bills online. The metaverse will not replace the Internet.
When nothing is for sale, the metaverse does not need blockchain. Some metaverses might accept bank cards. In that case, there’s no need to take out your virtual wallet of NFTs or crypto-currencies.
Origins and current state
The term “metaverse” was first coined by Neil T. Stephenson in his 1992 sci-fi novel Snow Crash. This visionary book describes a metaverse where people can escape from a real, corrupt world.
Ever since, a few basic metaverses have appeared. You, your friends, or children may have visited one of them: Second Life, Roblox, Minecraft, VRChat, Fortnite. In Meta’s Horizon Worlds, you can attend virtual events and chat with avatars.
Metaverses open new opportunities for corporations and small businesses. Much speculation is expected around metaverse “real” estate, especially if your neighbours are famous (in real life). Rapper Snoop Dogg’s virtual neighbour paid 450,000 real dollars for a metaverse property. Is this virtual owner insane or visionary?
Big tech and big money
Meta has already invested and lost over 9 billion USD in its own metaverse. Can you imagine the useful deeds that such a ridiculous amount could actually do? Why does big tech spend this kind of money?
What could possibly go wrong?
Because the metaverse needs to capture data about your position, speed, expressions, heart rate and brain waves, users’ data privacy is at high risk. Metaverses will only increase the amount and sensitivity of data that feeds surveillance capitalism.
In reality, metaverses’ VR/AR personal devices and data centers will require insane amounts of hardware and electricity to build and operate…while networks traffic humongous data (and data guzzles energy). Building modern electronic devices requires nearly 50 increasingly scarce and expensive metals. These cannot be extracted without impacts to ecosystems and indigenous communities.
Addiction to screens and video games is already a public health issue, and it’s increasing2. Younger and younger children show symptoms, including decreased ability to learn, concentrate and relate to the environment. In 2020, teenagers spent more time in front of screens than teachers. Undoubtedly, an immersive metaverse will lead to even more screen time.
Since accessing the metaverse requires a costly VR headset and a powerful computer, will its hazards be limited to the wealthy? Will teachers give students who don’t want to risk visual impairment the chance to decline VR experiences?
Toward a new monopoly?
Only few big tech actors have the financial capacity to build a metaverse. While Meta lost billions (and fired thousands of employees) it doesn’t appear to slow down its goal of building an immersive metaverse. Ultimately, customers could suffer from a lack of competition and much more.
The investing risk is huge for individuals and businesses that, for example, pay tens of thousands dollars for metaverse “land.” While physical land cannot disappear, virtual property is just data. It can disappear in the blink of an eye, perhaps because of a technical failure, a hacker’s attack or a metaverse platform going bankrupt.
In the metaverse, regulation does not exist. While a monkey plays a simple video game, a brain implant can predict its next move, thanks to Elon Musk’s Neuralink technology. Should we allow implants inside kids’ brains to make them faster players? Do we tolerate a technology that requires rare, non-renewable resources from the Earth’s crust, when so many people lack food, clean water and shelter?
How useful could it be?
A radio ad claims that surgeons can apply their skills in the metaverse. The cell phone industry claims that 5G will help surgeons to operate remotely. These are both false claims. VR and AR could indeed help train surgeons and many other professionals. However, actually, surgeons just need a VR device, training software and a connection, not a whole metaverse. Meanwhile, expect more false claims from corporations that run the technosphere. Some scientists speculate that the metaverse could strengthen public awareness and action about environmental issues, or that it could simulate complex climate change scenarios. Here, I can only disagree: climate models or VR applications do not need a metaverse.
Does the metaverse need 5G or 6G?
In February 2022, Interdigital’s white paper summarized 6G’s vision and linked it with the metaverse: “6G promises to blur the boundaries between the virtual and real spaces. The realization of the metaverse will rely on a widespread deployment of interconnected sensory networks, including cameras, photodiodes, inertial sensors, time-of-flight sensors, ambient sensors, and biometric sensors.” Why would anyone wearing a VR/AR headset or other sensors indoors need a 4G/5G/6G mobile network? Why not use wired technology? Fiber optics is faster, more reliable and more secure. If freedom of movement is really required, Wi-Fi or Wi-Gig can be used indoors and outdoors instead of mobile 4G, 5G or 6G. This is basic energy-saving and health-saving reality.
Similarities with 5G
Metaverse and 5/6G both require constructing massive infrastructures that will consume enormous amounts of energy—and yet they have very limited usefulness for individuals. Microchip shortages are just beginning. It is time to prioritize where non-renewable resources should go.
Rather than a metaverse, we need high-value digital services that require few extractions, little energy, minimal data, existing infrastructure and existing mobile phones and computers.
While our society reaches new heights of unsustainability, some corporations push artificial needs forward without regard for our civilization’s survival. 5G lobbyists have convinced the European Commission to make 5G mandatory in all member states. The European Commission shamelessly supports industry interests without regard for ecosystems or public health. How long will people tolerate living in an unregulated technocracy?
Unfolding Covid and 5G3 scandals (along with tobacco, asbestos, dieselgate and phonegate) show that we need independent regulation, not lobbyists’ influence. Technology must benefit all people, not a few shareholders, to create a sustainable society.
1Meta’s own description is much longer, more specific to their vision and commercial: The metaverse is a set of digital spaces, including immersive 3D experiences, that are all interconnected so you can easily move between them. It will let you do things you couldn't do in the physical world with people you can't physically be with. It will feel like a hybrid of today's online social experiences, sometimes expanded into three dimensions or projected into the physical world—and seamlessly stitched together so that you can easily jump from one thing to another.
2Two video resources (in French) Génération écran, génération malade (Arte TV), September 2020, L'addiction aux écrans : héroïne numérique, Envoyé Spécial, (France 2 TV), January 2018.
135G is unnecessary for individuals according to industry experts: a) William Webb, The 5G Myth, 3rd Edition, 2019 b) French Senate, translated audition of a mobile operator CEO Olivier Roussat : “(…) for customers, (5G will bring) the appearance of a five instead of four, which the customer will judge more effective by reflex. On the other hand, it will not change anything in the consumer's daily life (…). The speed, in fact, will not be really noticeable. (5G) is an operator interest, which is absolutely not perceived by the end consumer.”