The Metaverse’s Socio-Ethical Challenges
: Is Metaverse the egalitarian utopia we've been hoping for? Its inherent decentralization, freedom, and unknownness would imply this. The reality, however, is a little more complicated. Nothing in life is perfect, including the Metaverse.
Let’s delve into this specific territory to investigate some of the ethical concerns associated with the Metaverse. Sure, it may seem unpleasant to discuss, but it is a necessary discussion if we are to progress in our quest to create an accessible, unified virtual world.
The Metaverse’s System-Related Ethical Issues
Use of Personal Data
Protecting our true identity is now an essential security measure when our personal data is exposed to the network. In the case of the Metaverse, there is still insufficient evidence indicating the extent to which our data is being collected, where it will be stored, or for what purposes it will be used.
We know that technology can now capture our biometric and physiological data to improve our Metaverse experience. Nonetheless, this data is generated unknowingly, creating grey areas when it comes to ethical issues.
Inequalities in Access to the Metaverse Based on Socioeconomic Status
Technology is a critical driver of economic development. Unfortunately, it also introduces a new level of socioeconomic inequity. The Metaverse has the potential to significantly widen the digital divide, which refers to the gap between those who have access to modern information technology and those who do not.
While new information technologies can help to close the gap and serve as a bridge, they can also exacerbate inequality. More than 30% of the population did not have Internet access in January 2022, according to reports. This results in an uneven distribution of the world’s population online, which translates into the Metaverse.
So, unfortunately, there is a chance that the Metaverse will widen the global inequality gap due to the lack of access experienced by a large portion of the world’s population. However, advancements in this area point to promising future developments. Access to the Internet increased from less than half of the population in 2018 to 62.5% in 2022. So, while we cannot deny the existence of a gap, it is closing.
Monopolization vs. Decentralization
The Metaverse is envisioned as a land of social equality. As a natural state in which people are free of material-world obligations and real-life societal pressures. The concept of escaping the real world is a coping mechanism used by modern people to break free from the neoliberal-capitalistic world and its materialistic impetus. After all, the development of the concept of a Metaverse began as a niche thing. It was born completely outside of the mainstream. Today, industry titans are starting to see the Metaverse as a way to expand their symbolic dominance and increase their profits from digital sources.
Some see this as an attempt to monopolize the Metaverse and shift the digital world into yet another commodity for the hungry market. They accomplish this by grasping the narrative and gradually expanding their brand’s visibility into the virtual worlds, almost colonizing the digi-land for their own financial gain.
This attempt contradicts the Metaverse’s decentralized spirit, which raises another ethical question: do industry titans have the right to claim virtual worlds as their own playgrounds? The answer is hidden in the formulation, as the concept of decentralization is the Metaverse’s pillar. People own digital technologies and virtual worlds just as much as industries do, and people should have the right to be free of the tyrants of centralization in digital spaces.
Potential Metaverse In-Platform Ethics Issues
The Issue of Identity
On the Metaverse, anyone can use any avatar to create their identity, as creative freedom is unbounded. On the one hand, this could provide an unprecedented opportunity: you could finally be the person you’ve always wanted to be. However, this liberty has also raised some ethical concerns. This fundamental issue was described by scholar Lisa Nakamura. According to Nakamura, choosing an avatar that is not an extension of your identity—ethnically, sexually, or otherwise—increases the likelihood of falling into the identity tourism trap. However, what are the negative consequences of this? Identity tourism is risky because users are only interested in the exotic aspect of using that avatar and are unaware of the difficulties of being a racial minority.
Yes, experimenting with identities through online avatars can foster empathy and help to reduce discrimination, but there is an ethical line to walk, and the fact that not everyone may be able to tell them apart is concerning. If users can maintain the core values that the Metaverse represents, such as unity and equality, the line should be left alone. Nonetheless, it is difficult to dismiss these ethical concerns.
People have the freedom of creative expression to choose between avatars regardless of their background, but not all avatars are in demand. According to research, users prefer dark-skinned and female avatars, raising concerns about racial and gender representation in the Metaverse, which may also be related to a lack of access for certain populations.
Discrimination based on race and gender is unfortunately not new to our vocabulary. In an environment where individuals are free to choose what their avatar should look like, the decision can be based on unintentional, inherent colorism and sexism, which endangers Metaverse representation, especially when combined with the aforementioned unequal access. Furthermore, brands may be able to avoid adhering to the diversity agenda that many are required to follow in real life. This fact has two possible consequences.
Brands can abandon this strategy and only hire a specific type of visual on the Metaverse. This is harmful to the Metaverse’s balanced representation and contradicts its own values. The second possibility is potentially more dangerous because brands can use the Metaverse to mask their true intentions of not following true equality policies in real life. The Metaverse can be used to conceal their lack of diversity policy implementations, which could seriously harm society and all the progress that many before us have fought for. The presence of ethical concerns does not necessarily imply that the subject under consideration is flawed inherently. On the contrary, ethical issues are stated to be considered and learned from in order to improve our online and offline living experiences. The majority of the ethical concerns raised here also apply to non-digital life.
As a result, they are not new problems; they simply reflect society as it is. In the grand scheme of things, ethical issues have existed for centuries, and humanity has only recently addressed many of them with efforts to solve them. We believe that the Metaverse can provide people with a new perspective on the ethical issues that we face. We believe it is possible to learn from mistakes and co-create the future.