Metaverse: Promise or Threat?

An Old Idea

Years ago I remember arguing that one of the problems of the internet was that it was too static, too predictable, and what we needed, especially those of us interested in the presentation of religion online, was a more immersive experience that went beyond what was then possible. The ‘informative’ web sites and forums were all very well but they failed to capture the essence of Christian belief and practice. We identified a particular difficulty in sharing the monastic experience with others. Romantic photos of buildings and individuals, accompanied by snippets of plainchant, were popular but didn’t contribute much to understanding. We did our best to address this difficulty with our online chapters, videos and podcasts, but it was still largely us broadcasting our view of life to others.

A Connected World

In the years since we have seen some remarkable developments. We may groan about Zoom meetings or live-streams, but the technologies available have made much more engagement possible for those who have neither the wealth nor the expertise to set things up for themselves. Now everyone is buzzing about the metaverse and the possibility of creating a parallel world of virtual reality which could reshape the entire internet — and I find myself hesitating.

Hesitations

The reason I hesitate is because I think there is a possibility of losing touch with reality and I am far from convinced the Churches have thought through the implications. By that, I don’t mean to oppose physical and virtual reality, which I see as equally ‘real’ though with different modes of being. I am thinking more of what I can best call moral reality. One of the striking aspects of life in the twenty-first century has been the privatisation of morality. If I think something is right, that entitles me to do pretty much anything in pursuance of my ideals or goals. I can murder someone because he or she is ‘wrong’ about something and ‘deserves’ to be eliminated; I can exalt my rights over your rights, on the roads or anywhere else I please. In short, I have become my own moral compass, unconstrained by the need to consider society or any other group. A virtual universe which we experience as ‘real’, which we can manipulate at will, is not without its dangers because it dispenses with many of the controls life usually imposes.

Once upon a time, people worried about video game violence and the blurring of the distinctions between violence on screen and violence off screen. Even after decades of research, no one seems entirely sure what effect it truly has. Part of the current debate about untrammelled violence following the murders of Jo Cox and David Amess has concentrated on the role of social media and the violent language used there and by our M.P.s themselves. The dignified, eirenical statement of the Amess family is a welcome reminder that the values of kindness and consideration are important to any civilized society, regardless of religious belief or affiliation. That it needed to be said is, however, sobering.

What Will the Churches Do?

Of course, as soon as one uses the word ‘civilized’, one begs a series of questions about what constitutes civilisation. For me, grounded in the Western Christian tradition, the answer is not difficult and includes a host of values that are shared with millions of other people. To someone else, with a different cultural heritage, such ideas and values may seem alien. What I am thinking about this morning, therefore, is how the Churches as multi-national institutions will respond to the challenge and opportunity offered by the development of the metaverse. Will they stand to one side, initially hostile or disapproving; or will they embrace the possibilities and allow them to enrich the experience they offer believers and non-believers alike? Maybe those of us preparing for Synod 2023 could add this to the list of matters we are thinking and praying about. Your thoughts on the subject would be welcome.

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11 thoughts on “Metaverse: Promise or Threat?”

  1. I appreciate your insights about the privatization of morality. Not only has it become privatized, but also politicized – at least here in the States. I found it interesting that at the end of 2020, a friend of mine posted the question on her Facebook page: “What is one of the biggest learnings you had this year?” I was amazed at the number of people who noted two things: how in many cases, people were beyond generous in caring for others. The other was more startling, and even more pronounced: people were amazed at how selfish and egocentric many other people were – often times, close friends. The tide of individualism continues to rise here in the US – though there seems to be more of an emphasis on “taking care of others” – at least politically – but even that faces push back.
    As for using the web, I do think you are quite right in the idea that churches need to use some wisdom in employing the web, and yes, things have come a far way. While I enjoy reading some of the articles in “The Tablet” on line, I would offer America Magazine, the Jesuit news magazine – as an example of using the web wisely. While the print edition has gone from a once a week publication, to a once monthly (and the quality in terms of production is much improved) America sends out at least daily updates to my mail box, has pod casts and has expanded their “digital platform” (whatever that means) in a wonderful way. Matt Malone, SJ, the editor in chief who is stepping down in 2023, has done a fantastic job of bringing the America Magazine into the 21st century.

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    • Thank you. The divide between selfishness and selflessness is becoming more pronounced in the UK, too, as though we were incapable of anything but extremes. Your observation about the politicisation of morality is very insightful and one I shall ponder. Like you, I appreciate the way in which the S.J.s are contributing to online engagement and the dissemination of trustworthy information.

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  2. I’ve just spent half an hour discovering what the metaverse is – or isn’t. I must be well out of touch.
    And then I reread the post.
    At first acquaintance it is indeed scary but then I thought about each new development in communication and your comment about the response of the church -and churches – is so true. I remember the moral outrage of Mrs Whitehouse, the index of those books that Catholics were not allowed to read, the dire warnings about wasting time on comics and the continuing panic about the amount of screen time that children (and adults) spend. In the end it all settles down and an equilibrium is reached. I suspect it will be real connection with real people which will prevail, however beguiling v r may be at first. I just hope and pray that those with a well developed morality will get involved in creating and directing rather that complaining and condemning and thus alienating those who might otherwise listen.

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  3. A very interesting view on the differing ways of connecting with ‘reality’.
    It seems to me to be a natural progression from the many historic examples of ‘alternative reality’; from the original video games, to being able now to enter into a computer game itself. A dangerous phase for those who cannot, or will not, live in the real world, which is the non computerised world.
    I’m wondering too if people rely too much on the internet and if too many processes are internet based already. A general breakdown of the computer system in any place of work leaves people twiddling their thumbs. No work can take place, no information can be retrieved, until the computers are up and running again.
    Computers seem to be doing what we need to do for ourselves, even replacing personal skills, like a hand written letter. Most importantly therefore, what would people do, or how would they use any skills that they had left, if computers failed wholesale? How would that affect people’s ability to live life in the real world?

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    • I think there is already a significant digital divide, inasmuch as not everyone has equal access to the online world — and that is not limited to those in the developing world. We have a lot of thinking and planning to do.

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      • Yes, I always get a funny look when I say I don’t have a computer… or a car! It’s a mindset based on personal experience, eg ‘If I have a computer/car then I presume everyone has a computer/car’. It’s a very limiting and naive concept of mankind, me thinks.

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  4. There is an interesting article in last week’s Tablet about “Outsiders” and the growth of conspiracy theories. It is depressing reading as there is a tendency for small group to take positions where “they” are absolutely right, and the establishment / churches / government / reality is absolutely wrong. E.g. Qanon’s belief that “things are not what they seem”. I am reminded of the Tower of Babel! Plus of course it is so much easier now to sound off something ill-tempered and send to Facebook / Twitter etc (and personally I have sent things I regret).

    But the internet and enhanced communication has also brought untold benefits – would Covid vaccines have been developed so quickly in the past I wonder?

    So the answer to the Metaverse – Promise or Threat is I think “Both” and it is up to each one of us to try and treat others in our communication as we would wish to be treated by others. And to prays for the gifts of the Holy Spirit – gentleness, compassion, in the metaverse/internet. Starting with ourselves.

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  5. About 6 years ago my employer at the time started experimenting with virtual workspaces for remote teams. Meeting were held in video game like meeting rooms, with attendees represented by avatars. The most noticeably annoying thing about it was how emersed people became in the virtual meetings, totally forgetting they were in large open plan offices as they shouted with excitement, clapped their hands, and jumped for joy in their seats. (I guess some of the meetings were more fun than my typical ones.) It became a sort of office bingo to see who would be embarrassed next, by a colleague tapping them on the shoulder and reminding then we could all hear and see their bit of the action.

    Teams, Zoom and suchlike don’t seem to have quite that same affect.

    So, there is probably some good aspects to wider use of more immersive Metaverses in other contexts, but… I totally agree that they seem to make people less self-aware of their immediate environment and impact of those under their noses. It seems a way to create ever more isolated echo chambers.

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  6. How refreshing is this respectful exchange of comments!

    As a recent immigrant to US from a developing country, and a young mother who plans to keep her infant son off screen for the first few years of his life, I got scared upon hearing the news of Facebook’s switch to Meta. I instantaneously conjured up thoughts of an even more intrusive advertising, intensified hostility, violence, and perspectivism to beset young and adult minds alike. So, then, I looked up perspectives on Metaverse from Catholics to allay my inordinate anxiety. Two practical things I am taking away from this space, and shall will to apply: prayer and cessation of mindless condemnation.

    Thank you all!

    Reply

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