Since Meta, aka Facebook, announced its plans for the metaverse, I've used the phrase "wild west" more than once to describe it. New investigations show, however, that it's going to be much worse than that, especially for our children.
A report this week for Channel 4's Dispatches programme features an undercover journalist who is "disguised" in the metaverse as a 13-year-old. The report paints a despicable picture of malicious and extreme racial slurs, simulated sex acts and blatant discussion about sex acts, all purveyed in front of children.
Thirteen is supposedly the minimum age for creating a Facebook account and therefore accessing the metaverse - although proof-of-age procedures are minimal. But the Dispatches report suggests that no sane parent will want their 13-year-old anywhere near this metaverse.
The metaverse idea isn't a new one. It's been around for a while, though as its new brand name suggests, Meta (aka Facebook) would love to claim to have invented it. The metaverse idea essentially means a much more immersive version of the internet.
The metaverse has also been imagined as a unifying application of the entire internet, drawing together all things digital, from AI to cyber currencies, games, augmented reality and more.
Meta's role in its version of the metaverse already stretches way beyond that of a communications platform provider. Meta will make big money not only from the collection and analysis of users' data - and sale of same to marketers - but it will also profit from sales of its Oculus Quest 2 headset. This is currently one of the more prominent vehicles for engaging Meta's alternative universe. Eight million have been sold so far.
For young people, this virtual reality multiverse will not be all high-tech bells and whistles. It will create real dangers - in the form of sexual abuse, financial scams and harmful social interactions.
Already, other reports are emerging of children being given access to virtual strip clubs and adults experiencing virtual sexual assault, including gang assault. Granted, the abusers and their victims exist only in avatar form and the assault is virtual. However, for the victims, this does little to reduce the psychological impact of the violent intent - and the feelings of vulnerability it inspires. Victims are aware that every avatar represents a human being who has chosen to behave in this way.
An added cause for concern is the fact that VR digital technologies are becoming increasingly haptic. Technologists are working to achieve fully haptic experiences online - that is, experiences that fool all of our senses, not just sight and sound. Researchers have been working for some time on ways to convert smell and taste into transmittable digital signals.
This will increase our ability to lose ourselves in online environments, but it will also boost the impact of negative experiences such as virtual sexual assault. The psychological impacts of this type of attack on young teens or children are incalculable. And many of these assaults result from people responding via simple dating apps. Imagine how many other forms of app might eventually be misused in this way.
Meta claims that it will protect the young in the alternative universe. But if BigTech can't protect young people from the many unscrupulous, bullying and even violent users of today's relatively static internet, how will they regulate behaviour in the untamed metaverse?
VR-based attacks leave a permanent psychological mark on the perpetrators, too. They potentially create a bias toward engaging in short-lived, egocentric and manipulative sexual encounters.
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