07.12.2021 change 07.12.2021

Zuckerberg’s vision of a metaverse can ‘increase self-esteem problems’, says University of Lodz professor

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Following Mark Zuckerberg’s vision of an augmented and virtual reality metaverse of the future, Dr. Marta R. Jabłońska, from the Faculty of Economics and Sociology at the University of Lodz talks to PAP about the potential threats from the metaverse, but says there are positives too.

PAP: Have you seen Mark Zuckerberg's metaverse presentation? What do you think about this technology?

Dr. Marta R. Jabłońska: I do not judge any technology in black and white. We are dealing here with factors of both types, enriched with a whole palette of subtle shades of grey. The first associations that came to my mind concerned the intensification of an already fairly strong immersion in cyberspace, digging deeper into it. There is also the disinhibition effect that occurs on the web. But let's also look at the positive sides, such as the possibility of remote work and socialization, be it during a pandemic or for people with disabilities.

PAP: The creators of the metaverse praise their idea, so let's talk about the dangers. You mentioned the phenomenon of disinhibition. What is it exactly?

MJ: The concept was introduced in the beginning of this millennium by psychology professor John Suler. The phenomenon has two sides - a positive and a negative one. When it comes to the former, the freedom experienced online allows you to feel a bit more confident and thus become interested in things that you usually do not have access to, or talk about them, because, for example, shyness prevents you from doing that in the real world. However, freedom can also turn into a sense of impunity and thus pose a threat to one's self and others. There are several factors at play here, such as anonymity, invisibility, delayed response, solipsistic introjection, and neutralization of social status. Put simply, we feel unrecognisable, hidden behind a safe screen, we can react when we feel like it and not be concerned about the other party's reaction. This reality seems to be something untrue that only happens in your head, not in the world, and finally, you feel equal, free of authority and social status. This mixture can turn out to be explosive. You are ready to endanger others without feeling that you are hurting someone, that there is a real person on the other side who may be suffering, perhaps having suicidal thoughts. Virtual reality can escalate the disinhibition effect if someone disguises themselves with an avatar or even impersonates someone else.

When talking about the dangers of the metaverse, two other potential types of exclusion should be mentioned. The first, already widely discussed in the context of social media, is FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), the fear of being left behind, not being up to date with the events taking place on these media. The metaverse may be another solution in which some will participate just to 'be up to date'. The second exclusion is the digital and information exclusion due to unequal access to IT services. If the metaverse becomes extremely popular at some point, those digitally excluded could feel it even more strongly.

PAP: There has been hate on the web for a long time, sometimes with tragic consequences, and we are dealing mainly with words. What if, for example, there are attacks in virtual reality? The body will not be in danger, of course, but emotional responses can be strong.

MJ: Of course, deeper immersion can also deepen the experiences, make them more real, so the body's reactions can also intensify. But, for example, research on aggression in games yields various results. I think a lot will depend on the specific user.

PAP: Will the immersion you mentioned also make all stimuli stronger and our brains unable to cope well with them?

MJ: All contemporary technology and civilization develops faster than the human evolution does. You could probably say that evolutionarily we have not changed much in the last few hundred years, while the progress of the world is amazing. We adapt to the pace of life and the requirements of the world, but does it not affect our health? We live in times of excessive consumption and overload of information. Often we are over-stimulated, we have the impression that we burn out quickly. But the influence of metaverse and virtual worlds on the psyche will also depend on how and how often we will use these technologies, and on individual psychological traits. I believe that we are able to adapt to the metaverse, just like we have adapted to the Internet or remote work, but it is difficult to predict all its effects.

PAP: The importance of personal predispositions may indicate that if someone has a problem with overusing the Internet today, it can be even worse with the metaverse...

MJ: This can not be ruled out. New technology can contribute to the increasing severity of such problems. But it is also possible that it will not become so popular and will not have such a large impact on many people, just like VR goggles did not. In addition, it is not only cyberspace affecting us, we also affect it and we decide to what extent and how we will use it. The cyberspace itself will not mess with your head, as long as you do not lose control over your behaviours.

PAP: Some experts point out that already today some services, such as dating sites and apps, manipulate users to maximise the time spent there and pay as much as possible for additional options. I imagine we can also expect that in meta-world.

MJ: This is a matter of marketing. Indeed, there are all the entire departments of neuromarketing, which tells how to influence your brain so that you follow the stimuli without being fully aware of it. The way you use new technology will be up to you, but it is hard to say at this point whether you will be aware of these mechanisms and how they affect you. It will be a completely new form of interaction with cyberspace.

PAP: Won't the real world start to seem grey and boring because of particularly interesting experiences and intense stimuli?

MJ: Some people have a problem with compulsive use of the Internet because they find many attractive stimuli online. Take online shopping, for example. The Internet is a great place to create such disorders. In virtual reality, immersion will also be an important factor. Imagine a person who is dissatisfied with their appearance or the opposite - a strongly narcissistic person focused on their appearance. These people, for different various reasons, can spend a lot of time online to create an avatar that will be perfect in every respect. This temptation can be stronger in the virtual world that will become closer to ideal, more interesting and attractive than the real world. But I do not think that the real world will seem boring to everyone. The degree of introduction and reception of technology in society may vary. This is also the first technology that can have this effect.

PAP: There will be no restrictions in the digital world. You will be able to drive 300 km/h and do many other things. Is there a risk that habits acquired in VR are transferred to real life to some extent and someone, for example, starts to drive too dangerously?

MJ: These are quite extreme examples, but it can not be ruled out that the rules of VR and reality can blur to some extent in the case of persons deeply immersed in the virtual world. The metaverse is not the first to introduce VR and so far there was no revolution in society. I have seen costumes for children with warnings that a Superman costume does not make you capable of flying, and they had nothing to do with VR. It is impossible to predict whether the perception of rules in both worlds will be a strongly blurred. I would rather expect a different type of change. There may be problems with socialization, dialogue, expression of one's own body or reading body language of others. Such problems are already recorded with the increased role of cyberspace in everyday life. In the film Surrogates, people live through remotely controlled androids, and treat their own bodies instrumentally, almost only as tools to operate these androids. One can wonder if excessive immersion in a virtual world will not lead to a similar preference for an ideal artificial version over the real, physical 'I'.

PAP: Will there be transition problems? After a long-hour session in the digital world and taking off the goggles, it can be difficult to mentally return to reality.

MJ: These situations can happen. A journalist carried out an experiment, in which she spent 24 hours in virtual reality. She later recorded symptoms such as headaches and vision disorders. But I think that the same thing can happen when someone spends too much time in front of the screen. Although goggles can, of course, intensify such problems.

PAP: What other consequences can such a long time spent in the metaverse have?

MJ: I think that we should also mention personal data. VR goggles and accompanying hand-held devices give new opportunities to monitor your online activity, and thus access different type of new data. It will be possible to monitor, for example, how you move, in which direction you look and for how long, what interests you and with whom you spend time. Thanks to this, it will be possible to even more strongly influence your subconscious and create messages that will be even more difficult to resist.

PAP: This sounds a bit scary

MJ: Every technology has its dangers, but there are also chances that we will get something good from the metaverse. I would prefer to avoid binary thinking. The metaverse has a chance to create a new plane of interaction in cyberspace. This is not a completely new concept, but Zuckerberg has a chance to actually make it popular. In addition to the threats I have already mentioned, the virtual metaverse world can give a new depth to social relations in the digital world. They can create a greater sense of community, proximity, contact with another person compared to today's chats, communicators or videoconferencing. This solution can be beneficial not only during lockdowns, but also for people with limited mobility, the sick, the old, people who spend time apart from each other. It also means new opportunities and challenges for companies and their methods of marketing communication and building relationships with the clients. The metaverse can also bring new values to education. This is certainly an interesting technology worth watching. 

Dr. Marta R. Jabłońska is a doctor of economic sciences in the field of management sciences, and assistant professor at the Faculty of Economics and Sociology, University of Lodz. (PAP)

Marek Matacz

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