Metaverse For Good
As technology advances into 3D, can we create a better version of the world in virtual reality and harness the power of new technologies to positively impact the planet? Isobel Diamond explores the ethical implications of Web3 and the metaverse.
How would you like to buy the Eiffel Tower, and place it on your very own “land”, or glide across the Gobi desert by helicopter; how about climbing Machu Picchu, or meeting a community in flood-ridden Pakistan to understand their plight, all without ever leaving your couch? Lightning-speed advancements in consumer technology, means adventures like these could soon be a – virtual – reality. The metaverse is coming, and it could transform how we engage with the world, and each other. But could it also make us a better, more ethical society, encourage empathy, and help us solve global challenges, from climate change to migration?
Firstly, what exactly is the metaverse?
From the rise of Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, gaming and esports, technological innovations are rapidly evolving. And the innovators paving the way are now experimenting with the potential of 3D technologies to tell stories, connect communities and recreate physical experiences in virtual dimensions.
First up though, what exactly is the metaverse? In short, it’s part of Web3, a 3D version of the internet, and a progression from the first iterations of computerised text-based communication – an email – that quickly moved to images, then videos, to the stage we’re now stepping into – a 3D version of everything, potentially. Web3 is about community-building and conversation. It’s the next step in our digital evolution, from passively scrolling through a feed, to living a virtual life via an avatar (a 3D digital character), as a headset and camera replaces the keyboard as the main mode of navigation.
Of course, for anyone following metaverse progression, they will know the infrastructure is complex, from NFTs (non-fungible tokens) that enable products to be traded virtually, to the development of virtual worlds where communities can interact.
Land and assets are being bought right now in Decentraland and brands like Adidas and Warner Music Group are setting their stall within The Sandbox, a virtual world where Paris Hilton’s mansion is hosting parties for her virtual tribe. When the metaverse goes mainstream, people will use their virtual wallets and NFTs to communicate who they are, through their spending habits. So will businesses step up to ensure there are ethical choices and products available virtually?
Charities are already entering the gaming space. Inside the game Grand Theft Auto, Los Santos was created as an immersive replica of Los Angeles, where Greenpeace showed the impact of rising global temperatures, through exposing players to heat, drought, air pollution and economic crisis. It led to a 40% increase in donations for Greenpeace as people dealt with the challenges of climate change through gamification.
Signals that the metaverse and emerging technologies can raise awareness of real-world issues and help humans empathise are there. ‘Backup Ukraine’ was the second highest awarded work at this year’s Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. Shedding light on the war in Ukraine, it provided Ukrainian people with a mobile phone tool, which scans monuments and cultural treasures, turning them into 3D models in an online archive. So they can be rebuilt in the metaverse, if they are ever destroyed.
Could travel via the metaverse stem our desire for wanderlust?
Could virtual travel, via the metaverse, stem our desire for wanderlust, by bringing us closer to must-see places, therefore reducing reliance on air transport?
Travel trailblazer, National Geographic, began capturing stories of the world via its phenomenal photojournalism in 1905. Since then, the publication has become the go-to source of inspiration and knowledge, not just for geography geeks and adventurers, but for everyone, everywhere.
Now, Nat Geo is taking pioneering steps into virtual and mixed realities, bringing the world’s greatest sites to life. Its latest innovation – an AR experience of Stonehenge in Salisbury, England – allows users to explore the site and even take Stonehenge selfies from the comfort of their front room, try it here. Or why not step into the shoes of a Nat Geo explorer through the National Geographic Explore VR experience.
But could virtual travel ever replace the real thing, and should it? This is still up for debate. Of course, we would all rather palpably experience a bucket-list destination or famous landmark, to stand and stare at the wonders of the world, up close. We want to say “yes, I’ve been there” with the Instagrammable photos to prove it, connecting with fellow travellers and locals along the way.
But should we? As the impacts of climate change wreak havoc on ecosystems, virtual travel might just offer an ethical solution to reducing carbon emissions, by reducing air travel. Afterall, the pandemic showed us that people in the West can become more localised, and still thrive. Less than 20% of the global population has ever flown and just roughly 5% fly regularly. If they can do it, then so can we.
Is it possible to experience a destination virtually and still feel like we have opened our minds, can we learn about the places we experience, and most importantly, can we learn about ourselves. It’s too early to say, but as adventures in Web3 take off, these questions should be considered. Isn’t it exciting to think about visiting any part of the world we choose, whenever we like?
Like yin and yang, perhaps it’s about balance. We could explore Jordan’s ancient Petra via our VR headset, but not miss an under-the-sea adventure in Turkey; choosing to travel physically once, instead of twice, and halving our air miles.
Questo is a gaming app that’s bridging the gap between gaming and travel with quests that travellers can take part in when they visit a destination to explore independently and get under the skin of a city. It’s intended to bring audiences closer to a place, all through their smartphone. Alex Govoreanu, Questo founder, explained that the app: “creates a blend between fiction and reality, bringing together elements of escape rooms, scavenger hunts, role-playing and storytelling. Our games show people a completely new side of the cities they are exploring: their own town or the ones they travel to. Virtual travel is now an option that some people take into consideration, but I think this trend needs more time to develop.”
Could the metaverse embody a more inclusive world?
In Silicon Valley, diversity and inclusion are creeping into the metaverse conversation with questions like: will the avatars we inhabit represent a more inclusive world, or will they map the everyday biases we currently encounter? The Institute of Digital Fashion found that around 60% of people believe there’s a lack of inclusivity in virtual worlds. So, unless it’s prioritised, the risk remains high. And like everything else, it comes down to the people creating the technology. They must be representative of the diverse and equal world we want to see virtually.
And green shoots of hope are coming. Pride reported that the metaverse offers the potential to be a safe space for the LGBTQ+ community, with Meta’s “Dream House”, built inside the Horizon Worlds app as a case in point. Inspired by New York’s “Ballroom” culture and built by LGBTQ+ people. It intends to, said a spokesperson, “provide a refuge of belonging, safety, and inclusivity”
But when it comes down to carbon emissions, the metaverse is a gigantic, energy-guzzling, elephant in the room. AI and virtual tech use huge amounts of energy to run and products create e-waste, which is polluting soil and increasing landfill. Companies, like Facebook, are committing to net zero targets, but mainly through carbon offsetting. This will not be enough to balance technology’s damage and significant cost to the planet.
So, as we edge closer to the metaverse as an everyday reality – undoubtedly it won’t hit mainstream culture tomorrow – it’s time to question the ethics, and propose solutions to ensure emerging technologies are part of building an equitable world.
About the author
A cultural explorer, Isobel Diamond writes about travel, design, lifestyle and technology, with an emphasis on sustainability. Her articles have appeared in newspapers and magazines, nationally and internationally, like the Guardian, Conde Nast Traveller and Business Insider.