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In the months since Facebook announced its plans to rebrand as Meta, a frenzied rush has begun in the tech world to build this new virtual universe. Investors are spend millions to buy up virtual ‘real estate’, Washington policymakers are trying to understand and help build space, and everyone from Kraft Heinz to the Vatican announces plans to develop new virtual experiences.
I’m not the first to look at this insane behavior and wonder: where is our technology and entertainment culture leading us, and why? Is all this just a way to escape the pressing problems we have in the real world?
I recently received an email from a customer summarizing my greatest concern about the current path of technology. The email was in response to an announcement about AKQA Bloom, our new agency focusing on today’s most pressing cultural and environmental challenges. It referred to the experience of our client’s son.
The son had attended a luxury event in New York sponsored by a leading fashion label. The purpose of the event was to educate attendees about “building an online brand” – something we hear a lot about these days. But instead of inspiring him, the event disturbed him. The eminent panel agreed that focusing on online personas, and forgetting about the real world, was the best way forward.
As he walked home through the rows of homeless people, the growing disconnect between the real and the virtual world became apparent. His friends were all debating the 2022 Oscars ceremony online after Will Smith punched Chris Rock. Obsessed with some distant event involving people they will never meet, they forgot about the very real issues that were sitting on their doorstep.
In light of this, our announcement about AKQA Bloom had resonated with our client. How can we hope to improve the real world by focusing on an artificial world?
Related: Some Predictions for How the Metaverse Will Affect Our Lives
Escape as a tool for good
I’m an 80’s kid, so I’ll sum up my description of the technology “back in the day” in one paragraph. To assess our current challenges, it is important to take a quick look at the distance we have traveled.
When I was a kid, we had three TV channels. Then there were four (big moves!) Everyone tuned in to watch BBC One’s on Thursday Top of the doll — the only time we could hear the biggest songs of the week. Broadcasts of sci-fi shows from the 60s like The Jetsons and Star Trek walked on weekday evenings, and if the parents allowed it, they gave a brief but valuable glimpse into the future, allowing us to “escape” for an hour or two each day.
In addition to providing an escape, sci-fi and fantasy fiction have played a vital role in the development of our society. Successful inventors often got their ideas from fictitious concepts in books, TV shows, or movies. dr. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein animates his monster with an electric shock more than 100 years before the invention of the defibrillator. Portable MP3 players were based on a portable device that was only developed after Ray Bradbury created “thimble radios” in Fahrenheit 451† The list continues.
Sci-fi also helped us make real-world decisions when we turned off the TV. During the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement in the US, looking at the story of a fictional American spaceship piloted by a diverse and rational crew in Star Trek forced viewers to think about America’s future. Books like Do Androids dream of electric sheep? (later blade runner) forced us to think about our relationship with nature by depicting an almost uninhabitable earth.
These stories have made us more empathetic, creative and resilient people. The Research supports this. But then we kept one crucial element that loosens always-on mobile, streaming and immersive gaming: our grip on the real world.
Related: How the Metaverse Projects Reality in a Virtual Environment
On separation from “reality”
Ever since I was a kid, new technologies have tried to take up more of our time in the name of profit. While some interest in fiction can improve our lives, psychologists are now expressing concern about the media landscapes in which children are growing up today. Social media platforms monetize the sale of data collected through our friendships and social connections. No technology typifies this trend more than the ‘metaverse’.
The whole concept of a metaverse rests on the premise of total immersion. Tasks that might otherwise require real action can be performed in digital worlds. We will inhabit them, shop there, make virtual money with them and spend our energy building brands and castles in their virtual skies. For many companies, this represents a potential new revenue stream, or at the very least a way to retain customers. All the big brands have jumped aboard the metaverse train with that in mind. “And why not?” ask the companies that drive it.
As our client’s son realized, immersing ourselves in a virtual world only serves as an easy way to overlook very real issues like climate change or homelessness. While a sci-fi movie might encourage viewers to rethink their understanding of the world, the metaverse asks us to warp it.
Less than a week after Will Smith punched Chris Rock, a UN-backed report slipped through the news cycle. The authors of the report said climate change has now reached a “now or never” moment. If governments can make a swift flight to low-carbon economies, rising temperatures could grind to a halt. If not, well…
Making such a rapid change requires drastic lifestyle changes. Our use of fossil fuels must stop. To reach our net-zero targets by 2050, we’ll probably have to create new technologies (and maybe a few from recent sci-fi movies.)
Of all this, one thing is certain: immersing ourselves in virtual worlds while the real world is burning outside cannot be the solution. It’s time to take off our headsets, roll up our sleeves and get to work.
Related: How the Virtual World Affects Our Real Lives