Metaverse: Old wine in a new bottle? | Guest column

The metaverse is a space caught at the cusp of the physical and the nonphysical. Not a radically different space per se, but one that, like old wine in a new bottle, replicates the current set of relations we are already familiar with.

Think about stores, clubs, classrooms—these amongst other places in society find loyal replicas in the metaverse. However, unlike tangible spaces in reality, what the metaverse offers is the agency to warp our realities like play dough. Thus, a derelict living out of a car in Cleveland can own the most expensive real estate in the Manhattan of the metaverse.

Time on the metaverse is equally malleable with a person’s ability to momentarily abandon clock-bound time flow—like Stephenson’s fictional character Ng, in Snow Crash, who nostalgically owns a metaverse villa in the Vietnam of the 1950s.

Despite the malleability, space-time on the metaverse unimaginatively duplicates real-world relations and institutions. The metaverse avatars can replace physical bodies, even reimagine them but do not surpass socio-cultural habits and human tendencies to exercise power and control. Take for instance the reports of groping and sexual assault on the metaverse.

In December 2021, the VP of metaverse research in Kabuki Ventures, Nina Jane Patel, described her harrowing experience with gang-rape in this space. She recounted the incident in the following words, “Within 60 seconds of joining — I was verbally and sexually harassed — 3–4 male avatars, with male voices … gang raped my avatar and took photos”” Some of the social media responses to this incident, noted by Patel in her blog post “Reality or Fiction?”, obliquely validated the act.

She writes, “The comments on my post were a plethora of opinions from — “don’t choose a female avatar, it’s a simple fix.”, to “don’t be stupid, it wasn’t real … “avatars don’t have lower bodies to assault”” Going by Patel’s experience and these responses, the reality of gender norms, bullying, power-play—that are integral aspects of human societies and institutions—percolate into this space beyond the confines of reality. What happens in video games can happen in the metaverse. Thus, killing, violence, assault are all forgivable crimes as long as they are boxed into a hyperreal space. You goggle-out of the metaverse, and you can transform into a law-abiding, thoughtful citizen of the real world.

The duplication of the current set of human relations in this space is so faithful, that Meta had to intervene with a “personal boundary” feature in its VR spaces to obstruct unwanted invasion of an avatar’s personal space. The feature, almost like a statute, protects an avatar from potential harassment by establishing a 4-feet distance between itself and other avatars. This is an addition to Meta’s other anti-harassment feature which makes an avatar’s hands disappear if it tries to violate another’s personal space. These attempts at introducing features that institute “behavioral norms… for a relatively new medium like VR” (Vivek Sharma, VP, Horizon), remind one of civil society institutions and laws to contain social crimes that unabashedly seep through the real space-time into the metaverse.

If human nature mandates the reproduction of real-world power structures and laws in the metaverse, then the question is how would this manifest in a virtual space-time that is in essence intangible and elusive? Would we need metaverse police, attorneys, courts, etc.? Would archaic real-world laws find updated substitutes in the metaverse, with engineers rolling out quick software patches to control deviance (as was the case with Meta’s anti-harassment features)? While the metaverse is still evolving, and it is too early to know, it is worthwhile to ponder on the possibilities of this space to recreate/exaggerate/underplay real-world structures and relations.

This brings me to the “philosophical underpinnings” of Decentraland Foundation. Like other VR platforms, that constitute the metaverse, such as The Sandbox, Somnium Space, etc., Decentraland is a space where a user can “create and monetize content and applications” and also own, purchase and explore “virtual plots of land” ( Per Decentraland Whitepaper, “Unlike other virtual worlds and social networks, Decentraland is not controlled by a centralized organization. There is no single agent with the power to modify the rules of the software, contents of land, economics of the currency, or prevent others from accessing the world.”

What we find in this metaverse platform is a space that borrows elements from real-world societies like social networks, land ownership, markets, economic modes of exchange, etc. But it simultaneously claims to reject centralized control— a foundational element of most, if not all, real-world societies (Left, Centered, or Right). This fine-tuning of reality to make it more community-based is commendable. However, if one were to go by recent speculations about Meta’s possible monopolization of the metaverse, only time will tell if platforms like these will adhere to principles of decentralization.

Like corporations, we don’t know if governments in the long run will enter these spaces. If there are districts that go by names like “Anarchy,” authorship rights, metaverse crimes, marketplaces, economic exchanges, and land ownership rights, it wouldn’t be too farfetched to imagine legal structures and surveillance mechanisms entering the metaverse.

So, is the metaverse an unimaginative duplication of our realities with sparse modifications? Perhaps. Who knows? Only time will tell.

Jayendrina Singha Ray’s research interests include postcolonial studies, spatial literary studies, British literature, and rhetoric and composition. Prior to teaching in the U.S., she worked as an editor with Routledge and taught English at colleges in India. She is a resident of Kirkland.