As human species evolved, we gathered a reasonable understanding that primitive humans were barbaric and that civilization made them adapt to the norms of a respectable society for centuries now. With the development of intellect, humans evolved into a species that ultimately became distinct from their apparent predecessors.
Moral codes of behavior, which in other words, termed ‘ethics’ has played a significant role in this change. An ancient path about the origins of thoughts about ethics can be traced back to religious scriptures and the outlooks of people held in high regard. Some of these moral codes have been adopted by the modern world, one among them is the ‘Hippocratic oath‘ which serves as a foundation stone for healthcare professionals including myself.
Technology & Innovation
The last few decades have seen a significant development in digital technology. Lately, Web 2 (read, write, socialize on the internet) is making a silent transition to Web 3 (read, write, execute and democratize the internet). This is closely related to an expanding alternate aka virtual world called the metaverse especially after we found ourselves mostly working from home during the covid pandemic. The temporary shutdown of the world at least lead to a perception that it has narrowed the boundaries between physical and digital worlds, which might have inspired Leigh Dow to introduce the term phygital.
Note though, the idea of virtual world long precedes metaverses in the form of gaming industry. In fact you will find plenty of similarities and common concepts between them. But the metaverse specifically in Web 3 is more than your virtual version accomplishing hard fought goals in a gaming world. It not only enables users to play, work, socialize, trade like we do in real world, it enables this virtual world through an open, interconnected and interoperable network giving the power and control back from institutions (who arguably have long abused creators and consumers) to users.
Neal Stephenson Interview
The man who fueled the concept of the parallel/virtual universe Neal Stephenson had a compelling observation in one of his interviews about the future of metaverses. Lex Fridman in his YouTube interview inquires about Neal Stephenson’s views on the future of alternate parallel worlds.
“Does History Repeat Itself? Which way it does and which way it does not?”. The reply to that question covered the dynamics of human thinking where Neal talked about “another” side of intellect that often shows up in the form of holocaust, and other unspeakable crimes. One statement from that interview caught my attention. Neal Stephenson adds “even in a supposedly enlightened civilized society people can become monsters“.
So my task at hand is to analyze and highlight some of the key ethical questions that metaverses and Web 3 in general must answer sooner rather than later before we find ourselves lazily put up with our bad old ways. As with any questioning, it is my duty to offer a solution we can discuss and debate on. The point is to plant a seed in your minds that no matter how unique or overwhelming challenges present themselves, there is a solution for each of them.
1. How will some of the core principles of Web 3 like decentralization prevent and mitigate blatant wrongs in a metaverse?
Decentralization removes the need for an intermediary to ‘facilitate’ various micro and macro level activities in a society. Instead it gives the power back to people through automation so they can be self-reliant to a large extent. But how does it control bad actors from taking advantage of innovations for the wrong reasons? The experts have a split opinion pertaining to the use of digital avatars which is actually nonexistent in real life. The accidental resemblance of fictional identities with real-life identities have the potential to create conflicts in many shapes and forms. Same applies for intentional differences in the avatars one may want to choose to identify themselves with.
Virtual and augmented reality industries should develop a code of ethics similar to how blockchain networks make it a point to enforce necessary protocols to be strictly followed by its participants and keep it safe. As long as there is civilization, rules are mandatory which long after its enforcement will become the norm leading to a society with higher moral ground. I personally feel this is within our reach.
2. How to solve electronic aggression in mediums like metaverse?
Since the rebranding of Facebook to ‘Meta’, it has been observed that the boundaries of good behavior and conduct in the virtual world are not always respected. In fact, there have been instances where users have reported inappropriate behavior towards their digital replicas based on culture and gender. (Well, that is least surprising for we know how some people behave with each other behind their computer screens). Metaverse stakeholders must do everything to protect one of their own objectives – to empower people to be independent and equal but absolutely anyone must be subject to face questions and appropriately penalized for their misbehavior.
As we all know, community plays a major role in any Web 3 network and we must expect the same community to protect each other when called upon. The difference in having a community protect someone instead of our typical officials protecting someone lies in the long lasting results that a democratic voice can command to push back oppression. I personally feel this is within our reach.
3. How do we ensure the digital well being of our kids in virtual worlds?
We are still battling with this fine line of amazing opportunities that metaverse can enrich our lives with versus the obvious pitfalls, especially when the chances of our kids running into these virtual worlds that may be inappropriate to them is dangerously escalating. It’s no secret that even 5 year old kids are getting super proficient in using mobile phones and tablets which funnels them to unregulated virtual worlds without breaking a sweat. The ability to balance the alternate identity in a way that is harmless to others while maintaining freedom of expression has to be a priority while designing future metaverses. I personally feel this is also within our reach.
4. What if a stranger trespass your property in metaverse without permission?
With the emergence of digital sandboxes as a dominant player, numerous ‘online’ land parcels have been sold for hundreds to millions of dollars! It sure has caught the attention of celebrities who are helping to accelerate the trend. Some of the users are ready to pay a fortune to have a piece of land next to their favorite celebrities. Metaverse project still lacks clear cut mitigations concerning the ownership of virtual properties when there is a breach. Yes almost all the major metaverses today operate on top of immutable blockchains which is a great mitigation in itself here.
But what happens when there is a sybil attack or hacks on the metaverse platform who often go out of their way to independently tweak security (consensus) algorithms to make it more scalable but vulnerable to such threats. One option is for underlying layer 1 blockchains to solve their scalability issues without compromising on security or decentralization. With a strong foundation layer, any project built atop will be that much more stronger and safer.
Metaverse, likely, is here to stay and evolve, but it needs to solve some of the pressing issues that can inspire us to make Web 3 as a whole truly better than Web 2. The line between virtual and real lives can be increasingly blurring quite similar to how the line between morality and immorality blurs quite often in our societies. That does not mean we neglect having hard conversations to pursue realistic and far reaching goals. If the descendants of so-called barbaric early men can be taught to practice code of ethics leading to civilization, finding solutions for these problems is within the reach of humans (who are behind the technologies enabling the metaverse).
Content/opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author(s). They do not necessarily purport to reflect the opinions or views of Shardeum Foundation.
About the Author : Bibin Prasannan is a passionate musculoskeletal physiotherapist interested in exploring future value gems in crypto. He is keen to explore the benefits of blockchain technology for the health care sector. You can follow him on LinkedIn