26 February 2022
On October 28, 2021, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook made two media-grabbing announcements. The first has to do with the rebranding of Facebook as Meta, and the second is that his company hopes to create the metaverse, an immersive virtual reality that is connected to the Internet.
To be sure, Zuckerberg did not invent the metaverse, and the Meta version that he hopes to construct will not be the first to appear on the scene. There are already a number of metaverse players such as the gaming platform Roblox and the body camera maker Axon (AAXN).
As CNN business reporter, Paul R. La Monica notes: ‘… investors looking to cash in on the virtual world known as the metaverse already have plenty of other options besides Mark Zuckerberg’s social media giant.’
Be that as it may, Zuckerberg’s announcement has sparked vigorous discussion – not least among Christians – on the ramifications of the metaverse on individuals and society as a whole.
For example, in an article in the Catholic publication Crisis Magazine, David Larson discusses the social issues that may accompany the metaverse such as the invasion of privacy and addiction.
He ends his article with this serious warning:
Before the Metaverse fully emerges (likely in the next decade), some serious prayerful discerning is necessary on whether, or to what degree, we should enter it. Because while we may gain an endless fascinating digital world, we could also lose our very real souls.
What exactly is the metaverse? What impact will it have on individuals and society? And how should Christians approach this new technological phenomenon?
WHAT IS THE METAVERSE?
For many, the metaverse is simply an extension of much of what we are already familiar with in the world of digital technology. The Digital Revolution (also known as the Third Industrial Revolution) has been underway since the second half of the last century, and digitalisation has become ever more pervasive since.
But the metaverse is in fact not simply a digital world. It has been described as the digital world of worlds where people can travel with ease while at the same time retaining their (digital) appearances and identities wherever they go. In addition, the metaverse is not just about Virtual Reality (VR), but it is also layered onto physical reality through the technology of Augmented Reality (AR).
Matthew Ball gives us an idea of what the metaverse entails when he writes:
The Metaverse is a massively scaled and interoperable network of real-time rendered 3D virtual worlds which can be experienced synchronously and persistently by an effectively unlimited number of users, and with continuity of data, such as identity, history, entitlements, objects, communications, and payments.
Some writers have suggested that the metaverse will be an extension and enhancement of the Internet – Internet 3.0, if you will. Ronke Babajide has helpfully compared the metaverse to the video game, Second Life. She writes:
The concept of the Metaverse reminds me a lot of Second Life. For those who don’t know it, Second Life is an alternative digital world where you could build you own second existence. But the Metaverse will bring Second Life to life. Like Second Life, it’ll have its own economy and currency. But the experience will be part of both the real world and the Internet. It’ll have the interoperability that the current Internet lacks.
Of course, this form of integration is not possible now because our current networks are too slow and our computers too weak. But once these technologies are enhanced and the metaverse is fully upon us, there will be an almost seamless integration between the real and virtual worlds.
One would need an avatar, a digital representation of oneself, to navigate this ‘alternate’ world. It is not difficult to imagine how the metaverse will change the world as we know it once it becomes commonplace in our society.
In a Vanity Fair article entitled ‘The Metaverse is about to Change Everything’, Nick Bilton paints this possible future world with the metaverse:
… you could imagine wearing your digital avatar out in the real world, where other people who are wearing headsets see an augmented version of reality, including you dressed up as your digital avatar, which could also change based on who is looking at you. Maybe you come across as a three-headed puppy with multi-coloured pigtails to your kids, but a professional in a suit to your co-workers, In this scenario, you could play a game of Pac-Man in the real world, running around to capture virtual coins that no one else can see, or evading multicoloured ghosts who want to eat you alive. You could sit in a coffee shop in New York while a friend sits in a coffee shop in Paris, and both have a ‘real’ coffee together, even though you’re not in the same place.
Science fiction authors of yesteryear such as Isaac Asimov have been able to imagine something quite close to the metaverse. In The Naked Sun (1957), Asimov creates societies that are based entirely on virtual experiences including holograms that are highly dependent on Artificial Intelligence.
Video games such as Minecraft and Second Life (mentioned above) have also in some ways anticipated the metaverse because they allow players to create and inhabit alternative worlds in cyberspace.
PROMISES AND PERILS
Like all technologies, the metaverse presents both promises and perils.
Enthusiasts have imagined how it could benefit education and how immersive experiences could enhance teaching and learning alike. For example, virtual reality tours can be conducted of ancient lands created in the metaverse, enabling participants to travel back in time as it were through their avatars, and experience more directly these past civilisations.
Others have argued that the metaverse will make travel and transport less expensive as more people work from home, and as business meetings are conducted in virtual boardrooms. Depending on the technology that is used, others have also speculated that the metaverse will be friendlier to the natural environment.
The metaverse may be especially beneficial to people with disabilities because it would enable them to ‘visit’ places that would otherwise be inaccessible to them. Virtual and augmented reality technologies would also allow individuals with certain types of disabilities to ‘perform’ tasks that are currently simply impossible to accomplish.
During the lockdown due to Covid-19, two seniors from Boston University created Quaranteen University, a Minecraft server that hosts graduation ceremonies for students from hundreds of other universities. According to the Minecraft website, students from more than 20 universities have rebuilt their campuses inside Minecraft.
While the possibilities of metaverse seem limitless to enthusiasts, other commentators are wary of the social problems it will either create or exacerbate.
One major concern has to do with issues surrounding privacy and security. The user is connected to the virtual world through a set of specialised hardware and accessories. These devices have the ability to gather information and data from users, which are then stored in the network.
Apart from the complex ethical issues surrounding the gathering of personal data, there is also the very real danger that such information can be leaked to or hacked by a third party or nefarious actors. The question regarding the extent to which the public can trust the creators of the metaverse is a pressing one, especially when social media companies such as Meta have a somewhat tarnished track record.
At a more philosophical level, the question that needs to be explored more rigorously is how does virtual reality would affect our understanding and perception of the world, other people and ourselves in the long term. This question becomes pressing once the metaverse becomes commonplace, and more and more activities and social interactions are conducted (and therefore more time is spent) there.
According to Starr Roxanne Hiltz, ‘virtual’ is used in computer science to depict something ‘whose existence is simulated with software rather than actually existing in hardware or some physical form.’ Thus, when the word ‘virtual’ is combined with words like ‘reality’ or ‘community’, we are referring to the ‘un-real’ copy – simulacrum – of something that exists in the real world.
VR may be employed for various reasons. For example, it may be used as a means of escape or to provide some relief from the imperfections of the real world. It may be an attempt to conjure forth the Garden of Eden, where only the best bits of the real world are incorporated.
VR has enabled human beings to exercise God-like powers to ‘create’ the world or worlds according to their own often distorted standards of truth, beauty and morality.
As Heidi Campbell pointed out some years ago:
In VR humans are seen empowered with the ability to play God and write a new book of Genesis … In the mythic world of cyberspace, computers enable people to right the wrongs of the natural world by creating a new world with a different set of rules.
While the desire for a new and netter (virtual) world seems innocuous enough, it is almost inevitable that the problems which plague the real world contaminate the virtual one.
In February 2022, surveying 12 hours of recording on VR Chat, the NGO The Centre for Countering Digital Hate tracked an average of one instance of hate, racism, homophobia, misogyny and other such antisocial behaviour every seven minutes. Rather than a new utopia, the cyberworld may turn out to be the new frontier for anarchy.
Another issue that the metaverse brings to the fore is that of identity, an issue that is too multifaceted and complex to discuss in this short article. The metaverse allows the individual to present himself or herself in multiple and different epiphanies, each with a distinct identity.
In our sex-obsessed culture, the question of how the metaverse will alter our sexual relationships, and how this in turn will shape our attitude towards sex becomes pressing.
In a recent article entitled ‘Roblox: The children’s game with a sex problem’, James Clayton and Jasmin Dyer describe how this game is exposing users as young as nine to virtual sex.
Roblox sex games are commonly referred to on the platform as ‘condos.’ They’re spaces, generated by users, where people can talk about sex – and where their avatars can have virtual sex.
‘Particularly worrying’, they add, ‘is children and adults potentially socialising together in these spaces.’
In an essay on sexuality, theologian Elizabeth Stuart writes that with advanced technologies, ‘It is possible for us to have a virtual self, indeed many virtual selves, all of whom may engage in cybersex assuming different identities in the process, and activity which engages the fleshy body albeit at a distance from the object of desire.’
Looking ahead, some commentators also worry about the possible scenario in which the metaverse is so fully synchronised with the real world that it is impossible to inhabit one without also inhabiting the other. To use the language of video games, it is possible that the metaverse is so integrated to the real world that there is no option to ‘pause’, ‘reset’ or ‘end’ the mediated experience.
These are just some of the many issues that the metaverse brings to our attention, all of which raise complex philosophical, ethical and social questions. It is not too early to take these issues seriously now as we prepare for this new and unstoppable wave of the technological revolution.
VIRTUAL REALITY CHURCH?
The metaverse will allow Christians to attend the Virtual Reality Church that promises to heighten their religious experience.
By Virtual Reality Church, I am referring to the immersive virtual worship experience, which must be distinguished from non-immersive models that we are already used to, such as online worship. In the VR Church, the congregation worships in virtual bodies (avatars) and uses virtual objects (altar, cup, wine, bread, etc) in a virtual setting or environment (example, sanctuary or church building).
To begin with, VR can make the lectionary readings more immersive for congregants.
Imagine being ‘present’ with Elijah at Mount Carmel as he confronts the prophets of Baal and commands the fire of Yahweh to come down from the skies and consume the sacrifices! Or imagine being together with the twelve disciples of Jesus at the Mount of Beatitudes as he delivers the famous sermon (in ‘King James’ English)!
Some commentators have argued that the VR Church in the metaverse will bring with it many advantages. For one, it would give people who refuse to attend a physical church for whatever reasons an option to be a part of the virtual reality ‘community’ and participate in its activities.
The VR church, others have argued, is also helpful for the disabled, especially those who are no longer mobile.
In his article on the metaverse, David Larson reports the view of Alina Delp, who was diagnosed with a neurovascular condition that left her homebound. Delp believes that the VR Church will give her the opportunity to participate in the life of a religious community again. And this will be a liberating and humanising experience.
Suddenly you’re empowered again. Suddenly you matter again. Suddenly you are human again. Suddenly it just feels like you could do anything in the world again where you were just told over and over again you couldn’t do anything.
Many of the questions that the VR Church raises are in some sense not new. These issues have presented themselves during the Covid-19 pandemic when churches across the world are forced to offer services online in one form or another.
Questions about the authenticity of online worship, the sacraments, and the nature of the online community have come to the fore, and theologians and church leaders alike are still discussing them. Numerous books and articles have been written on these issues at scholarly as well as popular levels.
These same questions confront us with the emergence of metaverse and the VR Church. But because of the immersive quality of VR and AR, these questions take on a different –perhaps more complicated – hue.
The new ‘reality’ of the metaverse, and the questions it raises, must be taken seriously by every theologian, pastor and church leader. They must be taken seriously by every Christian, every disciple of Jesus.
For the presence and possible future predominance of the metaverse will bring about subtle changes – some benign, others more insidious – to the way we understand ourselves, others, the church, worship, Christian ministry – even God himself.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.