The metaverse promises to be the most radical reinvention of human-facing technology in a generation. It will spawn entirely new human-machine interfaces, sensory experiences, social dynamics, and market constructs. Its design will have sweeping implications for human behavior. Much will depend on the choices being made now by executives, engineers, and designers.
While new technologies bring new risks, in the case of the metaverse, we have a unique opportunity to learn from the past and focus on ways to combat known technology dangers.
How Can We Design the Metaverse To Avoid Recent Mistakes?
Here are some key dangers that must be considered when designing the metaverse to prioritize the human experience:
-Prevent tech addictions
Smartphones and social media platforms have fueled screen addictions. In large part, this addictiveness stems from design features — from infinite scroll to push notifications — designed to maximize engagement.
While we are still in early days, a common stated goal is to design persistent environments that are always on, and in which people spend a substantial amount of time. Will the goal of an always-on metaverse, like the goal of maximizing engagement in the social media era, drive a new wave of addictions? We must make responsible design decisions when building the metaverse.
-Consider the risk of polarization
Social media plays a significant role in fueling political polarization and diminishing social trust. Filter bubbles enable echo-chambers. Meanwhile, algorithms discovered that an effective way of engaging people is by feeding them moral outrage about the opposing political camp.
Without careful consideration, the metaverse could supercharge polarization. Imagine not just different metaverse platforms for different political persuasions, but infinitely personalized experiences. A liberal and a conservative walking through the same metaverse neighborhood could be shown different retailers, avatars, and experiences customized to their political persuasion.
If people spent most of their waking hours in the metaverse, this raises the prospect of people becoming increasingly disconnected from reality — especially if these spaces are designed to conform to people’s worldviews. If social media monetized outrage, the metaverse might evolve to monetize numbing — building spaces that are escapes from the real world at a time when societal challenges demand more attention, not less.
Misinformation is difficult to eradicate because social networks generate vast amounts of information, and decisions about what information to remove often involve nuanced judgement. So, content moderation remains a labor-intensive, imprecise task.
The metaverse could magnify the volume and scale of the misinformation problem. Imagine multiple online worlds in which information is communicated in real time via speech, video, text overlay, facial expressions, gestures and more.
While information shared on social media platforms was relatively static (e.g., posts, images, or videos which, once created, do not change, and can be inspected at any time), information generated in a metaverse will be much more dynamic and fleeting (e.g., real-time conversations and interactions between individuals). Many design features could encourage anonymity, empowering adversaries to spread misinformation with ease.
How Can We Build a Metaverse That Enables Better Behavioral and Health Outcomes?
The good news is that the metaverse doesn’t just pose behavioral challenges — it also creates opportunities to improve behavioral and health outcomes. Here are a few:
-Reduce unconscious bias
Unconscious bias is an insidious challenge. It can exist in ostensibly enlightened individuals, often driven by deeply rooted stereotypes about others based on racial identity, gender, age or body weight. The metaverse can combat this by providing an unprecedented ability to strip away cues such as physical appearance, accent, or pitch of voice, via avatars that allow users to change their appearance, gender, race, and voice.
-Improve long-term behaviors
Some of the most stubborn and expensive challenges we face are linked to behaviors such as energy use, diet, and exercise. Behavioral economists have found the problem is not awareness or motivation to change, but rather some universal biases in human behavior: We tend to excessively discount future outcomes as well as consequences that are intangible.
Conversely, we are highly motivated by immediate and apparent outcomes — and this is where the metaverse could be very effective. Imagine avatars that put people in the shoes of their future selves based on current health behaviors. Imagine experiences that show your neighborhood in a climate-ravaged future. Making the future consequences of our actions tangible and immediate could motivate change.
-Prioritize mental health
Lastly, the metaverse could be game-changing in addressing mental health challenges. Consider post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — which will affect one in 13 people at some point in their lives. The US Department of Veterans Affairs has been successfully piloting virtual reality to treat PTSD. By reliving their traumatic experiences in a safe simulated environment, veterans can confront and tame symptoms. The metaverse could similarly be useful in treating other afflictions, from anxiety to phobias.
Whether by intent or accident, the design of human-facing technologies like the metaverse will influence human behavior. It promises to create new interfaces, sensory experiences, social networks, and market dynamics — all of which could have significant implications. As brands and companies design and build metaverse experiences, they should avoid repeating the mistakes of the past while empowering users to achieve better behavioral and health outcomes.
The views reflected in this article are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the global EY organization or its member firms.