How the Metaverse Could Turn Into a Dystopian Nightmare

How The Metaverse Could Turn Into A Dystopian Nightmare

Facebook recently renamed their company to Meta. This move comes in light of a broader vision to build the future of the metaverse. In this article I am going to dive into what the metaverse is, highlight some concerns about how it might exacerbate some of the current problems that exist with social media and how it could turn into a dystopian nightmare.

Table of Contents

The Metaverse and the History of the Internet

The metaverse is the result of an ongoing technological development that started with the invention of the internet in the 1980s.

What is the metaverse?

(Metaverse by HyacintheLuynes)

The “world wide web” went through three distinct phases:

The Web 1.0 marked the beginning of the internet. Back in the 90s and early 2000s, most websites were static and consisted of HTML. If you lived long enough, you might be able to remember the early internet. Websites were ugly and had limited functionality. Many people at the time thought the internet was a fad and would never reach mainstream adoption. Today, of course, we know that the internet was one of the most important and disruptive inventions of all of mankind.

Mainstream economist Paul Krugman famously mispredicted the effect the internet would have on the world in 1998:

By 2005, it will become clear that the Internet’s impact on the economy has been no greater than the fax machine’s

Paul Krugman on the Internet

Back when Krugman made this famous statement, the internet was still Web 1.0. Then in the mid and late 2000s, a new and more dynamic form of the internet emerged. User-submitted content began playing a more important role.

Websites started having commenting functionality and used more complex programming language as well as databases. Social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube appeared and changed the way people interacted with each other.

The metaverse and Web 3.0 can be seen as the next big evolution of the internet. While the terms are often used interchangeably, there are some important nuances. The Web 3.0 is best understood as a more open and decentralized version of the internet. The metaverse on the other hand can be defined more broadly as the transition from simple screen-based websites, search engines and social media sites to immersive and interactive virtual experiences in the form of virtual reality or augmented reality.

What Will Life in the Metaverse Be Like?

Mark Zuckerberg recently released a video presentation showcasing his vision of life in the metaverse. In case you haven’t watched it yet, it’s highly recommended that you check it out to get a more visual representation of what the metaverse feels like.

Instead of staring at a screen on your phone or laptop, you’ll be wearing a headset or smart glasses and interacting inside the metaverse. Think of it as a fully immersive, whole-body, 3D version of the internet. Anything you can do on the internet today, such as conducting a Zoom meeting, interacting with friends on social media, calling someone on Facetime or playing video games will take place in the metaverse.

The only difference is this: Each participant of the Zoom meeting won’t be speaking to each other through a screen. Rather, everyone will sit at home and wear a headset. The meeting will be conducted in a virtual office where everyone has their own avatar. It will seem like you’re actually sitting in the room next to your colleagues and participating in an in-person business meeting — only that you’re not.

Business meetings won’t be the only use case of the metaverse though. Social media sites as we know them today will likely cease to exist. Instead, we’ll be interacting with friends and family in virtual worlds. We’ll own properties in the metaverse. Not only that, but companies and even nation states will own “virtual land” in the metaverse. In November 2021, a plot of virtual land in Decentraland sold for $2.43 million. Barbados, an island country in the Lesser Antilles of the West Indies recently bought a plot of land in Decentraland in order to set up an embassy. While Barbados was the first sovereign nation to own land in the metaverse, it’s expected that many more will follow.

How Business And Life Gradually Become More Virtual

Companies will set up virtual shops. Anything from luxury shopping malls to simple grocery stores. Why should there be shops in the real world when we are working from home or downright locked down?

As companies are adapting to government mandates in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, digitization is accelerating and it is becoming increasingly clear that having a presence in the metaverse will be necessary to survive for many businesses. Many physical shops are closing down because people are buying products online directly from the comfort of their homes. Whether it’s food, clothes or technology products, there is no reason to leave the house to make a purchase these days. And in some cases, you’re not even allowed to leave your house. It’s no surprise that commercial real estate has been on the decline while e-commerce is booming.

(Covid-19 Lockdown in London by Kwh1050)

It might be cheaper for a company to acquire land in the metaverse and set up a virtual storefront. As the whole world is rapidly moving their lives online and we are forced to spend more time at home, there will be a battle for attention in the metaverse. Companies will compete with each other through virtual advertising directly in the metaverse.

There’s no reason someone should be paying for a real billboard if attention is moving online at such a fast rate. A virtual billboard and product placements in the metaverse are the next logical step.

Collectibles, NFTs and Entertainment in the Metaverse

With the boom of NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens), consumers will have a place to showcase their collectibles. We will own virtual cars, land, apartments and houses in the metaverse. We’ll decorate them with NFTs and mostly transact in cryptocurrencies.

Instead of playing video games on a console or on our phones, we’ll play virtual reality games directly in the metaverse while wearing a headset. Artists will get paid hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars to perform live shows in the metaverse. Decentraland recently announced that they’ll be hosting their first virtual music festival in October 2021 with acts including Deadmau5 and Paris Hilton.

These are just some examples of what the metaverse might look like. As with all technological advancement, it is hard to imagine what else is to come. In the early 1990s, nobody could have predicted that we’ll be spending most our time glued to a phone and interacting with friends and strangers on social media. Platforms like Facebook and Instagram seem normal to us today, but just two decades ago they didn’t exist.

In the same way, many of the applications, worlds and use cases that we’ll see unfold in the metaverse still have to be built. It is likely that they’ll be very different from what we imagine right now.

Important Reminder: Technology Isn’t Bad, It’s About How It’s Used

While the remainder of this article will express some criticism and potential downsides of the metaverse, it’s important to understand that technological advancement in itself is neither bad nor good. Just like with any “tool”, it depends on how it is used and who is using it.

The internet greatly improved our lives and many of us can’t imagine living without it today. However, many of the applications that were built on the internet, such as Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, were built in a way that gets users hooked.

The same is the case with the metaverse. It will likely improve our lives in many ways we can’t even imagine today. It will provide more comfort and convenience and allow us to interact in crazy, never-before seen ways. But at the same time, the companies that will build virtual worlds, games and applications in the metaverse will not necessarily have consumers’ best interest in mind. Any problems that we are currently experiencing with the Web 2.0 are likely to be exacerbated with the development of the metaverse.

Both the good and the bad will be magnified.

The point of this article is not to vilify the metaverse or stop technological development. Technology is great — But we have to learn to use it in a way that adds value to our lives and avoid the harmful and addictive potential of the metaverse.

How our Hyperdopaminergic Society Arose after World War II

History and arguably human evolution as a whole has been driven by dopamine and dopaminergic personalities. However, after World War II society quickly became more dopaminergic. During the war, the United States started producing processed food in order to supply the troops overseas with foods that wouldn’t perish. This shift from small-scale agriculture to mass production of processed food marks the beginning of what I like to call the hyperdopaminergic age. Processed foods were loaded with sugar and fat as well as artificial flavors, making them more tasty, sweet and comforting than anything that is available in nature or was available prior to World War II.

(U.S. war propaganda to encourage canning and drying of food during World War II)

But society only unfolded its true hyperdopaminergic potential with the invention of the internet in the 1980s. For the first time in history, things that were physically limited became unlimited. Before the internet, there were vinyl disks and CDs. There were adult magazines, VHS cassettes, movie theaters, gaming consoles and newspapers. Music, movies, entertainment, information, games and sex were all available in limited quantities. If you wanted more of any of these things, you had to acquire a new physical medium in the form of a new cartridge, cassette, disk, newspaper or magazine. While dopamine was on the rise, it was never in unbound quantities.

The internet transcended these physical limitations. While an average American is said to have around 7-8 sexual partners in their lifetime, someone with an internet connection can experience that many sexual partners in a matter of seconds on any porn site. The same thing happened to news, music, movies and video games. Any form of entertainment or information is available in unlimited quantity at the tips of our fingers.

The next dopamine spike is always just one click away.

As Adam Alter explains in his book “Irresistible”, the unlimited potential of the internet to provide dopamine was intentionally exploited by big tech companies. Websites, search engines, social media platforms, applications and games were built to hijack our reward circuits in the most addictive way possible. The reason for this is simple: The more time users spend on one of these websites, the more attention there is that can be monetized and sold to advertisers. Advertising requires attention. And attention requires dopamine. This is why literally every website that exists on the Web 2.0 is designed to keep a user reading, watching, clicking, swiping or scrolling for as long as possible.

The Effects of the Metaverse on Addiction and Mental Health

With the development of the metaverse we are entering the next hyperdopaminergic stage of society. With the metaverse, physically limited experiences can be simulated and consumed in unlimited quantities. Anything that was addictive on the Web 2.0, such as news, information, music, movies, games, entertainment and porn, will be even more addictive in the metaverse. The reason for this increased addictiveness is that as computer processing power and technology improve, simulations become increasingly indistinguishable from real world experiences.

Since companies that are building the metaverse have to monetize attention in the same way that they are doing today to generate profit, they are incentivized to keep us hooked for as long as possible in the metaverse. This is achieved by building addictive feedback loops that spike our dopamine at the right intensity and frequency to make us come back over and over again.

The main difference is that the metaverse is much more effective at exploiting the human reward circuit due to its 3D experiences and simulated realities.

Many people these days prefer watching porn over intimate sex. With the metaverse, we can expect that the dopamine and pleasure people can experience from intimate relationships will fade in comparison to the amounts of dopamine and stimulation they can access in the metaverse.

Sex is an important example since it’s a healthy and normal dopaminergic behavior. But the same will happen for any other type of human behavior. Any behavior that is exciting in real life will become even more exciting in the metaverse. There is no doubt that the metaverse will be a highly addictive place.

Understanding the Metaverse in the Context of the Great Reset

In 2016 the World Economic Forum released a video with the caption:

You’ll own nothing, and you’ll be happy.

World Economic Forum

Klaus Schwab and the World Economic Forum want to incorporate Stakeholder Capitalism as part of the Great Reset. The metaverse can accelerate the transition to a world in which we “own nothing and are happy”. If you’re not sure what the Great Reset is, make sure you read our detailed article on it.

One of the hypocritical goals of the Great Reset is to make capitalism more sustainable, tackle income inequality and reduce environmental harm. While there is nothing inherently wrong with these goals, the way Schwab and the World Economic Forum are looking to get there is problematic: Through tech-surveillance, state control and intervening in free markets.

The way Schwab and the World Economic Forum communicate their goals is even more concerning. Schwab has repeatedly downplayed the dangers of a dystopian future in his book “Covid-19: The Great Reset”. One of the things Schwab talks about a lot is the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which includes artificial intelligence, virtual reality and augmented reality. The metaverse can be seen as prime example, if not the center piece, of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

(Sign of crossed out “Great Reset” at demonstration by Ivan Radic)

A life primarily lived in the metaverse is in alignment with Schwab’s prediction that we’ll own nothing and be happy in 2030. If the metaverse is dopaminergic enough to keep us hooked, it would reduce our environmental footprint and make the need for most private property obsolete.

Why own physical, private property if we can live in a simulated world? Why buy expensive designer furniture, or live in a fancy apartment, if we can just wear augmented reality glasses and decorate our surroundings as we wish? Virtual reality and augmented reality allow us to simulate physical things without having to own them.

The Potential for a Dystopian Nightmare

Imagine a dystopian scenario where most people live in dull, grey apartment blocks with barely anything in them apart from bare necessities like food and clothes. With augmented reality, these dull apartments can be filled with fire places, designer furniture and expensive decoration. An example of this can be witnessed at the beginning of Mark Zuckerberg’s presentation about the metaverse.

In the same way, we don’t need offices, gyms, concert halls, movie theaters, restaurants, vacations or even real cars. We can do almost anything from home, since the metaverse can take us any place we want without having to physically be there.

In the metaverse we can be and own anything, we can live in an “exciting” simulated reality while the real world around us gets duller as we’re stripped off our property, privileges and freedoms under the banner of environmentalism and income equality.

At the same time, the metaverse can be used for technological surveillance. This would likely be facilitated through digital identities, Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDCs) as well as some sort of social credit system where we get points for “good behavior” and lose points for “bad behavior”.

What good and bad behavior is will be determined by governments. Bad behavior obviously includes anything that is illegal, criminal, unethical or goes against stakeholder interests. For Schwab and the World Economic Forum the environment as a whole is a stakeholder. This means eating too much meat, spending excessive energy or purchasing certain goods or services might be punishable in the future. This could be enforced by freezing funds in our government-issued CBDC wallets, automating fines through forced withdrawals or deducting points from our social credit score.

If our scores get too low, we might not be able to purchase certain goods, participate in certain activities, leave the house, get a job or do other things. In some ways, Covid-19 vaccine passports can be seen as a precursor to a social credit system.

The bottom line is: There is literally no better technology than the metaverse to implement the World Economic Forum’s vision of Stakeholder Capitalism.

It could be a simulated world in which we own nothing — at least nothing real.

Why the Metaverse Will Lead to More Dissatisfaction and Depression

The harmful effects of social media on mental health are apparent. The metaverse will take these harmful effects to the next level by making an already hyperdopaminergic internet even more dopaminergic. I have already discussed that companies will have an interest in monetizing attention and keeping users engaged for as long as possible. This is achieved by creating addictive feedback loops that hijack our reward circuits. Experiences in virtual worlds will be designed in a way that keep us excited and hooked so we come back over and over again for more.

This attention, along with personal data related to our behavior in the metaverse, is then sold to advertisers. There will be a lot more data-points about our behavior than right now. Advertisers will be even more effective at targeting users who are most likely to purchase their products.

As Daniel Z. Lieberman and Michael E. Long have shown in their book “The Molecule of More”, dopamine has little to do with pleasure. Dopamine regulates our desire and ability to plan, optimize and control the future. Pleasure, on the other hand is regulated by a different set of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, endorphins and oxytocin.

In their book, they make the case that dopamine and these pleasure neurotransmitters actually counteract each other. When we’re in a state of high dopaminergic arousal, such as when being in the metaverse, our neurotransmitters responsible for pleasure, love and connection are suppressed.

This might also explain why depression and suicide rates have skyrocketed with the transition to a hyperdopaminergic society after World War II. Dopamine stimulates us, it makes us want more, it gives us the temporary “high” of desire, of chasing and sometimes getting a reward, but it takes away our pleasure and our feelings of love, connection and happiness. On the flip side, when neurotransmitters like serotonin, oxytocin and endorphins are running high, dopamine is suppressed.

What this means is that any website, application, social media site or game that is built to spike our dopamine and keep us hooked, is making us unhappy by design. Given that the metaverse has the potential to be much more dopaminergic than anything that was built on the Web 2.0, it also has the potential to make us a lot unhappier.

(Young woman wearing virtual reality headset by Marco Verch)

While the metaverse could turn into a dystopian nightmare where we own nothing, we certainly wouldn’t be happy. We’ll be stimulated, excited and “high”, but we’ll be numb on the inside. We’ll feel disconnected from the world and others and deeply dissatisfied.

Those who disconnect from the metaverse and spend time in nature will be able to enjoy true pleasure, love and happiness.

Should You Invest in Web 3.0 Projects?

From an investing standpoint, there will be many great opportunities to invest in companies that are attempting to build the future of the metaverse, such as Meta.

There are NFTs and many projects related to the metaverse. While it’s still unclear which one of these will still be around in 5-10 years, investing in projects related to the metaverse might provide a great return on investment in the next decade. However, you are investing in exactly the same companies that are currently generating revenue from monetizing attention. You’d be backing games and virtual worlds that are hyperdopaminergic and as such potentially harmful for people’s mental health.

Every investor needs to decide for themselves whether they want to do this. I don’t blame anyone who invests in Web 3.0 projects since we all have to outpace inflation and are forced to become more speculative.

However, I view bitcoin as a better long-term investment and hedge against a dystopian scenario. Bitcoin means privacy and freedom because it is truly decentralized and cannot be controlled by governments or central banks. As private property, it is harder to confiscate than gold or real estate and it cannot be shut down. In many ways, its decentralized nature can be seen as a counter-movement to increasing centralization and the Great Reset.

The Hope for a Benign Metaverse

One thing that is important to keep in mind is that it is still unclear how big of a deal the metaverse ends up being and what its actual implementation will look like.

Many people wearing virtual reality headsets report motion sickness.

Hopefully, a majority of people will prefer spending time in the real world, feel uncomfortable wearing virtual reality headsets for prolonged periods of time or arrive at the same conclusions about their deteriorating happiness as a result of overstimulation.

Maybe the metaverse will not be experienced through virtual reality headsets at all but rather through regular screens or devices such as augmented reality glasses. The future is uncertain but I hope this article provided you with a critical examination of the metaverse as the next stage of a more interactive, immersive internet. I outlined some of the downsides and potential risks of the metaverse. As with all technological advancement, the metaverse is likely going to improve our lives in ways we can’t even imagine. But at the same time we have to remain cautious and pay attention.

The chances of a full-blown dystopian metaverse are probably slim but there is no doubt about its hyperdopaminergic nature and negative effects on mental health. It will make sense to disconnect from the metaverse as often as possible and only use it productively or when absolutely necessary.

December 17, 2021