Losing oneself in a book or a film is such a simple pleasure. Emotionally driven but easy to detach from, enjoyed with intention but naturally conclude. Both are still as popular as ever, but they are now in competition with a digital world which is far from simple. And as the metaverse develops into a truly usable space – however that might look – the competition will not be just for our emotional immersion, but our entire person. So, what does this mean for how we understand ourselves? And our perception of the world around us? Does safety in the metaverse mean the same as safety in the real world? And if not, why not? In this third exploration into the potential of the metaverse, we ask: how real is an immersive world?
For most of us who remember a time before smartphones, there’s always a mild sense of horror at the idea of a life lived entirely online, but that’s an accepted fact for Gen Z, who wouldn’t recognise a world of pre-smartphone anonymity. As it currently exists, the internet is a chaotic place, where universal governance and legal frameworks still don’t quite have the teeth they do in the real world. However, most of us have a natural sense of delineation and very clear psychological boundaries between what is online and offline. In fact, nowhere does this show more than in the very different and out of character ways in which people conduct themselves when there is the perceived ‘protection’ of the internet between them and others.
But when the boundary between online and offline begins to blur, what happens? “In the real world we’re continually receiving cues from our external environment, which then feed back into our inner sense of who we are and what we stand for,” explains psychologist Joy Palfery. “In the online environment you can be quite limited by what’s available to express, but the availability of the cues you get back is also limited.” What Joy means by this is that in the first stages of the metaverse, the social cues that we give and receive will be dictated by the sophistication of our avatars or digital representation. We won’t necessarily be able to understand what is socially acceptable and what is not, particularly as the rules are unclear, still evolving and forming. The meeting of cultures also plays a part in this. “Other people you interact with are perhaps drawing on very different social constructs to you. It’ll be more chaotic, and you may not get familiar feedback. So, that’s potentially quite disruptive to your sense of self.”