The Metaverse: Never Too Soon to Discuss Ethics

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There is a lot of buzz around the metaverse. It does not have a firm definition, but the vision of it is a 3D immersive world where we will be spending a lot of time socializing, working, entertaining, learning and more. It is the combination of virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), mixed reality (MR), gaming, social media and much more.

It will rely on blockchain technology and digital assets, such as non-fungible tokens (NFTs), to monetize transactions in the digital environment; and use artificial intelligence (AI) and internet of things (IoT) technologies to ensure seamless communications.

Major technology companies are making significant investments and commitments to the development of the metaverse. Meta (formerly Facebook) has announced an annual investment of $10 billion in the metaverse, and expects to increase its investments in following years. Microsoft has bought Activision Blizzard (a company owning online games such as Call of Duty and World of Warcraft) for nearly $69 billion, with the perspective that gaming will be a big part of the development of the metaverse. Qualcomm has established a $100 million metaverse fund to further develop VR and AR technologies. Alibaba has invested $50 million in Nreal, an augmented reality glasses maker, and TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, has spent nearly 5 billion yuan ($772 million) on VR headset maker Pico.

The metaverse is not yet a concrete reality, despite all of these substantial investments. It’s anyone’s guess when that will happen — it may take years, or even a decade, but these vast investments in the development of this space is encouraging and the promise of what could be our new future reality.

The exact scope and impact of the metaverse on society and on the economy is still unknown. However, it will most likely open up a range of opportunities, as well as a number of risks and a variety of ethical issues and concerns. 

Indeed, while the metaverse might be years away, it’s never too soon to start thinking about these ethical issues and form guidelines and frameworks for ethical principles that instills trust and pave the foundation for the future.

Ethics in general, and as it relates to the metaverse, is a broad topic with many issues to discuss. This article is the first in a series of articles to examine, explore and study the ethical issues of the metaverse, invoke a discussion and suggests possible approaches. First, let’s understand what ethics is.

What is Ethics?

Ethics refers to well-founded standards of right and wrong that prescribe what humans ought to do – usually in terms of rights, obligations, benefits to society, fairness, or specific virtues. More specifically:

  • In terms of obligations: Ethical standards may refer to those standards that impose the reasonable obligations to refrain from rape, theft, murder, assault, slander, and fraud.
  • In terms of rights: Ethical standards may refer to rights such as the right to life, the right to freedom from injury, the right to privacy, the right to equal opportunities and accessibility to services (i.e., no discrimination).
  • In terms of virtues: Ethical standards may include those that prompt virtues of honesty, compassion, and loyalty.

Such standards are adequate standards of ethics because they are supported by consistent and well-founded reasons.

Ethics is not law

Being ethical is not the same as following the law. The law often incorporates ethical standards to which most citizens subscribe, but laws can sometimes deviate from what is ethical. The pre-Civil War slavery laws and the apartheid laws of South Africa are examples of laws that deviate from what is ethical.

Ethics is not religion

Most religions advocate high ethical standards. Yet if ethics were confined to religion, then ethics would apply only to religious people. But ethics applies to the behavior of any person, whether they are devout or not. Ethics cannot be confined to religion nor is it the same as religion. Ethics is conduct and behavior unbounded by any religion, faith or region. It is universal but could also be subjective.

Is ethics whatever society accepts?

Some people may say that being ethical is doing “whatever society accepts.” But sometimes an entire society could become ethically corrupt. Nazi Germany is an example of a morally corrupt society. Furthermore, the lack of social consensus on many issues makes it impossible to equate ethics with whatever society accepts. To take a current issue as an example: Some people accept abortion, others do not. If being ethical is doing whatever society accepts, one would have to find an agreement on issues; such agreements often simply do not exist.

As mentioned above, laws, and social norms can deviate from what is ethical. It is necessary to constantly examine one’s standards to ensure that they are reasonable and well-founded. But it also means that ethics might be a subjective attribute – like when there is no consensus on an issue.

Subjective ethics and the metaverse

Ethical standards and morals are not bound by borders or countries. People from different countries, regions or ethnic groups may hold similar morals and values. They may have more moral agreement with people who are not necessarily from their same ethnic group or country. This suggests that there could be a diverse international community that is joined together on the basis of same moral and ethical standards. How could members of this unique community find each other and operate together? A decentralized metaverse might offer a solution.

The metaverse can be either centralized, owned by a centralized company like Meta, or decentralized, where no one entity can claim control. If users’ ownership is prioritized, then it is important that the implementation of the metaverse be a decentralized one. To enable universal operation and interoperability, a metaverse model based on blockchain technology and open standards, controlled by the users themselves in form of decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs), has to emerge.

A DAO is a community-led entity with no central authority. It is fully autonomous and transparent. Smart contracts (i.e., self-executing codes) lay the foundational rules, execute the agreed upon decisions, and at any point, proposals, voting, and even the very code itself can be publicly audited. A DAO is governed entirely by its individual members who collectively make critical decisions about the future of a project (such as technical upgrades) or the community (such as treasury allocations or working for a mutual cause).

A DAO can also lay the moral and ethical standards of the community, as well as set up a mechanism that incentivizes good behavior, which supports the community, and penalizes bad actors who violate its rules. Those who feel in agreement with these ethical standards could join the community. Being a member of this community is not confined to region or ethnic group. If you agree with the ethical standards of the group and as long as you do not violate them, you can become a member of this diverse, universal community.

We might experience different metaverse communities, where people gather and operate together on the basis of common ethical standards, no matter what region, age, gender or any other differences they might have – the ethical and moral standards would be what bonds them together.

What are the ethical concerns in the metaverse?

Most of the ethical concerns in the metaverse are also issues for the non-digital life – such as privacy, social and economic inequalities, accessibility, identity control, freedom of creative expression, etc. Thus, they are not new issues; they merely reflect society as it is. As far as the big picture is concerned, ethical problems have always existed; humanity has only recently begun to attempt to address many of them.

In addition, with these new emerging technologies, new concerns may arise. For example, biometric or brainwave data might be maliciously accessed, which could be used unscrupulously to control thoughts and behavior; or the ability to have multiple identities for different digital spaces. I’ll explore some of these ideas in future articles, but for now, it’s enough to say that it’s never too soon to start discussing ethical concerns.

Ethical considerations and possible solutions need to be built into the development of the metaverse from its inception — which right now, at this very moment. We could learn from our past mistakes and build a better future this time around.