Reality is broken. So Jane McGonigal (author and game designer) declared a decade ago in a book bearing that title. While people have accomplished amazing things, the mistakes are many and big—wars, gun violence, pollution, meaningless work, and so on. This brokenness encourages people to disengage from reality and devote themselves to video games (and virtual worlds) where they exercise more control and their talents are used more fully. The nearing age of the metaverse promises to take this further as a wider swath of people will begin inhabiting virtual spaces.
Advocates of the metaverse point to all the benefits it could bring. Artists, for instance, could guarantee receiving proper payment for their work by writing it into the blockchain. Moreover, the metaverse could provide virtual versions of experiences, which would otherwise be unattainable, especially for those with physical or financial limitations, such as being on top of Mount Everest or traveling to any art museum in the world. Matthew Ball, in his book The Metaverse: And How It Will Revolutionize Everything, explains that, within Minecraft, users built The Uncensored Library—a digital library with books banned in countries like Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. This digital library gave access to people whose physical access was blocked. People generally agree that seeing places physically, reading hard copies of books, and socializing with others in person are significantly better. However, when those physical experiences are not possible, these digital versions provide a better possibility than previous technology allowed.
Despite the potential benefits, we have all witnessed a plethora of negative examples in social media and comments sections of articles that show people succumbing to base impulses online under the cloak of distance or anonymity. Potential detriments lurk under the surface of the overstated positivity. After all, human beings maintain control over their avatars. As digital selves and avatars carry a visual importance, one likely overlooked issue is whether we will force cultural beauty standards into virtual worlds.
When discussing fashion’s infiltration of video games, for example, someone said to me recently that this was disheartening because the real world provides enough pressure to look a certain way, and now they had to worry about appearances in virtual spaces too. Some people want those spaces for escape, not additional social pressures. Yet, without being able to use all five senses, the visual elevates its importance in the metaverse, possibly forcing unintended pressures onto its users. It’s already happening in video games, like Fortnite, where people are shamed if they use “default skins,” instead of buying other ones. This arises because kids who allegedly are “too poor” to buy skins are shamed precisely for being poor. This is not exactly the same as forcing beauty standards onto avatars, but it consists of people imposing a visual element onto others who just want to be in a particular virtual space. If the metaverse could become a place of equity, we should consider how beauty fits into these virtual spaces.
How could beauty play a role in the metaverse without the imposition of harsh standards? One unsatisfying response is that people will continue to be people in the metaverse, which funnels in the positive and negative. While true, this response is not terribly helpful. I have a slightly more optimistic approach. Physical reality limits our ability to experience as much as we might like. Most people cannot afford to travel everywhere, which limits how our taste develops and expands. People tend to find familiar things more beautiful. So, if your experience is limited, then your understanding of beauty will be more limited as well. The metaverse allows people to explore new kinds of spaces, people, and objects, which will affect their comprehension of beauty. Not everyone will take full advantage of all that the metaverse could offer, but it will offer more experiences.
Beauty standards possess their power within a particular culture. In other words, each culture focuses on certain aspects of beauty, especially as imposed by those with power. Companies didn’t invent beauty, but they develop and harness new ways to exploit our natural inclination toward it. One of the marks of those advocating for the metaverse is the urgency for it to be (and remain) decentralized. Simply put, this means that the content and even structure is owned by the users. If this vision holds true, then there wouldn’t be a central power structure to impose standards, beauty or otherwise, onto users. Some users may try to pressure others, which could still present difficulties. But absent of a central power, they could be overshadowed by the majority of those seeking to uphold the equity that the metaverse promises.
We should remain open to a true exploration of virtual spaces. Rather than using them as merely a digital version of the physical world, virtual worlds could enable us to expand our thinking, habits, and beliefs by providing new ways and things to experience and different ways to engage with others. But there is always the fear that our self-imposed curation leads to an endless cycle of similar things echoing back to us over and over again. We may need to fight this lazy tendency and become more intentional about exposing ourselves to new things, ideas, and people. Imagination and curiosity could become ever more virtuous in the metaverse.
Advocates of new technologies often appear to focus only on what the new technologies can do and very little on whether we should do it or how to avoid potential pitfalls. One does not need to be a luddite to forecast problems with new technologies, even while admitting the benefits. A lot of people claim and sincerely hope that the metaverse could bring about a better world, and even influence the practices in the physical world to become better. Part of that optimism depends on people maintaining their humanity in the metaverse, and that depends in part on experiencing beauty in those virtual spaces. The metaverse, as a tool, could help us all expand our understandings of beauty, but we must intentionally be open to that.
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