> Opinion

Prudent attitude toward ‘metaverse’ needed among scholars

ZENG JUN | 2022-04-22 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

FILE PHOTO: The metaverse has become a topic of growing popularity in recent years.

The popularity of the metaverse has aroused widespread attention and heated discussion in the fields of science and technology, commerce, finance, sociology, politics, law, humanities, and the arts. 

Buzz of excitement stirred 
This buzz of excitement is not something new. From the introduction of the internet bubble, around the beginning of the 21st century, to the recent developments in artificial intelligence and virtual reality, the emergence of each new technology is likely to cause excitement and hype in different sectors. The first year when a new technology emerges is called “meta-year” to herald the advent of a brand-new period.  
However, we are also well aware that after excitement, there will be disappointment, and after enthusiasm there will be a natural ebb. To a large extent, much of the fantastic imagination surrounding an emerging technology, or a new product, involves unrealistic amplification. 
Humanistic concern needed 
Therefore, humanistic concern becomes particularly important—for the sake of social responsibility—in face of the metaverse’s hype. 
The first priority is calmness. The more popular the metaverse is, the more calm we should be. The metaverse has now been touted as “the next generation of internet” which will change the way human society lives and behaves, and many people have taken for granted that the metaverse is having a major impact on our lives. 
By quantifying recent works researching the metaverse, results show that most of the research includes the study of technological methods which aim to realize the metaverse, the imagination that the metaverse might trigger a social transformation, and science fiction and film critiques about the metaverse. On the whole, these scholarly works include more fictional imagination than scientific knowledge; there is more prediction than reflection. It seems that everyone is fabricating a myth about the nature of the metaverse, and we must be highly alert to avoid this speculation.
The second priority is objectivity. As a name for the coming era of new digital technology, the metaverse is a concept with a utopian nature. Instead of magnifying the impacts of the metaverse in all aspects, we need to observe the technological transformation and the capital flow trends with great prudence. Overhyped studies will lead to two consequences. One is unfettered optimism, that the metaverse represents the future of human society. Some scholars have even linked the metaverse with communism, and humanity’s comprehensive and free development, and thus entrusted the concept with the mission of helping pursue the goal of “common prosperity.”
The other is a pessimistic view, which argues that the metaverse will make the social culture of “amusing ourselves to death” even more prevalent, and people will become completely enslaved. In fact, the metaverse is just a name used to define a new technology and possible application scenarios based on it. 
The third priority is intervention. What can scholars of humanities and social sciences do when faced with the metaverse? Scholars can begin by carefully observing. Technology updates faster each day, but it can also be fleeting. There are many variables or factors playing a role in the invention process of a new technology, as it transforms into an application scenario, and finally becomes mature. Does technology make people more free or more alienated? This is not only related to the technology itself, and its application, but also to the institutional mechanisms outside technology. Therefore, observing the impact of technological change on social culture has become a task for scholars which requires constant patience and close tracking. 
Scholars should also try to become rule and policy makers. The internet is not a place for outlaws, and the same principle applies to the metaverse. But how does the law protect individual rights within the metaverse space? Does the future metaverse space need to adopt a real-name registration system to identify users so that the real world and the online world are consistent and supportive, instead of conflicting with each other? But if a real-name system is adopted, how do we protect the privacy of individuals? In addition, we can predict that the metaverse will trigger a new wave of fervor in cultural creation industries. By then, the prevention of cultural anomie and value-absence in related sectors will be put on the agenda for discussion. 
All in all, it is a good thing that the metaverse, as a literary concept that originally derives from the American science fiction novel Snow Crash, has reignited the theoretical passion of scholars in the humanities and social sciences. However, real meaningful academic research should be conducted on the premise of deconstructing an overblown myth. In this process, scholars of humanities and social sciences will play a crucial role.
Zeng Jun is a professor from the College of Liberal Arts at Shanghai University. 
Edited by BAI LE