To be or not to be: Ethics, democracy and morality in the nascent metaverse
The metaverse has the potential to be the next frontier of human interaction, as evidenced by the amount of activity that continues to pour into the space.
It’s not just game developers pushing digital worlds but entire countries are setting up metaverse development funds. Major automotive firms, such as Nissan, are conducting trial sales in the metaverse, and even court cases are being moved to digital reality.
According to data compiled by licensed trademark attorney Mike Kondoudis in November 2022, trademarks filed for nonfungible tokens (NFTs), cryptocurrencies and the metaverse hit new levels at the end of the year.
However, if countries and court cases are entering the metaverse and human activity increases in digital reality, it’s only a matter of time before major ethical questions come into play.
What are the moral codes of a society that is a digital conglomerate of many societies in physical reality? Or, given the fact the metaverse is in theory open to anyone around the world, how do local and metaverse laws interfere and interact with one another?
These are new concepts that have sprung from emerging technologies, but they have roots in some of the major ethical questions with which humans have struggled throughout history.
A moral metaverse
With new technology, there are always questions raised about the morality and ethics of its capabilities. This has certainly been the case with artificial intelligence (AI) and invasive wearable technology.
Recently, the release of ChatGPT-4, an advanced AI chatbot application, raised major ethical questions as it was able to ace the bar exam and SATs. In an effort to dictate morality around this technology, Cambridge University released its first official policy regarding the ethics of artificial intelligence.
.@CambridgeUP has launched its first ever AI research ethics policy to help researchers use generative AI tools while “upholding academic standards around transparency, plagiarism, accuracy and originality”.
Read here: https://t.co/VYL6JxIGXl pic.twitter.com/lMi96wwA2i
— The Bookseller (@thebookseller) March 14, 2023
As the metaverse expands, it, too, is becoming a topic both users and developers will continue to face from a moral and ethical perspective.
For Yat Siu, CEO and co-founder of Animoca Brands, the “framework in the physical world” is still something to fall back on in this early stage of digital reality development.
“It’s certainly an ongoing process,” he told Cointelegraph. “Some jurisdictions are looking at incorporating digital assets within local law frameworks.”
Related: US enforcement agencies are turning up the heat on crypto-related crime
Siu’s comment regarding jurisdiction refers to the fact that the metaverse is theoretically accessible to users from all over the world, but it’s also being developed intentionally and in specific ways in certain countries.
For example, Saudi Arabia recently announced a partnership with The Sandbox for future metaverse development, while in Colombia, a local legal jurisdiction held a trial in the metaverse.
Therefore, in instances involving specific physical geographical locations, local perspectives of ethics and morality will come into play.
Metaverse crime and punishment
The aforementioned court case in Colombia created a buzz in the online legal community as to what is legally possible in virtual worlds and, more importantly, what is ethical for all those involved.
The Colombian court case was a civil case involving a traffic violation that took place outside of the metaverse. However, the situation becomes more complex when dealing with punishment for behavior deemed unethical that has taken place within the metaverse. On this, Siu commented:
“At the moment, the immediate measures against criminals in the open metaverse are often enacted by the community itself and are technologically based, such as blacklisting the offenders’ wallets and sanctioning them.”
Another way to tackle metaverse crimes, according to Siu, would be to reverse transactions by securing a general consensus on the blockchains where the crimes took place.
He said this way is “more controversial” and still a “degree of law enforcement in the physical world is required.”
John Kobs, CEO and founder of digital artist residency Wildxyz, echoed Siu, telling Cointelegraph that the ethics and morality of the metaverse are currently being created, and developers should be creating this new ethical standard with integrity and trust for its users.
“Ensuring these new online spaces are filled with respect and inclusivity and held to a high ethical standard is the bar we are holding ourselves accountable to.”
Civilizations in physical reality have been wrestling with moral and ethical codes for centuries. One of the world’s most recognizable and ethical societal systems, democracy, was created in Greece in 5 B.C.
However, the various cultures and societies that have tried to take on democracy have influenced this moral system. The democracy that exists today in many countries around the world still is not exactly how the ancients first envisioned it.
Therefore, as humans create a new digital world, the cultural code of morals and ethics will most likely be shaped by the digital environments around it.
Kobs said that at Wildxyz, “We believe the culture and structures we create will play a huge role in defining a safe space for all who want to participate.”
On digital, decentralized democracy, Siu commented that “justice” is an important value of the open metaverse although it is “more subjective.”
“The metaverse offers us the opportunity to create new digital lives that are less affected by unfair factors that might plague us in the real world like disease, disability or poverty.”
Before our societies took the shape they’re currently in, “physical world societies began in a fairly decentralized manner and eventually grew into monarchy systems, which are not at all democratic or decentralized,” said Siu.
He continued by pointing out that despite this oscillation between decentralized and centralized ways of building societies, today, almost all those systems have been “replaced by democratic ones.”
“In terms of democratic potential, the open metaverse actually has some advantages over the physical world because participation is already codified by the framework itself, making it harder to be illegitimately disenfranchised, cheated, ostracized, etc.”
On the radar
Increased use of the metaverse is expected to change many areas of life as it is known in physical reality. In fact, 69% of users believe that metaverse activities will reshape social life.
However, the metaverse is still in its infant stage, and so are many aspects of its usability, including those with regard to ethical procedures. For now, there is not one blanket set of ethics and moral codes that dictate digital reality, just as there is not even a singular “metaverse” at present.
Related: Death in the metaverse: Web3 aims to offer new answers to old questions
Nonetheless, the way humans will interact with each other morally and ethically in a digital replication of reality is definitely on the mind of developers and scholars.
Numerous academic articles are beginning to surface on the subject. A talk on the topic was even held at the mainstream South by Southwest festival called, “Good, Evil and Avatars: Ethics in the Metaverse.”
More attention is shifting to the digital world and what it takes to make it a sustainable reality. As Siu concluded on the topic, “a new culture is emerging.”