MetaKovan, the new czar of the virtual metropolis Origin City, with a purple crown, held a grand party last year to celebrate his most prized art acquisition, a series of images worth $2.2 million (more than Rs 16 crore approx.) by American digital artist Beeple (real name, Mike Winkelmann). Guests danced on the floor of his new gallery or floated above it through gravity-defying abilities. Not only did he show off his collection, he sold tokens, giving buyers a stake in his art pieces.
MetaKovan is the digital avatar of the real-life cryptocurrency investor Vignesh Sundaresan, who operates and lives in the metaverse, an inter-connected three-dimensional (3D) virtual world, where people can network socially and commercially with one another. In this digital universe, he is building his own art gallery and has enough worth to bid $69 million for another Beeple piece at British auction house Christie’s. It was the first time a major auction house sold a digital artwork in the form of a new crypto asset called a Non-Fungible Token (NFT), a non-transferable, digital certificate of ownership. But Singapore-based Sundaresan is not the only one living a dual life. Multiverse-living, where you juggle between the real world and an alternate reality, is taking over humankind.
South Korea officially has a “Metaverse Seoul” complete with cultural events, tourist sites, parks where you can run with Nike’s digital sneakers and even have avatar (a digital self) officials solving governance issues. A couple from the US got married, late last year, in metaverse, where they were physically absent, but digitally present. People are buying yachts and real estate in a virtual dream life, while big corporations are creating their avatar subsidiaries.
The problem with creating another sphere of reality is just that — it is created. It’s a man-made extension of wish fulfillment, where things are valued according to mutually-agreed-upon covenants and assessment over actual utility and purpose. Simply put, what you can’t get in the here and now, you can get in a parallel universe by willfully surrendering to a myth of your own making.
Psychologists and social scientists across the world are now worried if the human mind can process conflicting binaries and retain its balance. With a headset, will there be a willing suspension of disbelief? Psychiatrists and behavioural scientists are already predicting a loss of our emotional quotient (EQ), a loss of individuality, and a dulling of our sensitivities. Socialising through holograms, implanted chips that monitor everything from health to our whereabouts, downloading of brain waves on computers for simulating our real-life thought patterns and robot companions (humanoids) are a reality today.
For the first time, the human brain is not enough to respond and adapt to the pace of the digital invasion. Will we become superhumans or humanoid robots? And most importantly, what happens to the present, real moment, and what will be the psychological impact of this dual reality?
Arianna Chaudhuri and Disha Sharma, 13-year-olds from Gurugram, have been childhood friends, given to sleepovers at each other’s homes. But the pandemic pushed them to engage with devices. With limited physical interaction, they bonded and shared notes online, signed up for games where they joined another community of players their age. Their parents did not realise the absorptive web they had been drawn into until they met physically for the first time when the lockdown ended last year. “For the two, who earlier went out cycling and swimming together, there was no enthusiasm to go out or even have a normal conversation. They sat awkwardly till I told them they could play games online. I saw them retreat into a corner with their devices and have animated conversations over it. They even practised teen-makeup with an online group. It troubled me that they needed devices to connect with each other,” says Radhika Chaudhuri, Arianna’s mother, a single parent, who works in an MNC.
But such cases are piling up on the desk of Sandeep Vohra, digital mental health specialist at Apollo Hospitals, Delhi. “Digitalisation has changed the way we react and behave. Since meeting on a social platform is easier than in person, our language of communication has changed, so have our responses to intimacy,” he says. He also warns of how this new socialisation is widening the generation gap as most seniors are digitally averse and still rely on one-on-one interaction.
Vohra adds that the pressures of a dual life are already changing the brain patterns in people. “There is an emotional numbing, especially among young people. Everything is click-based. Emojis, particularly in a metaverse situation, are the accepted ways of expression today. This over-dependence on living in an artificially formatted universe reduces one’s evolutionary capacity in the real world. I have had cases where the digitally addicted have great difficulty in performing their roles and duties in the real world. This manifests as anxiety disorders and depression, simply because you don’t like the present reality. This is because gamification leads to predictable formats of problem-solving,” says Vohra.
Currently, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) cases are on the rise, attributable to the addiction to gadgets, porn and gaming. It’s not uncommon to hear people complain of physical disorientation, hallucinations, erratic sleep cycles and personality disorders.
Chennai-based psychiatrist Mohan Raj has young patients, who are so involved in role-playing in the gaming world that hyper reality has swamped their real lives. “People tend to underestimate the damaging impact of 3D images and how violent games can desensitise people. An avid gamer who came in for a consultation had begun to dream about the games, fantasise, ruminate and talk about them all the time. He had become prone to road rage, as well,” says Raj.
Vohra sees metaverse radically impacting brain development, blunting creative thinking and higher intelligence as it tends to encourage homogeneity. “For younger children, the AR/VR (Augmented Reality/Virtual Reality) scenario could impact language development. Worst, it could trap their individuality and turn them into mimics, under pressure to conform to a ‘cool’ image,” says Vohra.
This paradigm shift in human responses is not just a precursor of multidimensional mental disorders. It will also upend social structures by creating a new division of digital haves and have-nots. “In the digital sphere, everything is perceived visually, there’s no touch and feel. This dulls empathy and emotions anyway,” says Raj. So, while you could live in isolationist bubbles in the real world, the very nature of metaverse means that you are part of a group behaviour and are subject to peer pressure. Psychologists see this as subservience to technology but creators and innovators see this as a technology that can enhance our lives.
A metaverse also breeds its own elitism. For example, one might not be able to afford an entry to a big-ticket concert in real life but can do the same as a digital avatar. Like Sundaresan, you could live the millionaire’s dream, betting big on cryptocurrencies, building huge stacks of notional money, collecting NFTs, socialising with diverse online communities, making up for all that is lacking in the present moment. And the best part of this tradeable life is that there is no timeline to our digital avatars, they are timeless, ageless and forever happy. Many consider this escapist matrix as a coping mechanism and for some, it’s a form of empowerment. They would rather be defined by their digital avatars as it allows them their El Dorado moment without an expiry date.
“People who are in it will increasingly use it to boost their offline self-worth,” says Awdesh Saxena, a Noida-based techie, who ventures into metaverse regularly and says people haven’t seen its full potential yet. “The alternative world enhances your power of choice and allows a democracy that doesn’t exist. If you are an avatar citizen, it is very difficult to engage with non-avatars and convince them about what innovation can do. This knowledge gap obviously has an impact on people around you in the real world,” he adds. Simply put, if you have not uploaded your life, you have not arrived yet. Could this, then, mean yet another consumerist society in the making?
The metaverse is the latest hunting ground for brands. With almost 16 per cent of worldwide gamers, India’s user base is a captive market. Some leading brands already have their metaverse collections, with Adidas selling about 30,000 NFTs for 0.2 Ethereum (equivalent to $800 or Rs 59,000) each and gaining $22 million worth of cryptocurrency. It has also bought up “meta” lands for its many avatar outlets.
This new gold rush is being used by global celebrities to extend their influencer ability, as well. So, while the likes of footballer Lionel Messi and socialite Paris Hilton are busy launching their NFTs, in India, it is actor Amitabh Bachchan’s NFT collection that has been sold for $ 9,66,000.
Bachchan’s NFT collectible series includes his voice rendition of his father Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s famous poem Madhushala (1935), and autographed vintage posters of himself. Blockchain technology almost blocks out piracy, making celebrities feel confident about connecting with their fans that much more intimately while monetising their existing brand worth in crypto terms. Not only that, every transaction and sale automatically gives them royalty too. For the user, picking up celebrity memorabilia, which is almost impossible in the real world, celebrity and brand NFTs catapult him/her to an exclusive club of ownership and a celebrityhood of one’s own.
As in all things in the metaverse, the fluidity of lifelike experiences blurs boundaries of who controls whom. Does this then mean that humans have lost their power of agency? “The definition of insanity is a break from reality. Aren’t we just escaping our present reality, becoming unhinged in the process? We must reclaim our right to exit a world of make-believe,” says Vohra. He believes that metaverse developers, creators and innovators should interact with doctors and scientists to harness technology in a manner that leads to human progress rather than degeneration.
Already, the growing financial muscle of cryptocurrency, NFTs and their exchange value in the real world have a pervasive acceptability, one which has spurred talks of a legal regulatory framework that the Indian government is carefully mulling over.
Raj, who has come across many cases of Alexa (Amazon’s cloud-based voice service), eavesdropping on conversations with unpleasant consequences, feels that Artificial Intelligence (AI) needs to be access-controlled and deployed selectively in a manner that it doesn’t impinge upon human consciousness, emotional stability or relationships. It is for this reason that we need to develop digital literacy and hygiene early on, something that scientists are now saying should be introduced in the school syllabi, to define the limits of engagement. Imagined reality in the end is just that, imagined. Take the headsets off and it vaporises. That’s when the human touch seems comforting. The one real thing.