Connecting the connected, but what about the rest? The metaverse has caught everyone’s imagination, but despite promises of bringing us closer together, digital experts believe it could further segregate the haves from the have-nots.
- Companies are rushing to get on the metaverse bandwagon.
- However, experiencing the metaverse requires technology that isn’t accessible to all.
- Experts warn this could prevent a large swathe of the population from getting on to the metaverse, further broadening the Digital Divide.
Companies everywhere are scampering to get a piece of the metaverse, ever since Mark Zuckerberg announced plans to use the might of his popular social network Facebook to turn the concept into a reality. But in all the hoopla, digital and social inclusion experts suggest that companies are losing sight of the fact that to be a part of it, one needs access to some very specific gear and a reliable connection to the Internet, both of which aren’t accessible to everyone.
“If the metaverse is the Wild Wild West, you ideally want the best horse and saddle you can afford,” is how Aron Solomon, chief legal analyst for digital marketing agency Esquire Digital, explained it to Lifewire over email.
Exacerbating the Divide
Metaverse, the term, was coined by American author Neal Stephenson back in 1992 in his popular sci-fi novel Snow Crash as an immersive virtual reality where participants interacted through 3D avatars.
Mark Zuckerberg is so enamored with the concept of the metaverse that in October 2021, he changed the name of his company to Meta to better reflect the company’s ambitions to terraform the new virtual reality landscape, having already pledged $50 million to bring it to life.
In essence, Meta thinks of the metaverse as a virtual space where users could work and socialize with other people without sharing the same physical space. To do so, Meta expects metaverse users to rely on immersive virtual reality (VR) headsets, augmented reality (AR) glasses, or a combination of the two wearable devices. It has a foot in the game here and is one of the leading manufacturers of VR hardware with its Oculus line of headsets.
While Meta’s zeal is commendable, from an access point of view, however, experts believe the company’s attempts to build the metaverse could worsen digital inequality by creating an even bigger barrier for people who might already be digitally excluded.
Interacting with Lifewire over email, Dr. Linda Kaye, a cyberpsychology specialist at Edge Hill University, explained that traditionally the ‘Digital Divide’ as most people understand it is largely related to existing societal inequalities.
Dr. Kaye’s area of research deals specifically with exploring how online settings can promote social inclusion and well-being. She adds that the Covid pandemic has further illuminated the widespread digital inequalities, particularly when it comes to obtaining appropriate hardware, as well as internet connectivity to support remote access to work and services.
The introduction of the metaverse will only help to exaggerate this divide further. Dr. Kaye argues that during the pandemic, some people didn’t even have sufficient internet connectivity to hold a video call, a fact which she says will invariably exclude them from the metaverse.
“With the proposal of the metaverse, which would require specific hardware as well as stable and high-speed connectivity, it is conceivable that this will cause even more issues for access for those who are currently excluded,” said Dr. Kaye.
Solomon agrees, but not before pointing out that there is a delineation between what people ‘need’ to access the minimum functions of the metaverse and what they’re going to want if they’re serious about it.
“You can use a good smartphone and an app to get a sense of what the metaverse experience can be like,” said Solomon. “But, yes, for an optimal metaverse experience, you may want to acquire AR smart glasses, a VR headset, and the best and newest smartphone/laptop/tablet/desktop you can possibly afford.”
However, while he agrees that in some ways, the introduction of the metaverse will widen the digital divide between the technological haves and have-nots, he is keeping his eyes peeled for “success stories of people in the latter group who find ways to monetize the metaverse and become the former.”
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