AR and the metaverse could be more divisive and insidious than social media

Louis Rosenberg, a computer scientist and developer of the first functional AR system at the Air Force Research Laboratory, according to this article, warned the metaverse could create a sort of dystopia in our reality.

Augmented Reality (AR) and the Metaverse are media technologies that attempt to convey content by seamlessly blending virtual sights, sounds, and even sensations into our experience of the real world. This means that AR, more than any other type of media yet, has the ability to skew our perception of reality, changing how we interpret our daily experiences. Walking down the street in an augmented reality environment will become a fusion of the physical and virtual, blended so convincingly that the borders between them will vanish in our imaginations. So much so that our surroundings will be filled with people, places, objects, and activities that do not exist but appear to us to be extremely real.

Augmented Reality (AR)

The impact of augmented reality on society will be significant, but this doesn’t mean it will be a good thing.

AR will pervade all aspects of our lives, influencing everything from how we work and entertain ourselves to how we communicate with one another. Rosenberg is much more sure that it will happen this decade. However, he is more concerned about the negative repercussions, which are caused by the legitimate uses of AR by the big platform providers that will control the infrastructure, rather than by bad actors stealing the technology or otherwise hijacking our good intentions.

A way to a dystopian world

We live in a society where countless layers of technology stand between each of us and our daily lives, filtering our approach to news, information, and our impressions of products and services, mediating our relationships with friends and family, and even influencing our acceptance of basic facts. Each of us is becoming increasingly reliant on the corporations that provide and maintain the layers in between. When those layers are exploited to manipulate us, the industry views it as a marketing strategy rather than abuse. This is being employed not only to sell items but also to spread lies and foster social divisiveness. The fact is that we are living in dangerous times, and AR has the potential to increase the threats to unprecedented degrees.

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As Rosenberg supposes, just imagine glancing at people you pass on the sidewalk. Nothing changes, except for giant glowing bubbles of information hovering above everyone’s heads. Perhaps the purpose is positive, allowing people to share their hobbies and interests with those in their close surroundings. But consider the possibility of third-party content being injected, maybe as a paid filter layer that only certain people can see. They could use that layer to tag people with terms like “Alcoholic”, “Immigrant”, “Atheist”, “Racist”, “Democrat”, “Republican”, and so on. Those who have been tagged may be unaware that others can see them in this light. The virtual overlays might readily be used to amplify political conflict, marginalize specific groups, and even incite hatred and distrust in people not considering that information may be wrong. It’s like when there’s a rumor about you and you’re not aware of it. Those who heard that rumor prefer to trust that information rather than verify if it’s true.

For retail counters, for example, AR will alter the way they evaluate their customers because personal data will be visible around them, revealing their hobbies and interests, shopping habits, etc… It would have been inconceivable decades ago for companies to have such access to information, but we now accept it as the cost of being digital consumers.

The metaverse could change reality

From fake news and deepfakes to botnets and troll farms, the misuse of media technologies has rendered us all vulnerable to distortions and misinformation during the last decade. These threats are subtle, but we can turn off our phones or take a break from our screens to engage in genuine face-to-face interactions that aren’t filtered via corporate databases or influenced by artificial algorithms. However, with the rise of augmented reality, this final stronghold of dependable reality may vanish entirely.

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The shared experience we refer to as “civilized society” is rapidly dissolving, owing to the fact that we all live in our own data bubbles, with each of us receiving customized news and information (and even lies) tailored to our own personal beliefs. This reinforces our biases and confirms our beliefs. But, at the very least, now we can still share some experiences in a common reality. That will be lost with AR, though, where walking down the street will reveal a metropolis packed with content that confirms your personal beliefs, leading you to believe that everyone believes the same way you do without even talking to each other. We could walk with a scarlet letter over our heads without even being aware of it.

Take, for example, the tragedy of homelessness. There will be people who, for political reasons, choose not to notice the problem, using their AR headsets to create virtual blinders, concealing soup meals, and homeless shelters behind virtual walls. Others will refuse to visit fertility clinics, gun stores, or whatever else the political establishment encourages them to block from reality. Consider the impact on the poorest members of society at the same time. If a household cannot afford AR hardware, they will be forced to live in a world where important information is hidden from view.

New technology can’t always be dumped

To avoid any problems, you won’t just remove your AR glasses or pop out your contacts. We will become completely reliant on the virtual layers of information broadcast all around us. It will not feel optional any more than internet access does today. You won’t unplug your AR system since it will make crucial portions of your environment unavailable, putting you at a social, economic, and intellectual disadvantage. The truth is that the technologies we accept for convenience rarely remain discretionary, especially when they are as deeply integrated into our lives as AR will be. It’s like living today without a smartphone, you are disconnected from almost anything.

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Nonetheless, AR has the potential to improve our lives in a variety of ways; it will allow doctors to work more efficiently and effectively. Everyone will profit, including construction workers, engineers, and scientists. AR will undoubtedly transform entertainment and education, releasing experiences that are both engaging and educational, as well as exciting and inspiring.

However, AR will increase our dependence on the layers of technology that mediate our lives, and who controls those layers. This will make us more vulnerable to manipulation and distortion by those with the financial means to do so. If we are not watchful today, AR may easily be used to split society by pushing us out of our media bubbles and into our own personalized realities, further exacerbating our ideas and consolidating our divisions, even when we are in what appears to be the public domain.

Nevertheless, in order to avoid potential risks, we must act carefully and wisely, anticipating issues that could harm what should be a positive technology. If the unintended consequences of social media have taught us anything, it’s those good intentions alone that aren’t enough to prevent systems from being implemented with major fundamental flaws. And once those structural issues are in place, repairing the damage is quite tough. This means that AR proponents must do it right the first time.

Therefore, like any information in real life must not be taken for granted, we’ll have to be even more careful about data provided in the digital world because they can lead us to act or think in a wrong way because someone or something has already carved our path.