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Op-Ed

Zuckerberg's Meta Will Be in the Business of Messing with Minds

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Blurring reality has always been hazardous.

For the mentally fragile, the potential for blurring the divide between reality and the pretend worlds of the internet is about to get a whole lot more dangerous.

Last month, two apparently unrelated announcements made headlines.

An abducted little 4-year-old girl, Cleo Smith, was found alive, and Mark Zuckerberg announced his plan for renaming Facebook and creating his new three-dimensional metaverse.

So where’s the connection? You spot it.

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Here’s how journalists Paul Garvey and Paige Taylor described Cleo’s accused abductor Terence Kelly’s dangerous descent into the world of make-believe for The Australian:

“In a dilapidated duplex in a rundown part of Carnarvon known locally as The Bronx, Terence Kelly – the man alleged to have abducted four-year-old Cleo Smith – built himself an elaborate online fantasy. Mr Kelly, increasingly isolated in the years since the death of a woman locals considered his grandmother, appears to have crossed over into a virtual world of Bratz DeLuca: a name appropriated from one of his favourite make of dolls.

“Alone in his housing commission home, with no close family of his own, Mr Kelly operated what appears to be several – and potentially dozens – of different Facebook and Instagram accounts for him and his imaginary children. In at least one instance, he ­appeared to use photographs from the profile of a woman and her daughters and use them for the profiles of his fake family. He tagged many of the posts as being in Cronulla, a continent away from Carnarvon. And he did so while sitting surrounded by an elaborate collection of dolls, stretching from wall to wall, and from floor to ceiling.”

Yes, you got it! Zuckerberg’s Facebook. The authors go on to say of the accused abductor that “the fantasy family he constructed [was] documented primarily through Facebook pages.”

Do you think the metaverse will do more harm than good?

It seems that he “crossed back out of that fantasy world and drove out to the Blowholes campground, 75km north of Carnarvon, to ­abduct Cleo.”

On the creation of fake online profiles by people with a weakened grip on reality, James Ogloff, director of the Centre for Forensic Behavioural Science at Swinburne University, said, “All of us have some sort of fantasy … but we’re in touch with ­reality. We know what’s real and what’s not real. The question is whether you cross that line of ­irrationality.”

A Parallel Digital World: Augmented Reality or Alternate Reality?

We all need to think about this.

We are being offered digital twinning of the real and the virtual. As researchers wrote in a study published by IEEE MultiMedia, “[D]igital twins are being redefined as digital replications of living as well as nonliving entities that enable data to be seamlessly transmitted between the physical and virtual worlds.”

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As IT commentator Ronke Babajide wrote in a recent Medium post, “The Metaverse won’t be a game world. It’ll never ‘reset’ or ‘pause’ or ‘end’, it’ll go on indefinitely like the real world. It’ll be synchronized with our real world and there will be no limit to the ‘users’ of this parallel digital world.”

“The Metaverse is more like Augmented Reality and meant to improve your real life, we’re already using some of the technology in education, medicine and games, or even the augmented view of Google Maps,” she added.

It all sounds good — but is it?

In an article for Quartz titled, “What parents need to know about the coming metaverse,” Adario Strange sounded a warning.

“[W]hile many now know what the metaverse is — broadly, immersive digital experiences accessed through virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (VR) devices — its cultural import and how it may change our behaviors is less clear. This is particularly true with regard to the most vulnerable new metaverse initiates — children,” he wrote.

He went on to argue that protecting children in the metaverse will need to go beyond warning labels.

Strange cited 2008 research by University of Zurich neuroscientist Thomas Baumgartner that noted the disturbing differences in how adult prefrontal brain regions process VR versus the brains of children subjected to emotional virtual stimuli.

He quoted Stanford professor Jeremy Bailenson’s 2018 book “Experience on Demand”: “But VR engulfs us. … We slide occluding goggles over our eyes and cover our ears with headphones, overriding our two primary sense systems with simulated digital signals. … VR is the apotheosis of every media fear and fantasy we’ve ever had.”

Fair warning.

Serious Research Has Yet to Be Done

So what will happen to children and to mentally fragile adults when they are fully immersed in a 3D VR and AR world, when they find themselves inside a disorienting and unnerving different other-world space?

No one seems to know yet. Serious research has not been done. The conclusions of a preliminary two-page research study from 2019 are not reassuring:

“We find that users’ definitions of ‘online harassment’ are subjective and highly personal, making it difficult to govern social spaces at the platform or application level. We also find that embodiment and presence make harassment feel more intense. Finally, we find that shared norms for appropriate behavior in social VR are still emergent, and that users distinguish between newcomers who unknowingly violate expectations for appropriateness and those users who aim to cause intentional harm.”

Not good enough, Meta!

Indeed, the existing research on the social consequences of this metaverse invention is pitifully inadequate.

The Metaverse Must Not Operate Outside the Rule of Law

So what’s the hurry?

Well, clearly for the Big Tech oligarchs, there’s money to be made. That’s the big hurry.

Perhaps the best way to give them pause is to bring them inside the rule of law right now.

Protection for children and for the mentally vulnerable, a responsible limitation of potential harm, must be set in place. Right now — not post facto.

But Zuckerberg is planning to deal with any tragic consequences afterward. He just announced that he expects this year to spend more than $10 billion on AR, VR and metaverse infrastructure.

Perhaps Meta should spend $10 billion first on assessing the metaverse’s potential harms to children.

There was no amount announced for precautionary research on the possible harm to children whose brains are still developing and potential harm to psychologically disturbed adults.

Neither was there any announcement of any amount that he might expect to spend to treat and compensate metaverse harms that result from its use by psychologically fragile potential users of the metaverse like Terence Kelly.

Under the rule of law, a brake must be put on the development of the metaverse until an adequate legal safety net is in place to protect the vulnerable from real harm.

In the real world, where real $10 billion annual budgets are being spent to build this metaverse, real $10 billion fines must be readied to be imposed on those business entities that facilitate real mental disturbance and real harmful behaviors on those who are unable psychologically to deal with the manipulative mind-meddling of this Big Tech monstrosity.

The Metaverse Will Mess with Creation

One of the most disturbing aspects of the developing metaverse was prefigured in the original 1992 science fiction novel “Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson, in which religious faith is disparaged.

“All people have religions. It’s like we have religion receptors built into our brain cells, or something, and we’ll latch onto anything that’ll fill that niche for us.”

Therein lies a very real danger to us all — the idea that our faith and the faith of our fathers is just an imaginary iteration like so many other novelties in the new metaverse.

But we know our Creator is real. There is a real heaven and a real earth. Jesus Christ is a real person. We have the historical evidence of the New and Old Testaments, reliable source material.

We must not allow this new metaverse to get out of hand to mess with everything that is good and true and right in our real lives.

We must not allow this new medium to mess with our hearts or with our deepest principles and commitments.

We must arm ourselves and protect especially our children and our child-like adults from the worst threats of the metaverse’s messing with our minds.

When we say “I believe”, we are not saying “I make believe.”

There is an immensely significant difference.

The views expressed in this opinion article are those of their author and are not necessarily either shared or endorsed by the owners of this website. If you are interested in contributing an Op-Ed to The Western Journal, you can learn about our submission guidelines and process here.

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