Last year, Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook (the overall company brand) would be changed to the name “Meta”. Since the Greek particle meta literally means “beyond,” the new name quickly became the butt of jokes on plenty of (oh, the irony) Facebook timelines. For most critics the name change is little more than an attempt to move “beyond” the many scandals the brand has been through in the recent past — from selling users’ data to purposely contributing to political polarization. So the question arises: Will the metaverses behave ethically?
As the Spanish author Alberto Olmos puts it, every effort made to promote the metaverse comes with the same seemingly harmless promise: “Facebook wants you to believe that around $10 billion has been spent so that you can congratulate your grandfather, who lives in a small town in the middle of nowhere, on his birthday […]Every single civilized country has prohibited human cloning. But it seems like nobody has ever said anything about cloning absolutely everything.” That is, at least according to Olmos, what Meta intends to do: “a project to copy reality, including you, your dog, and your father, in a very convincing immaterial dimension.” Are such copies ethical? Are we, as a human society, okay with that?
This replication is perceived by some as not only unnecessary, but even dangerous. “There’s no fixed process for predicting the results and controlling what happens,” said Neal Stephenson, the author of the 1992 best-selling sci-fi novel Snow Crash. “At some level, it boils down to people’s capacity to act as socially responsible, ethical individuals.”
MetaCatholic, a project led by Fr. Ian VanHeusen, is betting heavily on this capacity. In short, MetaCatholic intends to “provide solid catechesis and ethical training to help protect people, especially the poor who have been most negatively impacted by new technologies.”
Aleteia: The metaverse has been received with more criticism than enthusiasm. Some argue it will replicate the very same kind of inequalities and injustices we find in the “real” world. Some say it will deepen them, as access to technology is so unevenly distributed around the world. Is there anything “good” about it?
Fr. Ian VanHeusen: My circle of friends and collaborators have a couple of words we use to describe the desire to halt technological progress. One friend calls it Epochism. I call it the Amish Response.Typically, people who hold this position desire that technology, philosophy, theology, and other aspects of human civilization should freeze in a particular time period. Some say the 12th century, some say the 19th century, others the 1950s.
My position is not if this will be a reality, but when.
My position is not if this will be a reality, but when. Personally, I don’t advocate that people need to invest in Virtual Reality or Augmented Reality to make their lives better. In the same way, handwriting books worked just fine until the printing press came. We had to respond to people that would depend on the new technology.
I predict that the poor will be negatively impacted by virtual reality. I also think that there will be severe technological addictions and that this technology will disrupt many parts of society. We can prevent these problems in the communities that we have influence over through education and catechesis.
The problem with technology is not necessarily access but the problems of unvirtuous use of technology. A key Catholic doctrine is that created goods have a tendency because of original sin towards disorder and misuse. I am broadening my use of the teaching on concupiscence beyond simply interior moral matters, but society as a whole. The Church’s response to technological development is to purify it and teach people to use it virtuously.
Aleteia: Christianity (mostly Catholicism and Orthodoxy) highlight the importance of matter and presence. Beginning with the incarnation, Christianity understands the body as being the crossroads of the human and the divine. Can Christianity go meta? Can we expect a “Catholic Metaverse”? What happens with our real, bodily presence in the metaverse?
Fr. VanHeusen: This is a good question, but I think its answer is connected with the issues related to iconoclasm. I can propose a method for answering the question, but do not have a fully developed answer as of yet. Part of my thrust in engaging with these questions is that I believe this development is inevitable. The answer to this question will help establish the boundaries for the ethical use of these new technologies.
I believe there are two boundaries that we should avoid in answering the question. First, I think it would be unwise to believe that we can prevent these technologies from becoming a part of society. Second, I think we should avoid an exuberant optimism that pretends there are no dangers.
This is why work the work of MetaCatholic is important. We need to be prepared to meet people in this new environment and provide formation on the virtuous use of VR and AR.
Aleteia: Just like it does with the body, the metaverse forces us to question our relationship with the environment. We can create seemingly unending worlds in the metaverse, but what about nature, earth, our common home? Can the metaverse distract us from our responsibilities with the planet? Should we expect some kind of “meta-Laudato-Si” statement soon?
Fr. VanHeusen: Personally, I think an official statement would be premature. It is actually not clear what this technology will be. At this phase, there is one immediate reality that I wish to address. VR headsets are now on the market and there are some immediate dangers that need to be addressed. The headsets work in a similar way to your phone. You download apps and each app has its strengths and weaknesses. Some apps have questionable and immoral content. Some apps build on existing known apps such as YouTube VR.
Despite the inevitable problems, I am personally excited about what this technology will allow me and my team to do. A relatively simply advancement is that we will be able to push design and art in new directions without the long-term commitment that big building projects involve. For example, I plan on designing digital chapels and digital experiences that will integrate new and emerging artists.
In terms of VR and AR being a distraction, they will play a similar role that our cell phones and computers already do, both positive and negative.
Aleteia: We have already seen abuse and bullying taking place in the metaverse. Even if its “virtuality” makes it seem like it is somehow less “real,” it is not. Anonymity actually seems to boost these behaviors. Can we do unto others in the metaverse? How is the golden rule applied “there”?
Fr. VanHeusen: Because of original sin, the human tendency is towards sin and vice. In the formation of children, interventions and formation are necessary to counteract this tendency. This holds true for the playground, for sports teams, and it will be the same with virtual worlds and experiences.
In all areas of children’s lives, good boundaries and good formation allow for children to be independent and develop virtue within the framework formed by adults and the Church. The formation of children is a gentle play between good boundaries and allowing children room for curiosity, exploration, and initiative.
This is why we need to teach the parents how to set good boundaries with new technologies.
Aleteia: Anything you want to share about your experience with MetaCatholic?
Fr. VanHeusen: Be on the lookout for our VR Rosary set to drop on Holy Week. There will be a VR version available on the YouTube 360 app available through an Oculus headset and compatible VR devices. For those that don’t have a VR headset, we’ll also be releasing a standard video and 360 video version which you can find on our YouTube account.