Home/ Opinion / Columns/  The metaverse’s evolutionary roots could aid its success

The metaverse’s evolutionary roots could aid its success

Virtual world ‘avatars’ enable a human trait that is often denied but goes back a long way in our evolution

Photo: BloombergPremium
Photo: Bloomberg

These days there is much talk about the metaverse, a ‘world’ of virtual reality on the internet. Facebook even changed its corporate name to Meta to stake its claim to this concept. How well will this futuristic technology blend with basic human nature?

Successful technological innovations have almost always been built on the strong foundation of fundamental human nature. For example, smartphones address one of our core human needs: the need to communicate with others. While e-commerce was a technological revolution, its success depended heavily on generating enough trust, the core human factor in any commercial transaction, in online platforms. All major e-com players had to introduce several innovative features to their product design for buyers to trust the deals on offer. There are also times when technological innovations unearth latent human needs and make a big business out of them. Evolutionarily, humans have mostly interacted only with people they are close to, both physically and emotionally. These are their ‘strong ties’. There was little interaction with one’s ‘weak ties’, such as acquaintances and those with whom one only shares broad common backgrounds. In 1973, Professor Mark S. Granovetter, then at Johns Hopkins University, published his paper, ‘Strength of Weak Ties’, in the American Journal of Sociology. In it, Granovetter reminded the world of frequent instances where one’s interactions with weak ties could be more beneficial than those strong ties. But the larger world really understood this latent power of one’s weak ties only with the arrival of social media. Social media companies established the fact that interactions with weak ties can have huge business potential. It is in this context that one should evaluate the success potential of the metaverse.

The metaverse is an online 3D virtual space that connects users, who can adopt various incarnations or avatars, in all aspects of their digital lives. The metaverse will allow users to work, meet, play and socialize together in these 3D spaces. Clearly demarcated from the real world, this is a virtual world where the adopted avatars of people might differ from their real-world personalities.

The metaverse is all about altered reality. Are humans keen to get out of the context they live in and stay in an alternate world? Are humans comfortable being someone else? Answers to these questions will determine whether Big Tech firms that are working to develop the hardware and software necessary for people to spend significant time and money in the metaverse will succeed or not.

The Hindu religion has always accepted that an entity can have multiple avatars. In fact, multiple avatars of the same deity are an established phenomenon in Hinduism. But with the arrival of Abrahamic faiths, the concept of divinity became strictly singular. So it was not surprising that even in interpreting the personality of an individual, singularity became the norm. Traditional theories of human behaviour have typically considered the human personality to be singular. Any trace of multiplicity in one’s behaviour, more so if contradictory, was portrayed as a sign of duplicity. So most individuals took care to show only one consistent avatar to the outside world.

In standard economic models too, an individual’s identity and preferences were considered fixed. It was George Akerlof and Rachel Kranton in their article ‘Economics and Identity’ published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics who gave credence to the concept of an individual’s multiple identities. They contended that a person chooses various identities in varied contexts, this identity choice being one of the most significant economic decisions an individual makes. American developmental psychologist Howard Gardner too lent his voice to new conversations around the multiplicity of human nature. He put forward the theory that human intelligence is not a single variable, but a combination of multiple intelligences of varying proficiency.

Especially strong support for the existence of multiplicity in human nature comes from anthropologists David Graeber and David Wengrow in their recent book, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. In this book, they write about the concept of ‘seasonal duality’. Various human tribes across the world jump back and forth, over the course of the year, between distinctly opposite behaviours. In some cases, people actually adopt different names in summer and winter, literally becoming someone else during the course of the year. Many of these societies have two social structures: one in summer and one in winter, with two distinct sets of law.

For example, consider the Inuit community. In summer, they disperse into bands of 20-30 people under the leadership of a single male leader. During this period, property is possessively marked out and patriarchs exercise tyrannical power over their kin. But in the long winter months of relative hardship, there is a dramatic reversal. Inuits gather together as a larger group, and the virtues of equality, altruism and collective life prevails. Wealth is shared, even husbands and wives, among partners.

So, the ability to consciously alternate between contrasting modes of life is an integral part of human nature, and has been so ever since the species’ hunter-gatherer days. This human nature of regular oscillations between distinctly different patterns of behaviour bodes well for modern-day investors in the metaverse. It is now for strategic thinkers and designers who are working on metaverse projects to take advantage of this aspect of our inherent human nature.

Biju Dominic is chief evangelist, Fractal Analytics, and chairman, FinalMile Consulting. 

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Updated: 05 Oct 2022, 10:23 PM IST
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