In the metaverse, people will move around with not one but many avatars.
My 93-year-old father is also a philosopher of life. One of his frequently quoted sentences concerns the “fragmentary nature of human existence.” What he means by this is that people are not always consistent in what they do. The holistic image of an individual as a unified, moral, and responsible being breaks down time and time again due to external circumstances or simply due to ourselves. Unconsciously, my father has thus foreseen a development that will greatly preoccupy us in the next stage of the Internet — the metaverse. And that is the fragmentation of individual identity, or the disruption of the ego.
For the virtual worlds of the metaverse, we need virtual representations of ourselves. These avatars are easy to design even as hyper-realistic creations through new technologies, such as, for example, the app “Metahuman Creator” of Unreal Engine, which is the leading tool for designing sophisticated computer game worlds from Epic Games. The app promises the creation of “high-fidelity humans.”
High fidelity describes not only the technical quality of the image that avatars move around with in the metaverse but also the effect this technology will have on individual identities. There will not just be one avatar that each person uses to move around in the metaverse, even though the problem of “avatar portability” has long been discussed among experts. It should also be possible in future for one’s avatars to enjoy frictionless travel between different domains of the metaverse.
According to the futurist Amy Webb, we will move around in the metaverse with many different avatars. Depending on my needs and mood, I'll be able to go to the coolest metaverse club as a full-bodied tattooed punk lady or sit in a blue double-breasted suit at a video conference. But none of this needs to reflect what physically happens in real life. And none of these images of myself has to match any of the others. What does this mean for human identity? Or more strikingly, who am I then, and if so, how many? In psychology, “identity” is the inner unity of a person experienced as a self. It also determines how others perceive us.
It is a social achievement of human civilization that every human being during the course of their lifetimes has to learn to deal with their whole selves, to endure the inner contradictions, negotiating them time and again while in contact with the world. If in the future I can design myself for every social situation in the metaverse in such a way that my avatar is perfectly adapted to the respective environment, where are these contradictions then? Will I become boring, or will I become schizophrenic?
For centuries, the history of humanity has shown that identity conflicts are at the center of disputes, civil wars, and acts of violence. We also see this in Ukraine right now. Will we transform the world of the metaverse into a world of peace with our avatars given that everyone can virtually represent themselves so that everything always fits together perfectly?
I don't believe so. First, there is the problem of accountability. Will we be able to ensure that a physical individual is held responsible for the indiscretions of their many avatars? And secondly, if I myself am technically capable of designing my avatars hyper-realistically, then so can others.
While this is an interesting idea, it presents a rather horrifying possibility: that there will be a virtual black market for fake avatars. Just as we are today confronted with deepfake videos of prominent personalities, in the metaverse there will also be deepfake avatars that pretend to represent people.
In the metaverse, individual identity will continue to fragment, except that the individual fragments will become ever smaller.
This article was originally written in German (translated by Kristy Henderson).