Following Meta’s announcement of its virtual reality (VR) headset, a future where AI-powered technologies and virtual realities are fully integrated into our everyday lives does not seem so distant anymore. These developments will fundamentally shape human behaviours and interactions.
Even though virtual worlds are not new, we are witnessing unprecedented exposure to digital content and mass data collection. The growing adoption of digital devices, with the potential to create ever more realistic user experiences, offer new spaces for interaction and user engagement. The Metaverse’s increasing popularity raises new ethical challenges linked to the headsets equipped with sensors that constantly monitor individuals’ expressions and emotions or the smartwatches that constantly track sensitive data. In the following paragraphs, we will address the challenges to individual agency in the Metaverse and how this hampers individual critical thinking and sense of self online.
What is the Metaverse?
The Metaverse is a shared virtual world accessible through physical means, via a digital platform connected to the internet, and where users can interact as virtual avatars (i.e., digital representations of the users). Although there is no consensual definition of the Metaverse, its development requires supporting infrastructures, including 5G, virtual reality, and advanced graphics. As such, the Metaverse can be seen as an extension of real life, as it creates virtual environments that imitate the physical world, engaging users in the real world. VR technologies, which have become essential for fully experiencing the Metaverse, may induce a false sense of agency, seeing as they can be used to record individual data that can later be used to manipulate individual behaviours and emotions. This increasingly blurs the boundaries between the real and virtual worlds, making it harder to assess whether users act based on their actual intent or under the influence of constant nudging.
Virtual worlds may have practical applications in specialised training, fostering economic interactions by acquiring virtual items in exchange for digital or cryptocurrencies, and even engaging individuals in sports, concerts, or other virtual forms of entertainment. Offering a promise of sensory immersion based on individual data entails a new level of high-risk sensitivity.
How can the Metaverse affect individual agency?
Acknowledging the different dimensions of the Metaverse and its potential impact on individual agency is a critical step in adequately framing its development in an ethically driven and responsible manner, notably by limiting the detrimental effects of virtual reality environments and the development of technical capabilities that subliminally, or not, influence individual behaviours online and offline.
For a start, autonomy is one of the most fundamental aspects of individual agency in terms of the ability to act freely and independently pursue one’s own beliefs, in line with an understanding of intentionality in making meaningful choices. Parallelly, the threat to informational self-determination arises from the risks inherent to the number of potentially available data sources and users’ growing digital footprint, alongside ubiquitous devices that capture both physical and psychological characteristics. If today’s Web 2.0 service providers already exploit massive amounts of data to their advantage, the Metaverse represents an even more alarming threat due to the sheer volume of personal data collected and its capacity to promote engagement and refine personalised content.
To understand the meaning and scope of individual autonomy in this context, one must consider how individual choices are constrained when a system takes decisions for its users, while ensuring individual adaptability in the Metaverse under the circumstances considered herein. On another level of analysis, if social interactions become based on algorithmic suggestions, this will detrimentally impact inherently human characteristics.
Why should we be concerned?
The growing ubiquity of virtual environments that strongly interrelate with reality may hamper individual autonomy in decision-making, as seemingly free choices are no longer free nor autonomous, but rather aprioristically predicted recommendations. These systems may limit users’ preferences or choices in a way that does not reflect their actual intent, impacting individual autonomy and overstepping agentive capacities.
On the one hand, personalised algorithms facilitate user experience online, despite relying on potentially evasive profiling and targeting practices. Conversely, virtual environments manipulate and exploit emotions for commercial purposes, impacting real-world behaviours and beliefs.
Personal autonomy also relies on meaningful and duly informed consent, which often is not obtained. This lack of awareness and the prevailing information imbalance raises serious questions regarding how such technologies will integrate our lives and the level of influence we are willing to accept. The Metaverse entails the projection of a computer-generated reality visualised through real-world devices (such as VR glasses) that allow users to conduct different tasks related to the real and the virtual worlds. This is why it is important to discuss how these technologies should be developed and framed to promote and preserve individual agency whilst limiting their influence.
Furthermore, the modus operandi in virtual environments, such as the Metaverse, typically lacks moral accountability in online behaviours. Although there is nothing inherently wrong with this, we cannot discard how it may represent a danger when carried into the real world. Even so, complacency with total unaccountability may also express what we intend to achieve as a society in our ever-more virtual future.
How to overcome the metaverse-related challenges, and what are the next steps?
The challenges and potential impact of the large-scale adoption of extended reality technologies, will lead to growing governance gaps that should be addressed holistically by tackling not only legal, but also ethical and infrastructural considerations.
Strengthening individual agency online greatly depends upon appropriate design to protect users against manipulation or the intentional undermining of individual autonomy based on a broader understanding of human dignity, self-determination and autonomy online and offline. In this sense, technological architecture should be designed to foster privacy-friendly tools in line with a risk-based approach that comprises sector-specific standards. While the Metaverse is not an isolated case, privacy and data protection risks also entail harmful threats to individual agency. As such, it is critical to legally bind data collection practices within virtual environments, as well as bring into discussion the level of autonomy that we are not willing to renounce. Finally, Dincreasing digital literacy will be indispensable, since users who are unaware of digital processes cannot adequately understand and interact in the Metaverse. Fostering a human-centred Metaverse depends upon multiple factors and positive actions, with an assessment of the role of individual agency and decisions being critically important in these contexts.
 Bratman, M., Intention, plans, and practical reason. Cambridge: Harvard University Press (1987)
 Gooskens, G., The ethical status of virtual actions. Ethical Perspectives, Vol. 17, Issue 1, p. 59-78 (2010)