Molestation in the Metaverse — Are We Ready for the Shift, Culturally?

With multiple instances of anti-social behaviour reported in the nascent virtual world, will technological shift mean that we have truly advanced as a race, or is it now easier to feed our animalistic instincts?

A search leads to many. A story unfolds many. A problem leads to many. And in this cluster of instances — the solution starts evading us.

Many of us are adjusting to the announcement of the Metaverse. We are not even used to calling Facebook a bi-product of Meta. Zuckerberg is battling the consequences of data protection since 2016, making losses now.

And since December, cases of sexual assault in the virtual space are being reported, one after the other.

To know the gravity of this issue, the acknowledgement that any sexual advancement without consent is unpleasant, terrible and often unforgettable for the victim. IT CAN NEVER BE ENJOYABLE.

Nobody asks for it, nobody invites it. A perpetrator has a clear choice which they evade, and an act of breaching personal territory cannot be a one-time mistake — it is a mindset that develops as it goes unchecked.

For those who say assault is preventable and can be retaliated with clarity of mind and quick reflexes, I have news for you. It is not my responsibility to protect myself, the perpetrator needs to be accountable. The system needs to be accountable. And psychologically, the shock and numbness the act creates — renders the victim partially unconscious. I hope nobody has to experience the same to validate this.

Virtual avatars were our bet to charter unchartered territories in a dangerous time. Every technology is made with good intent — but it does not take long for it to reach those who use it for the wrong means.

The story of Nina Jane Patel, a British mother who created a virtual avatar in the Metaverse, customised it to her appearance and was experiencing virtual reality but was in for a nightmare and shock within 60 seconds, is nerve-rattling.

What is even more difficult to make peace with, is that she is the co-founder and vice president of Metaverse Research for Kabuni Ventures, which works to provide a safe space in the metaverse for children.

Protecting women and children is a responsibility of the system. Education and financial autonomy or good career growth may empower a female, but cannot completely shift social biases and biological order.

Patel is currently investigating the psychological and physiological impacts of Extended Reality (XR).

Some may pity, others may mock. Many have even discredited her experience.

As more and more women complained of instances, denial and shifting responsibility on the victims (safety features were disabled) was led by a quick-fix of creating 4-feet virtual boundaries where a person could choose who is allowed to come close to them.

Metaverse is touted to be the next bet, something that can easily replace the internet, but with freedom comes responsibility. Companies are creating immersive experiences but leaving the responsibility of usage on netizens who, sadly, are still not pros in the real world and now the problems of society are shifting to an intangible space. How the same are governed, if national and international laws are enough to bind users in rules, the difficulty many have to face for the actions of a few — all these are questions we neglected till they became too big to deal with.

It is imperial to realise that technology and business cannot evade social responsibility. Pinning one person accountable is exaggerating, but one who will solely or majorly reap the benefits of the technological shift needs to also accept accountability.

We are ready to jump on the local bandwagon, some of us are already riding it, but with the diversity of education, resources and cultural acceptability the safety of many will be in jeopardy. Are we comfortable taking names of victims/survivors/fighters? We have not even zeroed down on a term, something that can be inconsequential to some and becomes a great deal to others. Are we ready to come to a common ground, a no-mans-land, to ensure safety of all in the Metaverse? Or even in real life? Who is responsible? The user, the producer, the government, the legal system, the educator or the collective world order?

My limited view on this diverse topic is that we have created a huge problem without solving the many at the backend. The idea of entertainment and pleasure, or even the purpose of a medium is different to many, we have not agreed upon consent or even the need or importance of sex education, the internet has become a platform to self-feed ourselves with knowledge at one hand like a buffet, but many instances say that we have limited choice when it comes to deciding what we want v/s what vested business interests want us to see.

And hence, it will become easier to label this reportage as ‘trivial’, when bigger problems loom us. We are clearly waiting for people to learn their lessons themselves, or perish, as Darwin had postulated.

Setting ground rules that constitute non-negotiable boundaries is the only solution I can see because true freedom comes only when everyone is protected with rules.

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