This Unsung Benefit of the Metaverse Could Be the Most Important of All
Rob tells a profoundly personal story of love, life and loss; and why the metaverse could be a truly life-changing technological advancement.
This is going to be an unusual article about the metaverse.
The subject usually has technology, VR, or blockchain front and centre, but one innocuous sentence in a book fundamentally changed how I value what the metaverse might bring to the world. The commercial potential is likely astronomical, albeit unknowable, and it could reinvent marketing, our digital existence, and even the working world.
And yet, when I hear people talk about the metaverse, all I can think about lately is an old man and a boat.
I have read rather a lot of books on blockchain, cryptocurrencies, and the metaverse. Most of the books – if I’m brutally honest – are wafer thin on thoughtful content, but The Metaverse by Matthew Ball is not one of them. This book is still my go-to recommendation for anyone wanting to read about the rise of Web3, but it’s one innocuous paragraph in it that has been something of a mindworm for me.
The idea that Ball shares is simple: the elderly often find themselves dissatisfied with their twilight years, stuck in front of a television, when they could be in the metaverse sailing the world with old friends. It seems a bit Orwellian or like a more positive spin on a Black Mirror episode, but I promise you, there’s something important in this thought.
To give a fleshed-out explanation of why I value this so highly, I need to tell a rather personal story.
My grandparents were married for just shy of 70 years, which is hard to truly appreciate. They married in 1953 and were inseparable. My Grandad, in his 80s, was still walking to the shop every day, would cycle, and could even jog – it was absurd. My Grandma, however, was diagnosed with bone cancer as she became an octogenarian and was withering quickly. One windy winter morning, my Grandma waited on the pavement for my Grandad to pull the car around and she lost her balance, and with it, her life.
We were devastated and I knew my Grandad was going to need some extra support. I could never have predicted the next year, however.
Without his life partner, my Grandad shattered; he couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t concentrate. As his weight plummeted, so did the rest of his health. In just a few months, my Grandad had gone from the most mobile and healthy 80-something, to disabled. He needed a frame to walk and kept falling. His mental health reflected the physical as he battled severe depression and multiple panic attacks every day, often calling me in the middle of the night for company to help soothe his racing mind.
This sort of depression is known as “reactive”, and it was fuelled by inconceivable grief. I tried all I could to stem the decay – books, podcasts, counsellors, doctors, supplements – but his spiral was picking up pace. Less than a year after my Grandma died, my Grandad passed away in a hospital bed. He was gaunt, grey-skinned, and broken. This macabre tale has been hard to recall, and you might wonder why I bothered, but it’s relevant.
You see, though my Grandad was an echo of his former self without his wife, her death and his grief were simply the catalyst for the resulting issues. Both during and outside of my Grandad’s panic attacks, he told me in depth and in many different ways, what terrified him: he was alone. He didn’t have much family and none that lived nearby, he didn’t have any friends left, and there was no future for him. What was he to do now? What was his purpose? He was a full-time carer to his beloved, now he was an old man in a silent and empty house with nothing to do, no one to speak to, and no reason to wake up.
He did, however, have one thing that kept his head above water for longer than it might have been: his Samsung tablet.
Despite being in his 80s, my Grandad loved technology, and when I bought him a tablet, he clicked with it instantly. He would play Texas Hold’em Poker on Facebook, he’d browse Instagram, he’d watch football highlights on Sky Sports, he’d video call family – it was impressive, really. He had his limitations, naturally, but – and again, I apologise for this being a little dark – he died with his tablet in his hands on Sky Sports News. Technology represented the last strand that tethered him to the world.
This technological proficiency is a little quirk of my Grandad, amusing because it is so rare, but it’s getting rarer by the day. In fact, most of my elderly relatives use Facebook to keep up with each other and play Sudoku and Words With Friends, they play mobile games, and there are even viral TikTok stars that have grown-up grandchildren now.
The modern older generations have had technology at their fingertips for most of their lives, and by the time many of you reading this are old, it will still be as much of a staple in your life as reading or watching television has been for previous generations.
This is where that mindworm thought from Ball hits me so hard. The stats are abundant: being old is often extremely lonely. The internet and social media have done wonders to bring the elderly closer to the fold, but we can go so much further.
The metaverse – by which I really mean a shared, immersive, digital experience in this context – could allow people like my Grandad to be less alone. Not only would he be able to meet with old friends, family members, or new people, but he could explore new places, sail, play sports, and do the many activities his body would no longer accommodate.
Social media changed the world in many positive ways that have fallen into the shadow of data abuse, manipulative algorithms, and the other darkness surrounding the sector. The metaverse can not only resolve and improve on many of the downsides of social media, but it can propel it into giving us a proper digital existence. It may seem like an idea that is aimed at young Westerners – because for the most part, it is – but a borderless, accessible, and inclusive metaverse could be an invaluable place for society’s vulnerable, lonely, and isolated.
One of the presupposed and overlooked benefits of the metaverse is that by it being digital, it requires very little physical input. Even if it were to be an immersive VR experience, it wouldn’t be difficult to allow people to participate despite physical limitations. This is lesser-discussed benefit hasn’t garnered much attention, but as the tech-centric generations get older, we could see the metaverse becoming a profound component in the lives of society’s elders.
Yes, the metaverse presents a gargantuan opportunity for developers, marketeers, and brands, but let’s not forget the old man on a boat.