Shariah-Based Metaverse: Potential Areas of Traction and Challenges

Panel Discussion- Blockchain Expert Talk

Dr. Hazik Mohammed (Moderator): You have been a proponent for a Shariah-based metaverse. Can you describe what is meant by the Metaverse and what are the key infrastructural elements that need to be in place for this ecosystem to flourish? For the Islamic Economy, what areas within the metaverse have the highest potential for traction and development?

Summary of response by Dr. Mohammed Obaidullah:

Metaverse is a shared virtual world. It is the new, experiential, immersive internet. It may not be entirely new to those who are familiar with playing internet games in 3-D environments. Metaverse as a concept has existed for a long time — digital shared universes where we can take on whatever personality we want, or work together on collaborative projects.

The new metaverse involves web 3.0 technologies like DLT or blockchain and AI and enhances the scope of a metaverse way beyond gaming.

A simple way to differentiate between web 1.0/ web 2.0 and web 3.0 is to distinguish between our ability as users of internet (1) to read; (2) to read and write; and (3) to read, write and own. Web1 was mainly a read-only web version filled with simple static websites. Web2, the current iteration of the internet emphasizes creating and distributing user-generated content. As a result of Web2’s autonomy in content production, the age of social networks was ushered in, and with it came the proliferation of blogs, online forums and online markets. However, notwithstanding the significant user advantages with web2, the free flow of user data and information has led to centralized corporations seeking to monetize user data and habits. The concerns about user exploitation and data control have led to emergence of Web3. The goal of Web3 is to encourage open services driven by decentralized applications (DApps) rather than centralized apps controlled by the tech giants. Users of Web3 can connect to applications and protocols directly, removing the need for third-party intermediaries in the process.

The use of blockchain or distributed ledger technology permits the user to “own” and exchange value. The use of immersive technologies like virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality allows the user to “experience and feel” inside the virtual world.

Potential Areas of Traction

According to some estimates the metaverse is going to be a $30 trillion economy by 2030. But we don’t really know its full potential yet.
The idea that you can create a token economy and people can earn money and exchange value within a token economy is really important to the concept of the metaverse.

So how and where do we place ourselves inside a metaverse? What might we be doing there? Well, we can let our imagination fly. We will be socializing for sure. We will be seeking entertainment for sure. We will be shopping for sure. We may be organizing or participating in sporting events. We may be organizing or participating in seminars, workshops and conferences. We will be accessing services. We will be earning and spending money.

If we start thinking in terms of metaverse for the good of the society or what additional value metaverse will bring or what tensions and pain points it will address, then we will need to think a bit differently.

Education in the metaverse is going to be a lot more experiential. This can revolutionize education. Consider immersive Islamic business and finance, for example. Imagine you’re learning Islamic contracting and you can go to ancient Baghdad or Timbuktu to experience the relevance of contracting in the classical way. Perhaps one can better understand why the classical contracts work better in ancient markets and need modifications and adaptation to work in modern capital markets.

In the context of health care education for example, if you are a medical student, you don’t need to go to an anatomy lab and deal with those dead bodies. You can just go inside the human body and examine all of the organs and the arteries and everything else and see what it’s really like within a human body. Or, when a pandemic strikes, you don’t have to risk your health while being trained as a nursing student.

When humanitarian crises strike we know the importance of digital identities; we can actually train our workers to deal with potentially dangerous situations.

Collaborative work can be a lot more fun; maintaining work-life balance may be a huge challenge

On-line trade inside a metaverse is likely to be a lot more information-based. Imagine buying a Istanbul-tour package from a travel and tours company based on immersive experience about what it has to offer. It can put a plug on many unfulfilled expectations.

While we like to talk about the potential benefits, we should not lose sight of the risks. The uncertainty about behaviour of the actors perhaps contributes to risks the most. How are bad actors going the engage with you and transact with you? Do the laws and regulations in real world have provisions or have enough teeth to implement them effectively? Then there are ethical dilemmas and unanswered questions.

As Dr. Jane Thomason, a keen observer of the metaverse sector, asserts:

“There are social and ethical implications of this. So digital ethics aren’t different from conventional ethics. But, they have the potential for automation of unethical conduct at scale. A single algorithm can impact millions of people. We need to think about building ethics into these systems as we’re building them.

So let’s think of some of the challenges that you might think in a metaverse. If you create something in the metaverse, who owns it? We don’t know about ownership rights in the metaverse. Should your avatar have human rights?

What about data security, privacy and so forth? Because you’re going to be allowing people to access more data points than you probably ever have before. So how do we make sure that you’re protected? How do we protect consumers in the metaverse?

What about physical and mental health impacts? We don’t know enough about it. And what about children? Should they be allowed in the metaverse? How can we make it child-proof or a safe place for kids as well?

If we are building metaverses, how do we make sure that they’re equitable and inclusive and decentralised? And how do we maximise the benefits and minimise the harms?”

Many of the ethical questions above are equally relevant from a Shariah point of view. These are serious questions that we all need to be thinking about. At the same time, the guys building these metaverse are the software developers and the coders. Do they know much about ethics and Shariah principles? So even if we decide to “encode” ethical and Shariah principles, the developers on the ground may not be adequately trained in the same.

Should we be training software developers in Shariah norms and ethics? Should we show them the inadvertent outcomes of their algorithms? Should we develop a professional code of Shariah/ethical standards for software developers? The answer is a resounding yes. I do not want to inject negativity into this very positive discourse by citing example of bad practices and bad actors that have engaged in nefarious practices of investor (token-holder) exploitation while claiming to be Muslim-friendly or Shariah-compliant.

Technology gives us so many new choices. However, we as a community cannot accept products that don’t conform to the Shariah norms, ethics and values of our society. This is a massive challenge confronting our scholars and researcher commmunity. Because, only Shariah norms can tell us which ones are good and which are bad.

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