Mark Zuckerberg claimed that “you’ll be able to do practically anything you can imagine” when he outlined lofty ambitions to develop the “metaverse,” a virtual reality construct designed to displace the internet, connect virtual life with real life, and provide boundless new playgrounds for everyone.
That might not be such a good idea after all.
To emphasize the importance of the initiative, Zuckerberg, the CEO of the corporation formerly known as Facebook, renamed it Meta. He gushed about going to virtual concerts with your friends, fencing with holograms of Olympic athletes, and — best of all — attending mixed-reality business meetings where some participants are physically present while others beam in as cartoony avatars from the metaverse during his late October presentation.
However, it’s just as simple to envision dystopian consequences. What if the metaverse also allows for a far larger, yet more personal version of the abuse and hatred that Facebook has been hesitant to address on the internet today? Or would the same major IT corporations that have sought to dominate the present internet become the virtual-reality edition’s gatekeepers? Or does it become a massive network of virtual gated communities where every visitor is continually tracked, evaluated, and bombarded with ads? Or does it ignore any attempt to limit user freedom, enabling fraudsters, human traffickers, and cybergangs to operate freely?
Imagine an online troll campaign, but instead of the barrage of nasty words you might see on social media, you’re being yelled at by a group of angry avatars, with the only way out being to turn off the machine, according to Amie Stepanovich, executive director of Silicon Flatirons at the University of Colorado.
“Having someone yell at us is different from having someone type at us,” she explained. “There’s a chance that the injury will be amplified significantly.”
That’s one reason why, according to Philip Rosedale, the creator of the virtual getaway Second Life, which was an internet fad 15 years ago and still draws hundreds of thousands of online residents, Meta might not be the right organization to lead us into the metaverse.
The danger is establishing online public places that appeal primarily to a “polarized, homogeneous set of individuals,” according to Rosedale, who described Meta’s main VR product, Horizon, as having a bullying tone and “presumptively male participation.” Meta has instructed Horizon users to treat fellow avatars nicely in a safety instruction and provides tools for banning, muting, or reporting those who do not, but Rosedale believes it will require more than a “schoolyard monitor” approach to avoid a situation where the loudest shouters are rewarded.
“Thank heavens no one is going to the party,” he remarked. “The human creative engine will not be moved into that realm.”
He believes that a better objective would be to design systems that are inviting and flexible enough to allow strangers to get along as well as they would in a genuine setting like New York’s Central Park. He believes that technologies that assist people create a good reputation and a network of trustworthy contacts that they can carry between worlds might play a role in this. Such reputation systems have had a mixed record in preventing toxic conduct in the contemporary web environment.
It’s unclear how long Meta, or anybody else investing in the metaverse, will take to think about such difficulties. So yet, computer behemoths like Microsoft and Apple, as well as video game developers, have mostly concentrated on arguing the metaverse’s plumbing.
Some developers believe that in order for the metaverse to function, a set of industry standards will need to emerge, similar to those that arose around HTML, the open “markup language” that has been used to organize webpages since the 1990s.
“When you go to a website, you don’t think about that. “All you have to do is click on the link,” said Richard Kerris, the head of Nvidia’s Omniverse platform. “We’re going to get to the stage in the metaverse where you don’t have to think about ‘Do I have the correct setup?’ while you’re travelling from one reality to another and experiencing things.”
The framework for 3D worlds created by Pixar, which is also adopted by Apple, is part of Nvidia’s ambition for an open standard. One of the most fundamental concerns being answered is how physics will operate in the metaverse – would someone’s glass shatter if they drop it due to virtual gravity? Will the regulations change as you travel from one location to the next?
Bigger fights will erupt over privacy and identification, according to Timoni West, vice president of augmented and virtual reality at Unity Technologies, which makes a gaming engine.
When you’re showing off art in a virtual house but don’t want to expose the specifics of your schedule, “being able to share certain things but not other things” is crucial, she says. “The internet could sidestep a whole set of permission levels for digital environments, but you actually need to have them to make this thing function.”
Some metaverse proponents who have been working on the concept for years appreciate the attention it may bring in newcomers, but they want to make sure that Meta doesn’t sabotage their vision for how the next internet is developed.
“We all built and control the open metaverse,” said Ryan Gill, founder and CEO of the metaverse-focused business Crucible. “Everyone creates the metaverse that Mark Zuckerberg and his business desire, but they own it.”
Meta’s major splash, according to Gill, is a response to ideas percolating in grassroots development groups about “decentralized” technologies like blockchain and non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, which may help users build and defend their online identity and credentials.
What individuals build in these online communities belongs to them, according to this digital trend, dubbed Web 3 for a third wave of internet innovation. This is a change away from the Big Tech approach of “accumulating energy and attention and optimizing it for buying behavior,” according to Gill.
It’s tempting to interpret Facebook’s Meta announcement as a cynical attempt to remove itself from all the troubles the business is experiencing, according to Evan Greer, an activist with Fight for the Future. She claims, though, that Meta’s push is much more terrifying.
“This is Mark Zuckerberg exposing his final goal, which is to control and define the internet that we leave to our children and their children’s children,” she stated.
Although Facebook recently stopped using face recognition in its app, metaverse technology relies on new ways to capture people’s gaits, body movements, and expressions in order to animate their avatars with real-world emotions. With both Facebook and Microsoft promoting metaverse applications as critical work tools, there’s a chance for even more intrusive workplace surveillance and weariness.
Activists are pushing for the United States to adopt a national digital privacy legislation that would include not only today’s platforms like Facebook, but also any platforms that could exist in the metaverse. However, with the exception of a few laws in California and Illinois, true internet privacy rules are uncommon in the United States.