To better answer the question “what is the metaverse” and why Facebook’s vision for the future may not fulfill its promise, we need to look no further than its predecessor, the original Second Life, a virtual world now largely abandoned.
Launched in 2003, Second Life represented the new millennium’s vision for digital life. The idea was simple: a digital world in which users could inhabit via their personal computer, free from the limitations and pesky issues of everyday life like physical appearance, the laws of physics, and personal hygiene. Everyone’s avatar was slim, attractive, and adorned in the height of early 2000’s fashion. As far as the eye could see were low-rise jeans, tattoo choker necklaces, popped collars, and Von Dutch trucker hats. For the denizens of the Second Life world, this was the future.
Sure it might not look photo-realistic, and sure, there may be a few bugs and illusion-breaking issues that need overlooking to become fully immersed, but this was simply the way the world was going, and these early adopters were getting their foot in the door nice and early. By the time the rest of the world joined them, these guys would be Second Life millionaires.
So immersed were these pioneers of digital immersion that the world of Second Life became more attractive than their own existence out in meatspace. While in real life, you were a single call-center worker with low self-esteem, in the world of Second Life, you had a motorbike and a sweet jacket with flames on it. Not only that, but you had a bonafide, legit hot-panted girlfriend who sat on the back of it while you rode around the streets of Second Life looking cool.
After an evening cruising, you and your girl (who is, by the way, a 65-year-old grandma from Wisconsin) would go back to the digital mansion that you saved up for and execute the scripts you bought off the Second Life marketplace. You know, those scripts. The ones that let you and Doris from Wisconsin play out some Fifty Shades-type stuff on the love-heart-shaped bed asset you also bought ready for these occasions.
Unlike real life, however, here in the digital world, there’s always the possibility of a hideous elf-type creature walking in on the proceedings and ruining the fun. And, despite your protestations to get out, the antics of the trolls are a nagging reminder that this isn’t real. As much as you and a lot of other people may take it seriously, this world is simply a hollow facsimile of the reality we have.
For Facebook (now Meta), their vision of a Metaverse smells awfully similar. With the world literally burning, hopping into a shiny digital one may sound appealing, but (perhaps thankfully) there’ll always be reminders that this is a derealized existence.
And while Facebook’s Metaverse will have more bells and whistles on it than Second Life- with photogrammetric imagery that may appear like real life and technology that means we may literally not have to lift a finger to swipe left or right – the digital world will remain a distraction or escape from the real world, including Facebook’s own antics.
WHAT IS METAVERSE?
Watch Facebook’s Metaverse presentation, and it’s hard not to be impressed by the scope of their vision. The idea is to create a platform that allows users to inhabit a virtual world currently code-named Horizon via virtual reality technology.
With entirely natural dialogue, Zuckerberg and the Facebook crew walk us through their vision of a blending of technology and human behavior. Through the use of virtual reality, bio-sensors, AI, augmented reality, and a list of other technology (most of which they admit has yet to be invented), they aim to create a new world where we can connect with loved ones, go virtual shopping, and let our work life invade our personal space like never before.
Initially, this will be in the form of simple virtual living spaces where digital avatars can get together, play games, interact, and chat. The example being used by Facebook (Meta) was a poker night, with users choosing digital avatars they feel best represent themselves. The tech giant plans to evolve the platform over the coming decades, investing billions every year, with the aim of creating a thriving, fully-immersive digital world that will be as real as that of our mortal coil.
Should things go to plan, Facebook expects the Metaverse to be the future of the internet, with augmented reality merging the digital with the physical. Their partnership with Ray-Ban to create smart glasses is just the start, they say, with some Tony Stark-level technology being developed by their team of in-house engineers and scientists.
Of course, talking of the Metaverse is a little like someone in the eighties talking about “surfing the web.” As imaginative and informed as they can be, their mental image of how nascent technology pans out will always be far from the mark.
Meta’s presentation is perhaps best taken, therefore, as an announcement of intent. A public declaration of a general direction they aim to take as a company.
WHY IS FACEBOOK CREATING THE METAVERSE?
Ask Facebook (Meta) why they’re investing $10 billion-plus a year into the development of the Metaverse, and you’ll receive the company line: they are moving on from being simply a social media company to a metaverse company, bringing people together and creating better ways to connect.
Of course, there will be a level of sincerity in these claims, with some hard-working teams producing some exciting technology that will benefit all of us. However, a company like Facebook (Meta) doesn’t sink so much money into something without expecting a return.
And the return for this betting it all on black will be the ability to monetize human behavior like never before. CEO, Zuckerberg, argues there are “no current plans” to exploit motion data from virtual reality technology to predict behavior and better target ads. Still, with the company rapidly creating the perfect data-collection machine, the possibility is alarming. This advertising in the virtual space has already begun, with Facebook shoving ads into VR titles such as Blaston before a swift rollback after considerable backlash.
It’s not unreasonable, therefore, to expect the very same manipulative algorithms employed on Facebook to be used in the Metaverse. Ultimately, just like Facebook, the longer we end up spending in the Metaverse, the more money can be extracted from us.
And, just like Facebook, the best way to keep us on platform is through algorithmic nudging to manage and control individuals in subtle ways. This is not necessarily as nefarious as it sounds but appears to inevitably lead to echo-chamber-style communities forming that do the very opposite of bringing us together. In the case of Facebook, it appears to have even created great schisms in society, all for the sake of reducing that all-important bounce rate.
IS THE METAVERSE A DISTRACTION?
For some, such as one of the earliest investors in Facebook, Roger McNamee, the announcement is a hastily put together distraction, the PR equivalent of pointing and saying “look over” before running away.
Because looming over the whole rebranding announcement was the onslaught of damaging information leaked from the whistleblower Frances Haugen. Among the leaked information were the following points:
- Facebook was aware their platform was being used as a “slave market” to sell domestic workers, with some sellers encouraging buyers to confiscate their passports but did not know the full scope of the problem.
- Mark Zuckerberg has personally overruled ideas intended to make Facebook less harmful and complied with the moderation of some anti-state content.
- Facebook has manipulated the newsfeeds of users regularly.
- Facebook’s biggest source of misinformation is the comment sections, with the company accepting it is a blind spot in terms of moderation.
The announcement’s timing, therefore, is no coincidence. A new name, a new aim, a new strategy. These are all things that look good for any upcoming legal action taken against Facebook. Sure, they’ve made mistakes but look at them now, they’re a completely different company.
Pre-empting this cynicism, Zuckerberg claimed:
“The future won’t be built on its own. It will be built by those who are willing to stand up and say, ‘This is the future we want, and I’m going to keep pushing and giving everything I’ve got to make this happen.”
Unfortunately for us, the realization of Zuckerberg’s personal ambition involves data collection on an unprecedented level. Creating a virtual world cannot be achieved manually and, as their presentation shows, involves extended use of AI. As seen with advanced AI’s like GTP-3, which trawls the internet to glean language, information, and patterns, what’s put in inevitably comes out. In the case of GPT-3, this was occasional racist and hate-filled rants, a reflection of the ugliest parts of our existing digital world.
It is unreasonable to expect the Metaverse to be vastly different from our existing world, therefore. Within the confines of the internet, with the help of carefully tweaked algorithms, we found it has led to a concentration of hate, misinformation, and toxicity.
Without first fixing the root problems in society, these attitudes and schisms will carry over into the Metaverse, too, just as it has with the internet as we know it.
This story was written by contributing writer Matt Wiliams.
Matthew is writer with a focus on lifestyle and technology.
Check out some of his previous stories below.