Zuckerberg’s Metaverse hype, reality or does it just suck.

Facebook’s founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg launched his metaverse vision for Facebook beyond it being a social media outlet.

He envisages an augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR) internet in which we all can immerse and do things basically as virtual beings. In his vision, we will all soon be wearing VR goggles and have our own avatars through which we will experience total new sensations. Facebook has announced plans to invest $50 million in its development

Some of you might recall a predecessor of this idea launched close to 20 years ago under the name Second Life. Here, you could use an avatar to live, entertain and talk to others. It was a real novelty at the time and received a lot of attention and within a few years had over a million users – for a short time, I was one of them – but people got bored of it and it slowly declined.

However, a hardcore number of users are still subscribed to it. Several similar VR sites have popped up since that time, all roughly like Second Life. Most are linked to games and entertainment basically aimed at boys and young men. One of the most popular games using avatars is ‘Fortnite’.

Metaverse is a big leap forward as it allows for a far more personal and realistic level of involvement. However, despite the lofty promises of what VR can do for society, it will basically be the next level of games and movies, entertainment for folks who have time and money for it.

There is no doubt that it can deliver a range of very interesting and useful niche market applications, but that is not where the big money is for companies such as Facebook.

It provides the potential for certain groups in our society to subconsciously “escape” from the real world and their real (unsatisfactory) lives. As we know, there are large groups (mainly men) that feel disconnected, disenchanted, left behind, uncertain about their role and position in a changing world. In the metaverse, they can pretend it’s still the medieval era and they are feudal lords and knights on horseback, looking into the future being strong, powerful superheroes, or courting beautiful girls.

While I can see the technical innovation here and I can even admire it, my problem with is it is that we have seen the problems with the current generation of social media and before we move into a metaverse, we should first solve those. We can’t just stay technology-neutral anymore; as we have seen over the last two decades, technology is changing people’s behaviour and while that is often for the better, at the same time, we have also seen very dangerous societal behaviour developments.

As we are becoming more aware of the dangers of certain technologies, it is up to us to ensure that these developments are guided in the right direction. We see governments around the world grappling with these issues. Many countries have running inquiries into social media companies and their activities; there are discussions regarding new regulations and the sheer commercial and political power of these companies are also under investigation.

Without having resolved these issues, we should be very careful with moving into the next stage of creating a virtual internet. This will be far more intrusive in people lives and those with the wrong intentions will have a far more powerful weapon they can use for the sort of evil things we now encounter from conspiracy groups, right-wing military organisations, QAnon, Proud Boys, neo-Nazis and so on. Imagine what these groups can do with services such as the metaverse to recruit, train and brainwash vulnerable people in our societies.

Obviously, there are far more good applications that can come from the metaverse, but we should first learn from the lessons of social media misuse (and the internet in general) before we move on.

We know that the commercial interests are running way ahead of social interests and we know that politicians are slow to react, but we can no longer say “we didn’t know”. As a society, we are now walking with our eyes right open into this new world and it is up to us to make some fundamental decisions about it.

Zuckerberg already mentioned the use of 5G for this technology and the mobile operators will be more than happy to finally get an application that could see an increase in the use of their network. The dollar signs will be appearing in their eyes. It is obvious that companies such as Facebook will only play this up. Ericsson has already called it a killer application.  Verizon announced: ‘The metaverse is coming — it just needs 5G’. Many other mobile operators already jumped on the bandwagon.

So, there will be pressure on the politicians to give the green light for these developments in the form of little or no regulations. However, I think we should really think twice about this.

On the other side, let’s also consider that the technology industry is extremely good in hyping up new technologies. There are more down-to-earth, less intrusive AR and VR applications that will have a better chance of success. I think the reality will be that such applications will be more commercially realistic than the metaverse hype, at least in the foreseeable future. But nevertheless, the 5G operators are desperate to find new ways to make money.

The amount of data that can be obtained from people engaging in these virtual worlds is immense and under the current conditions, these companies can still obtain this info, store, manipulate and repackage it and monetise this. As we have seen, this can make them enormously rich and powerful.

The data and algorithms are used to maximise engagements and this has created high levels of polarisation in our society. To maximise revenues and profits, you give the people what they want, and this leads to bubbles and echo chambers. Rather than bringing people together (one of Facebook’s mantras), it tears societies apart. Creating conflicts and outrage is a real money-maker as it indeed increases peoples engagement.

The reality is that social media clusters connect like-with-like until we end up with an ultra-concerned subsection of people who, even though they are online, remain either misogynistic, racist, homophobic and so on. And as we have seen in the USA combined, these fringe groups can become a very destructive political force.

While Zuckerberg argues that the metaverse will move the company away from the tainted social media market, all the issues that we are struggling with now such as privacy, antitrust, content moderation and political extremism will only increase in a metaverse environment. So once again, let’s first solve these issues in its current environment before moving on.

Paul Budde

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