When Mark Zuckerberg announced ambitious plans to build the “metaverse” – a virtual reality construct meant to supplant the Internet, merge virtual life with real life, and create endless new playgrounds for everyone – he promised, âYou are going to be able to do almost anything you can imagine.
It might not be such a good idea.
Zuckerberg, CEO of the company formerly known as Facebook, even renamed it Meta to emphasize the importance of the effort. He expressed his enthusiasm for being able to attend virtual concerts with your friends, to do fencing with holograms of Olympic athletes and to participate in mixed reality business meetings where some participants are physically present while others radiate from the metaverse as cartoon avatars.
But it’s just as easy to imagine dystopian drawbacks.
Suppose the metaverse also allows for a much larger, but more personal, version of the harassment and hate that Facebook has been slow to deal with on the internet today?
Or does he end up with the same big tech companies that have tried to control the current internet as stewards of his virtual reality edition?
Or evolve into a vast collection of virtual closed communities where every visitor is constantly monitored, analyzed and bombarded with advertisements?
Or renounce any attempt to restrict users’ freedom, allowing crooks, human traffickers and cybergangs to commit crimes with impunity?
Imagine an online troll campaign – but one in which the barrage of mean words you might see on social media is more of a bunch of angry avatars yelling at you, your only escape being to turn off the machine, said Amie Stepanovich, Executive Director of Silicon Flatirons at the University of Colorado.
âWe approach things differently – having someone yelling at us than having someone hitting us,â she said. “There is a potential for this evil to really escalate.”
This is one of the reasons why Meta may not be the best institution to lead us into the metaverse, according to Philip Rosedale, founder of the virtual escape Second Life, which was an internet craze ago. 15 years old and still attracting hundreds of thousands of locals online.
The danger is creating online public spaces that only appeal to a “homogeneous and polarized group of people,” said Rosedale, describing Meta Horizon’s flagship VR product as filled with “alleged male participants” and ‘a tone of intimidation. In a security tutorial, Meta advised Horizon users to treat other avatars with kindness, and offers tips for blocking, disabling, or flagging those who don’t.
But Rosedale said it would take more than a “schoolyard monitor” approach to avoid a situation that rewards the loudest town criers.
âNo one will come to this party, thank God,â he said. “We are not going to move the human creative engine into this sphere.”
A better goal, Rosedale said, would be to create systems that are welcoming and flexible enough to allow people who don’t know each other to get along as well as they could in a real place like Central Park in New York City.
Part of that could be based on systems that help someone build a good reputation and a network of trusted acquaintances that they can transport to different worlds, he said. In today’s web environment, these reputation systems have had a mixed record in tackling toxic behavior.
It’s unclear how long it will take Meta – or anyone else investing in the Metaverse – to look into these issues. Tech giants from Microsoft and Apple to video game makers are still largely focused on the metaverse plumbing debate.
To make the metaverse work, some developers say they’re going to have to form a set of industry standards similar to those that have merged around HTML, the open âmarkup languageâ used to structure websites since the 1990s.
âYou don’t think about it when you visit a website,â said Richard Kerris, who runs the Omniverse platform for graphics chip maker Nvidia. âYou just have to click on the link. We’re going to get to the same point in the metaverse where, going from one world to another and experiencing things, you don’t have to ask yourself, “Do I have the right setup?” “”
Nvidia’s vision for an open standard involves a structure for 3D worlds built by the Pixar film studio, which is also used by Apple. Among the fundamental questions being resolved is how physics will work in the Metaverse – will virtual gravity cause someone’s glass to shatter to pieces if they drop it? Will these rules change as you move from place to place?
The biggest disagreements will be over privacy and identity issues, said Timoni West, vice president of augmented and virtual reality for Unity Technologies, which is building an engine for the video game worlds.
âBeing able to share some things but not share other thingsâ is important when you’re showing art in a virtual home but don’t want to share your calendar details, she said. âThere is a whole set of layers of authorization for digital spaces that the internet could avoid, but you really have to make it all work. “
Some metaverse enthusiasts who have been working on the concept for years welcome any spotlight that might attract curious newcomers. But they also want to make sure that Meta doesn’t ruin their vision of building this new internet.
âThe open metaverse is created and owned by all of us,â said Ryan Gill, founder and CEO of the metaverse-focused startup Crucible. “The metaverse that Mark Zuckerberg and his company want is created by everyone but is theirs.”
Gill said the big Meta splash is a reaction to ideas circulating in grassroots developer communities centered around âdecentralizedâ technologies like blockchain and non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, that can help people establish and operate. protect their identity and credentials online.
At the heart of this tech movement, dubbed Web 3, for a third wave of internet innovation, what people create in these online communities is theirs, a shift from the Big Tech model of “storing energy.” and attention and optimize it for buying behavior, âsaid Gill.
Evan Greer, an activist for Fight for the Future, said it was easy to see Facebook’s Meta ad as a cynical attempt to distance itself from all the scandals the company faces. But she says Meta’s push is actually even scarier.
“It’s Mark Zuckerberg who reveals his ultimate goal, which is not just to dominate today’s Internet, but to control and define the Internet we leave to our children and our children’s children. “she said.
The company recently discontinued the use of facial recognition on its Facebook app. But Metaverse gadgets rely on new forms of tracking people’s gaits, body movements, and expressions to animate their avatars with real-world emotions.
And with Facebook and Microsoft showcasing metaverse apps as important work tools, there is the potential for even more invasive surveillance and burnout in the workplace.
Activists are calling on the United States to pass a national digital privacy law that would apply not only to current platforms like Facebook, but also to those that may exist in the metaverse.
Apart from a few such laws in states such as Illinois and California, online privacy laws remain rare in the United States.