Imagine attending a packed Trump rally halfway across the country – without leaving your couch. Or meeting the boss for a team strategy session at a café near the foot of the Eiffel Tower without ever crossing an ocean. Unreachable vistas could be a thing of the past as Facebook aims toward the future with the metaverse.
Tech experts warn, however, that the convergence of real life and fantasy in a metaverse has a dark side that could upend society when it comes to the politics, economics, and policing of the virtual world.
During a recent earnings call, CEO Mark Zuckerberg pivoted from discussing the company’s current financials to focusing on Facebook’s future. And his plans seemingly turn the plot of numerous science-fiction movies into reality by creating a virtual world for Facebook’s 2.8 billion users.
Zuckerberg said the social media behemoth plans to become a “metaverse company” and described the new landscape as a “virtual environment where you can be present with people in digital spaces. You can kind of think of this as an embodied internet that you’re inside of rather than just looking at.”
So, instead of just watching a video of hiking Mount Everest, you could do it — in a sense — either as yourself or a digital avatar version of yourself, feeling all the elements, without leaving home or chancing your own safety. It’s a feat that gamers have been tantalizingly close to experiencing for some time: leaving the real world behind and immersing themselves in a virtual reality.
“This is the next evolution of the Internet,” said marketing and big tech expert Adam Rizzieri. “And it is already happening. This move toward recognizing the metaverse reflects an inevitability of our time. It’s a reflection of where we are with artificial intelligence and how machines are increasingly intertwined with every second of our physical existence.”
Tech experts aren’t surprised that Zuckerberg teased the possibility there’s a metaverse on the horizon. Facebook spent $2 billion to purchase Oculus in 2014, which was the company behind virtual reality gaming headsets, and has invested more money and manpower in developing the next wave of tech that fuses virtual reality, augmented reality, and the real world.
Tech experts say there are several factors that could have fueled the timing of Zuckerberg’s metaverse push: 1) To get investors hyped about what the future could bring for Facebook — beyond its social media platform — to boost its stock; 2) To provide a distraction from the big tech crackdown Congress has deployed on platforms such as Facebook; 3) To give a glimpse into what the future holds when it comes to the next wave of innovation in order to maintain Facebook’s dominant status in the tech sphere.
Andrew Selepak, a social media professor at the University of Florida, said it was a “pretty big PR move” for Zuckerberg to discuss something that is “far out in the future.” But he said it was also a “great way to shift focus during the current news cycle to something else,” especially as Facebook is taking a beating on Capitol Hill.
Rizzieri said Facebook is afraid of “being behind.” While it may surprise some, he said Facebook found itself scrambling to catch up with the shift from desktop computers to mobile devices and early versions of the Facebook app were buggy. He believes Zuckerberg’s metaverse push could be rooted in a fear of repeating the same mistake twice.
Regardless of the motivating factors behind the metaverse push, techies say the Matrix-like environment is already taking over parts of our daily lives.
“We have been promised virtual reality for years,” Selepak said. “A lot of the beginnings of the technology are here and have been around for some time. It’s what’s next.”
Selepak points out that people are already using elements of augmented reality when they use apps like Snapchat and Instagram or even put up a virtual background in a Zoom meeting. He said the coronavirus pandemic likely sped along the development of a metaverse that appeals to more than gamers.
“Virtual reality is just the next step of that virtual meeting,” he said.
Tyrone Evans Clark, a 3-D game artist and programmer, said gamers have been “super invested in metaverse games,” especially amid the pandemic where people could connect without having to meet in person.
He expects the metaverse to mirror the real world in many ways, especially when it comes to politics and economics. He said people will form alliances in the metaverse in the same way they do in real life, based on commonalities, like age and interests.
“Everything will be virtual, including groups that people are already part of in the real world,” he said. “The virtual alliances on a political level will help people understand each other more all around the world, while making explicit agreements and potentially buying and sharing virtual goods amongst themselves.”
While forms of augmented and virtual reality are already integrated in our daily lives, Selepak points out that just what a defined metaverse will be remains largely unknown. He notes that a major hurdle to overcome for Facebook, and other companies interested in the metaverse, is hardware. Clunky headsets will be a barrier for entry for many who want to test out the alternative world.
But despite not knowing exactly what a metaverse will look, feel, and sound like, Selepak knows it will likely be a money maker. If the metaverse takes a page out of the gaming world, he said it will feature tons of advertisements and the ability to purchase goods and services in the virtual world that will line the pockets of the company in the real one.
Not only will Facebook profit financially, Rizzieri said the company would likely become extremely more powerful, especially if it owned all the data associated with users in the metaverse.
“Do we own our own data or does the metaverse own our data?” Rizzieri asked.
While the metaverse could provide a lot of advantages for both the user and private sector, he wonders just how much power big tech would relinquish over its metaverse creation.
“I really wonder what this is going to look like in real life,” Rizzieri said. “While this definitely drops the ‘fiction’ from ‘science fiction,’ it comes with some extremely globalist, new world order type of scary implications.”
Selepak fears that parts of the metaverse will be dark and even disturbing. He noted the popular virtual world game called “Second Life” made headlines after people used their avatars for acts such as virtual prostitution.
To avoid illicit activity on the platform, like sex trafficking or drug deals that could be planned in the metaverse for real-life meetups, Selepak said the metaverse will have to be moderated and regulated. Currently, Facebook finds itself in a delicate position regarding moderating and regulating content on its social media platform, and experts say the metaverse would be no different.
“Once you have people interacting virtually and 2.8 billion people doing it, you will create a virtual surveillance state,” Selepak said. “Facebook will be monitoring everything everyone is doing in this virtual world.”
While the world will have to wait and see what exactly the metaverse ends up being, Rizzieri said it will ultimately be something we don’t log onto or plug into.
“One day, we will open our eyes and realize, I am totally combining my physical and digital worlds,” he said. “We aren’t going to have a whole lot of decision making behind whether we adopt the metaverse. It’s just going to hit us, and we are just going to find ourselves in the metaverse.”
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