INSIGHT: Welcome To The Metaverse
Meta, previously known as Facebook, has set out to build its own iteration of the metaverse: a centralized virtual reality world that it has deemed “the next evolution of social connection.” However, the buzzword-filled future of the Metaverse is not entirely clear, leaving many questions and concerns to be addressed.
The concept of the metaverse has its origins in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel, “Snow Crash,” a dystopian vision of the 21st century which depicts a virtual reality-based internet successor with electronic currency, virtual real estate, and user-controlled avatars. Meta, previously known as Facebook, has set out to build its own iteration of the metaverse: a centralized virtual reality world that it has deemed “the next evolution of social connection.” Meta has presented the future of the Metaverse in characteristic Silicon Valley techno-utopianism fashion. While there are disparate efforts to build the Metaverse, some of which emphasize a more decentralized approach, Meta intends to create and manage the infrastructure for their vision of the internet 3.0, providing an asset library for its users and controlling the virtual real estate that they will inhabit. Meta’s Metaverse will be organized under the “social platform” Horizon, which is divided into Horizon Home, a customizable virtual home base for users where they can invite friends, watch videos and transport into other apps, Horizon Worlds, the space where users can build virtual worlds and interact with them, Horizon Workrooms, where professional collaboration can take place in a virtual workplace environment, Horizon Venues, where virtual events such as concerts can be hosted and Horizon Marketplace, the Metaverse economy where users can buy and sell digital items such as nonfungible tokens and 3D artwork. Meta has invested billions of dollars into their vision of the Metaverse in the past year alone, as part of a virtual space race to outpace competitors both big and small in the tech industry. With numerous viable competitors and diverse avenues of research and investment, the buzzword-filled future of the Metaverse is not entirely clear, leaving many questions and concerns to be addressed. Two of the most pressing concerns about the Metaverse and its adjacent projects are a reduction in user privacy that harms user agency as consumers, and potential damage to interpersonal relationships as a result of exacerbated social media use in the Metaverse world.
Data and Manipulation
“Dark data is everything you do that Google and Facebook don’t know about, and they want to create a world where there is no darkness,” said Joanna Lawson, a graduate student in the Yale Philosophy Department. Data points, no matter how obscure they might seem, provide tech companies with valuable information about the behaviors and preferences of their users that allow them to direct advertisements through their platforms with unsettling accuracy. There is immense power — and profit — to be had in the collection and strategic use of this data.
As the sources of data become more intrusive and the means of data analysis more sophisticated, the dark data of metaverse users becomes more accessible for harvesting and effective in manipulating consumer decisions. These sources include virtual reality headsets that can track eye movement and heart rate, eyewear capable of taking 3D scans of the interior of one’s home and neural interfaces that can connect to the nervous system — all ongoing Meta projects that are in research and development stage. Users of these technologies will effectively be sharing what increases their heart rate, what draws their gaze, what maintains their attention the longest, what makes them laugh and cry, how they decorate their homes and what stimuli activates their nervous systems, among countless other data points.
The Metaverse distinguishes itself from past iterations of the internet because the technology necessary for its use makes it especially well equipped to capture the behavioral exhaust of its users, run it through ever-improving algorithms and then sell its users exactly what they were thinking about buying. These developments eliminate the necessity for choice and deliberation altogether, in favor of thoughtless, predictable transactions. “It becomes very unclear whether we’re like rats in a Skinner Box or human beings choosing autonomously for ourselves,” Lawson warned.
The Metaverse has been presented as the next evolution of the internet, a massive leap forward in the ways that we will be able to communicate with one another, but Benjamin Barasch, a Yale postdoctoral associate and lecturer in the humanities, doubts these motivations: “I don’t think human interaction needs to evolve. I think that’s code for ‘let us find more ways to weasel into your brains and drain you of every last cent that you have.’”
Social media is being built into the very foundations of the Metaverse. Whether in the new Horizon social platform or the incorporation of existing social media apps into the virtual space, elevating the experience of interconnectedness has become a central component of the Metaverse. As Facebook founder and current CEO of Meta Mark Zuckerberg explains, “Everything we do online today, connecting socially, entertainment, games, work, is going to be more natural and vivid.” The areas of improvement for this embodied internet, however, could exacerbate existing problems with social media.
“Rather than encountering a morally-demanding person online, we encounter a representation of a person. This representation is in fact a mere thing and not a person. Although we may associate the representation with the person represented, it is harder to do so in the absence of humanizing or personalizing cues. The representation is less likely to trigger our interpersonal emotions and other reactive attitudes,” Michael-John Turp said in an article for the journal Ethics in Information Technology. The Metaverse will maintain this social media characteristic, permitting users to create customized avatars of themselves through which they can interact with the virtual world and others, continuing the reduction of social media users to mere representative objects and promoting their moral detachment from one another.
In previous iterations of social media and the internet more generally, users could meticulously curate their profiles, compiling photos, expressed opinions, associated users and other interests into a representative online personality with asynchronous detachment. While the Metaverse will incorporate the platforms that allowed users to do this, it also presents the opportunity for synchronous reality curation. That is, it presents users with the ability to maintain, in real time, appearances that are not theirs while interacting with others in the various aforementioned social aspects of the platform.
“The affordances of social media make us more likely to adopt the objective attitude by inhibiting certain interpersonal emotions. This is problematic for two reasons. First, the objective attitude tends to undermine interpersonal relationships, including friendship. Second, the objective attitude is a morally risky attitude to adopt towards persons. It makes us more likely to treat persons in ethically problematic, thing-like ways,” Turp wrote in his article. This adoption of the objective attitude is made far more possible by Meta’s technological advancements and adoption of avatars because users are presented with moving, expressive humanoid things that act as stand-ins for human beings but are nonetheless objects incapable of expressing “the full range of human expression and connection” as Zuckerburg has claimed.
The Ultimate Display
As Zuckerberg lures in VR-fanatics with his vision of the Metaverse as the climax of technological evolution, more than 160 other companies have thrown their support behind this new concept, regarding it as the next great step in constructing an immersive virtual reality. But this quixotic narrative ignores the reality: that Meta’s version of the new sociality — the way we interact over digital platforms and real life — is one that is being forced upon society, driven by Silicon Valley technology behemoths desperate to stay relevant in an ever-changing world.
In 1965, Ivan Sutherland, a pioneer of early computer graphics and the inventor of a predecessor to the modern user interface, conceived of “a looking-glass into the mathematical wonderland,” a sort of VR universe that he dubbed “The Ultimate Display.” He prophesied the development of a room in which a computer could directly control matter by merging the digital and the physical world. What he couldn’t have foreseen, however, is the dystopian reality: a metaverse that skeptics consider to be a marketing ploy rather than the final destination in the field of computer science.
Lisa Messeri, professor of anthropology at Yale and a leading researcher investigating the emerging technology of VR, said that “the worst thing we can do is blindly accept what Facebook thinks the next way we ought to be social is.” She continued, “They have proven that they’re not thinking expansively enough about the implications of their model of sociality.” With recent scandals enveloping Meta and Zuckerberg essentially standing trial in Congress for the entire tech industry, Messeri isn’t alone in her doubts. With Meta’s negligence fueling the genocide of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, the Federal Trade Commission fining the company $5 billion for rampant privacy violations and the spread of misinformation during the 2016 presidential election, Zuckerberg has come under fire from both the public and international authorities. “So why would we trust them to lead us into the next phase, whatever that might be?” Messeri asked.
And yet, early adopters of VR technology continue to believe in the Metaverse’s potential as the next big breakthrough in modern technology. The business model that Meta is using to sell its version of the Metaverse is one that has been used for years to promote the widespread adoption of social media services and other virtual platforms. Charles Hodgson, a professor of economics studying the intersection of technology and market forces, explains that “for this type of social network, because of the strength of network externalities, the natural market structure that emerges tends to be a monopoly.” He added that “the value of that platform is going to increase the more other people are on the platform, and so those network effects are what drive the growth of these platforms.” Essentially, Meta is relying on the fact that the number of individuals using VR will eventually reach what Hodgson calls a “tipping point”: a critical mass of users that will eventually “force” the rest of the world to adopt VR technology due to the psychological fear of missing out.
There has also been a major, although seldom discussed, shift from software to a much more hardware-centric business model. Hodgson sees this as a result of Meta needing to innovate in a much more competitive market. If the company creates an existing install base of people who purchase the hardware — i.e., VR headsets and related tech — then Zuckerberg will have an audience ready to join a VR networking service as soon as he decides to release it.
Hodgson states that instead of democratizing access to media platforms, it is likely that support of the Metaverse, and therefore Meta’s monopoly on the VR market as well, will simply serve to make the billionaires that exploit our user data even wealthier. “We’re being told what we need, rather than ourselves determining what we might need,” Messeri agrees. Meta is creating a demand that is producer and profit driven, rather than consumer driven.
In May 2021, Frances Haugen, a lead product manager at Meta responsible for an internal ethics board, took action against the troubling underbelly of one of the biggest companies in the world. In a consequential but well-thought-out decision, she resigned and took with her tens of thousands of internal documents to show Congress that the nearly trillion-dollar company was — and is — aware of the skeletons in its half-shut closet: destructive misinformation, human-trafficking activity and domestic terrorism. The platform knew it was being used to organize insurrection and criminal activity, but regulators didn’t know so until Haugen brought these skeletons out to see the light of day.
In a comprehensive Time magazine profile, Haugen outlined her future plans: she’d certainly be happy to help create and consult for a Big Tech government oversight agency, but wants mainly “to help build a grassroots movement to help young people push back against the harms caused by social media companies.” She told Time magazine that “there is a real opportunity for young people to flex their political muscles and demand accountability […] no company has the right to subsidize their profits with your health.”
The spotlight is on Haugen, but she rightly shares it with youth, arguably the most valuable demographic to Meta and its subsidiaries. Companies like Meta depend on the dedicated attention of Generation Z, a guinea-pig generation to immersive social technology, to secure the platform’s future success. Without youth loyalty, Meta’s foundations crumble.
Emma Lembke is a first year at Washington University in St. Louis. She founded two organizations in high school that have grown into large social technology advocacy platforms for youth, LogOff and (Tech)nically Politics, the latter of which is organizing a lobbying effort to bring the youth voice to Congress.
“Frances Haugen has hit the nail on the head,” Lembke said. “There are no lost generations. This is not like Peter Pan. But a lot of senators, congressmen and politicians have reached the point in their careers where they can have a large impact on what’s going to happen in 20 or 30 years because [the technological landscape] is evolving and changing.” She stated that without having grown up with technology, lawmakers lack the intimate knowledge of the consequences of social media and the feeling of having one’s entire social world be encoded in zeroes and ones.
In the Metaverse, attention is a commodity, one companies like Meta have commercialized beyond belief. What these companies fail to realize, however, is that a youth grassroots anti-social media movement under the guidance of someone like Haugen may have the power to check them. If Meta can’t ensnare attention — or, if it can’t get youth attention without a fight — it loses the certainty of its future profits.
Lembke frequently returned to the term “neuromarketing,” a novel term that describes the cunning tactics technology companies use to hook user attention. With the expansion into the metaverse, avenues for neuromarketing expand exponentially; there are more nooks and crannies of the internet for advertisements and sponsored content to pop out of. Lembke remarked that “no individual, no matter how much digital consciousness [they] gain, can overcome the neuromarketing and data collection that is happening at all times.”
Lembke sees education and advocacy as the key demands of youth but acknowledges that the concessions she seeks are sometimes ambiguous. She’s launched character education programs in schools and is working to involve more youth in (Tech)nically Politics. With that said, it’s sometimes difficult to remember that life can exist, persist and resist without the guiding hand of an algorithm.
“Our society’s entire container for public discourse is in social media,” Lembke said. “The question we have to ask ourselves is how can we push, break and better that container while we’re in it, using it for its positive aspects?” The metaverse expands this container exponentially without the input or guidance of those inside it; thus, what Zuckerberg intended as a promise can be taken more aptly as a warning:
“The future is going to be beyond anything we can imagine.”
Come on, Let’s Go To The Metaverse!
The year is 2030, and you’ve finally made it to the Metaverse. A digitized version of our human world, the Metaverse, has been waiting for you all summer long, and it’s so glad that you’re finally here. Using virtual reality equipment and spy-esque glasses, you are now able to enter the Metaverse wherever, whenever. Let’s take a stroll through it.
My Brand New, Super Cool Room
Wow, this room is pretty cool. Above my bed frame there’s a poster of the teenage pop artist that I am currently obsessing over, but the poster changes whenever I want. Ten years back I bought one of Monet’s “Water Lilies,” and it’s hanging above my dresser! It’s a nonfungible token, an NFT as those before me used to call them, worth less than I’m willing to disclose here. But look how nice! I’ve designed my Metaverse bedroom so that it is as similar as possible to my real-life room, except for the art and a pet unicorn named Frosty that hangs out in my foyer. Even though it isn’t technically “real,” it feels as though it is. From the comfort of my brand new room, I can do all of the things I would do in the real world — but in the Metaverse!
Getting Ready For Bed
I went to VCS the other day to pick up my various skincare products, and I’ve always wanted to film one of those vintage YouTube style “Get Ready With Me” videos. Lucky for me, everything is filmed, all of the time, right here in the Metaverse. I’m like a walking “Truman Show”! While I rub micellar water all over my face and pour caterpillar cream into the inner-corners of my eyelids, I play a hit song by the Metaverse’s latest all-girl pop group. The band, better known as Strands of Code, look human but come with smaller-than-usual animal heads. The lead singer is a giraffe, and their newest song is called “Get Me Out.” It’s super catchy. Once my nighttime routine is all complete and I’ve had two glasses of a yellow liquid called “L2QRVR4837410,” which allows my brain to clear. I hop into bed for a virtual night’s sleep but decide to turn on my holographic TV. It hovers right above my bed sheets and if I squirm around, my feet cut straight through the screen. I flip through various channels for a while, although the Metaverse programs are nothing new; I’m left wondering where the dolphins with feet are or when there will be a sitcom set inside a giant city made of candy. Instead, all that is on is just your average tennis match. I cozy up in my bed and close my eyes, feeling the weight of my virtual reality headset still on my face as I do so.
Hanging With My Pals
High school used to be tough. But that was before I met one of my bestest friends, Avatar Version of Mark Zuckerberg©. Avatar Version of Mark Zuckerberg© loves — and I mean loves — to play ultimate frisbee with me, which is particularly fun because his hand-eye coordination is so incredible. Avatar Version of Mark Zuckerberg© and I take long walks on the beach. We dip our feet in the burning hot ocean. He insists that I don’t give him any sort of nickname, like “Mark,” or “Marky” or “Markie,” because he isn’t “real.” Avatar Version of Mark Zuckerberg© and I like to explore the inner-workings of playgrounds and parks. He’s trying to create his own Metaversepark, which he says will have the “largest waterslide ever.” One time he became incredibly distracted by the squirrels chasing one another through one of the many parks we frequent, and decided to capture one. He snapped his fingers, a cage appeared and trapped the squirrel so he could add it to the zoo he’s been trying to build inside an igloo. I like to think that Avatar Version of Mark Zuckerberg© likes my company. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what he’s feeling, if anything at all. I have never, after all of this time, figured out who he really is. Robot or not, he’s still my bestest friend in the Metaverse, and that has to be worth a whole lot.
Let’s Have A Car Race!
I was busy doing nothing at all in the Metaverse in my brand new, super cool room when I saw a notification appear in the top right corner of my eye. “MULTIPLAYER CARS,” it said. So I clicked it. When I was young I used to play this game called “Grand Theft Auto,” and I imagined this must be something similar, but somehow better. I prepared myself. I even switched out my human legs for bionic ones. I ate a handful of my robot Labraroobot’s homemade muffins. I was ready to go. Finally, my car appeared out of thin air. It had custom decals on it that said my name in bright colors, along with the words “YOU ROCK.” After the excitement of my new car wore off, I realized something: we had yet to move. I rolled down my window, looking for fellow drivers. To my left was a dinosaur in another car’s driver’s seat, squished by the roof of the car. I asked him what he was doing, but he insisted he was just trying to go to work. “It’s gridlock traffic out here!” He exclaimed. I sighed. If only I could be in a race. Instead I just put on my favorite Strands of Code song and pretended as though I was in fact in the grandest car race of my life, pretending as though the Metaverse was significantly more interesting than real, everyday life.
What Is That Noise?
There’s a noise that I can’t seem to make out. My room is far away, so I’m sure that it isn’t my unicorn Frosty. Really, I don’t think it’s anyone I know. I have, ever since I entered the Metaverse, heard nearly every noise. I’ve heard groups of other players obsess over the latest trends, or a specific breed of cat. Never in my life have any of them made this sort of noise. It’s so out of the ordinary that I can’t even describe to you what it sounds like, just that it’s bothering me and distracting me while I attempt to lay in my bed, or go skiing or transform into an orangutan and swing across the jungle. Eventually it occurs to me that I have forgotten my favorite elixir, that good ol’ L2QRVR4837410. When I try to summon more of my Metacation nothing works. Not even my robot Labraroobot can help. Eventually, the noise becomes louder, and at last I can make it out. A woman — someone vaguely familiar to me — yelling. What is that word? Dinnertime, she says. “Honey, take that headset off. It’s time for dinner.” I take my virtual reality headset off, to the sight of a rolly polly walking slowly across my bedroom floor. After a few moments of silence accompanied by a pounding headache, I walk downstairs. Mom and Dad are fighting about how there is an indent as well as a tan on my face from the headset. The dinner tastes bland, especially with no help from the sous-chefs I once met in the Metaverse. I roll my eyes, and run back upstairs after eating a bowl of peas. With my headset back on, I find my drink — the elixir — sitting by the giant hot dog I recently bought for my super cool room. I chug the L2QRVR4837410. Silence. The noise is gone. Time to play pool in a casino with Avatar Version of Tom Cruise©.
*In the interest of consistency, Meta’s iteration of the metaverse will be referred to as the Metaverse. While other companies are partaking in similar efforts, Meta has provided the most information about the current state of their project and visions for the future, thus making the Metaverse the object of our consideration.