The Metaverse Could Change The World, If We Could Stop Getting In Its Way
The company associated in the public’s eye with the metaverse is Facebook, which rebranded to Meta signaling its future focus. Meta, as a company today, is a mess. Its content policy enforcement is deeply flawed, particularly for its immersive products. Obstacles derived from both privacy and competition have slowed its growth, on both business and user metrics. Meta employees are leaving even as the company is reducing its hiring goals. Advertisers, long the lifeblood of revenue for the company, are now also abandoning ship.
Worse still as a prognostication for the future of immersive technology is its close association with “Web3”—the term used by some to describe a possible cryptocurrency and blockchain-powered future evolution of the internet—and “non-fungible tokens” or NFTs. (There’s even a website!) After a brief, very high peak of interest, trading volume, and associated “value,” the list of Web3 and NFT digital theft, security breaches and fraud incidents including “rugpulls” (the Web3 term for “Ponzi scheme”) continues to grow. (There’s a website for that too!) While the metaverse will no doubt include embedded quasi-currencies and markets as well as digital keys of virtual ownership, the future will not rise wholly formed as an internet Phoenix from the ashes of the dying hype.
Meanwhile, governments around the world, particularly in the European Union and United States, are not exactly channeling optimism for the bright future that could be. They are ramping up regulatory interventions in response to a litany of research and whistleblower concerns of ongoing harm, which have generated broad discontent with the status quo of social media, popularized as part of the concept of “techlash” and reflected in surveys such as the recent Axios poll of company reputations that found Facebook and Twitter at 97th and 98th place, out of 100 companies.
Even assuming the best of intentions, the real implications of government interventions are concerning. The effort to realize full digital protection for European citizens through European law has led to consideration of a number of possible policies that undermine the internet’s own values, such as implementing EU-specific DNS infrastructure and imposing wealth transfers. More immediately, the Irish Data Protection Authority’s decision to bar Meta from relying on Standard Contractual Clauses for GDPR compliance threatens the free flow of data between Europe and the US, not just for Facebook and Instagram but for a number of other companies relying on SCCs as well.
There’s no easy path forward on the GDPR issues. Meta could shut off access to Europe for its Facebook and Instagram services, which would further harm the company’s financial position and prospects, but would certainly motivate the US and EU governments to accelerate their work on a new “Privacy Shield.” The governments reached an agreement in principle in March 2022, but may not finalize the terms until 2023. It’s unlikely that Meta could, or would, validate the Chinese and Russian normative frameworks by building a separate version of its services just for the European Union, firewalled off from US data and users. The most likely outcome, of course, is continued legal fights in court, which is hardly a recipe for paving the way for future innovation.
In contrast with Europe, in the U.S., it’s hard to say that even the intentions are good, much less the execution. While Congress has seemingly stalled on content governance legislation, individual state legislatures, notably Texas and Florida, have put forward laws to penalize companies for alleged bias against conservatives. These proposals throw the First Amendment out the window and, if somehow upheld by courts, risk making it harder to protect safety online.
Section 230 continues to offer some level of protection for online intermediaries in the American legal context. Contrary to some political rhetoric, it is possible for that shield to be pierced. Nevertheless, perceived concerns over insufficient legal responsibility by platforms will lead to more state and federal efforts to impose potential liability, designed for modern social services (and in particular Facebook) but with the objective of capturing future interactive services as well. The intention may not be to unduly impede the progress of technology, but the devil is always in the details.
While the corporate structures and government frameworks seem ill-prepared to support the data-rich, free flowing, actively managed ecosystem the metaverse needs, the technology itself seems plausible, in time. The metaverse discussion earned a spot on stage at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos. A number of high-profile companies just banded together to form a Metaverse Standards Forum, even though it’s still hard to define what, exactly, the metaverse is.
The term “metaverse” is inextricably linked to dystopia. In Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel “Snow Crash,” which is considered to have coined the term, the virtual world Metaverse was hardly a paradise. Through Stephenson’s later novel Reamde, the Matrix movie series, and a vast host of other works of fiction, the public perception of virtual reality environments has been illustrated through a black mirror.
Nick Clegg, president of Meta, penned a lengthy Medium post trying to portray a more positive vision to justify the company’s pivot to all-in for the metaverse future. To Clegg, the metaverse is “ultimately about finding ever more ways for the benefits of the online world to be felt in our daily lives.”
This frame is backwards, and reinforces the technology-first lens of social construction that has not held up well over time. A better lens to explain the inevitability of the metaverse is that technology will, over time, provide ever more ways for the benefits of the offline world to be felt through online services. Today’s social media is about communication; the metaverse of tomorrow will be about experiences. Its value is not inherent, but rather lies in the ability of technology to recreate and transport things—in particular, experiences—that have inherent value.
Consider the history of recorded music. Once, the only way to hear music being performed was live, in person, at a concert hall. Then in the late 19th century, the phonograph, gramophone, and radio carried music across time and space, opening up access to music to people who could not travel to concerts or could not afford the tickets.
At first, the sound quality of these recordings was awful, and the experience grossly inferior to the “real thing.” Today, tiny wireless earbuds can recreate incredible soundstages; that quality gap has vanished. There’s still something special about live performances that cannot be replicated. But recorded music is an incredible complementary piece, and incredibly lucrative for the companies involved in delivering it to consumers.
Metaverse technology will, in all likelihood, follow that same evolution. Today’s VR headsets are the equivalent of phonographs and radio. But someday, metaverse users will be able to mix their favorite cocktails in their homes, strap on their multisensory gear, and “walk” into a virtual bar to socialize with friends located anywhere in the world. They’d save the $18 that cocktail costs in a physical bar, and spend it on the $18/month subscription fee for their VirtualBar membership.
As the world continues to suffer from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s easy to see the appeal of virtual substitutes for in-person experiences. In 2020, Zoom replaced in-person social events and professional collaborations; in 2030, the technology options will be far richer, and will capture and convey even more (though not all) of the subtle interpersonal dynamics inherent in human interaction.
And the benefits of virtual socialization are not limited to forced social distancing. Imagine how the playing field could be leveled for individuals with disabilities, if metaverse technology can be built and shaped with inclusion in mind. And the possibilities for identity expression in many forms—even identity experimentation—could be incredible.
Part of the reason that future feels unrealistic, or at least gimmicky, is that the metaverse marketing of today seems focused on virtual spaces with no reflection in reality. To continue the metaphor: Imagine if the first phonograph had generated electronic music, rather than symphonic. The experience is novel, and it has some adherents, but it remains fantastical and of appeal to only a small number of early adopters. But eventually, improved fidelity environments, more oriented toward recreations of reality than fiction, will bring into the fold the broader audiences seeking to supplement, not escape, the physical world.
There will be amazing experiences in this future. There will be dark ones too. Technology doesn’t magically make humans better. Because the metaverse will have virtual bars, it will also have virtual flirtation, including of the unwelcome variety. Even today’s prototype-level metaverse experiences have given rise to allegations of virtual sexual assault. And what happens in the metaverse won’t necessarily stay in the metaverse, just as real-world harm can arise from virtual interactions in early chat-based social services.
Where people can create, people can—and will—make both artfulness and awfulness. There will be immersive porn, virtual drug paraphernalia, and efforts to engage in the most illegal and harmful human acts—imagine, for instance, immersive snuff videos. Guard rails to safeguard users from this content will be as difficult to construct and enforce in the metaverse as they have always been for the internet. Today’s content moderation challenges will be a stroll in the park compared to the metaverse’s moderation ultramarathon.
It may not be enough of an obstacle to stop adoption at scale, particularly if there are compelling offerings to be had. Who wouldn’t want to experience a recreation of walking around the summit of Mount Everest, particularly if physical or financial limitations prevent access to the real thing? But whether it will stick will depend on how much these positive experiences outweigh the inevitable harms. And given the recent track record, there’s ample reason to be skeptical.
There is still plenty of room for innovation and improvement in online experience mediation. Experiments like garbled voices—a setting in Meta’s Horizon Worlds that allows a user to garble the speech of non-friends by default—show the potential for introducing distance and individual control over the immersive environment, and together with automated translation, set up the possibility of a future where we can speak with who we want, when we want, in our language.
Over time, more and more real-world offline experiences will be captured in online simulations, and immersive technologies will play an ever-greater role. There’s too much money on the virtual table to ignore. The internet—itself also highly flawed, and also very lucrative—is, on balance, something that the world is better off with than without. And one day, maybe the same will be said of the metaverse.
Recognizing that we are all invested in this future will encourage us all to be involved in shaping it. We can and must start engaging today, as citizens of countries passing laws that will affect it and as creators on platforms that will host it, to ensure the future of the metaverse can be at least as healthy as the internet we have today.