Last week the CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, announced a rebrand and new direction for social media company. The company named Meta will develop the metaverse….the what-averse you ask? Kevin Roose in the New York Times (Oct 29, 2021) summarises: “Mr. Zuckerberg painted a picture of the metaverse as a clean, well-lit virtual world, entered with virtual and augmented reality hardware at first and more advanced body sensors later on, in which people can play virtual games, attend virtual concerts, go shopping for virtual goods, collect virtual art, hang out with each others’ virtual avatars and attend virtual work meetings.”
The metaverse would use virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR) technologies already in existence but with the expectation that there will be considerable advances that would allow individuals to be completely immersed in the other worldly experience and potentially all the time.
VR/AR has some great applications outside gaming. These include simulation for healthcare training and therapeutic applications in mental health like treatment of anxiety disorders, particularly those that include phobias or situational distress.
But despite the cool factor of VR/AR we aught to cautious and learn from the past. The meta verse simply amplifies the actual harms of social media.
So run this thought experiment – what is Facebook’s product? If you think it is an app to allow friends to interact with each other your are wrong. Facebook is an algorithm driven network designed to facilitate behaviour change to the benefit of paying advertisers who do not just want you to buy stuff but also vote for Governments. Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook, is the poster-child for Shoshana Zuboff’s surveillance economy. Machine learning sends you content and you react.
The metaverse is social media on steroids. Much has been written about the way social media, in particular Facebook, produces echo chambers. People are streamed what Facebook thinks they are interested in, so reinforcing belief systems. This can only have a stronger effect in a metaverse because a metaverse does two things simultaneously: it embeds you in an alternate reality that caters to your capacity for self-deception (aka., bullshit) whilst divorcing you from exposure to actual reality.
Actual reality is what people need and crave. COVID-19 lockdowns prove that people want real not virtual experience. In stating this I do not wish to imply there should be no VR/AR…working from home is a game changer, but I don’t think anybody would trade a real experience to a virtual experience unless their real experiences were seriously deficient.
On the latter point, is there any way of justifying a metaverse. I think there is but it hinges on an analogy that is already being explored in medical/scientific circles. What if VR/AR can produce transcendent experiences in the way that psychedelics can? By this I make an assumption that the reader accepts the evidence that psychedelics can produce transcendent experience. If VR/AR can do this then it may be worthwhile but if it is truly able to do it then there is a paradox….the transcendent experience, at least on psychedelics, is not addictive. It might be replicated over time but those that experience transcendence are not addicts after the events. It would be in the interest of Mr Zuckerberg not to achieve this as it would be disadvantageous for his stock price.
The fact that VR/AR can be used for therapeutic purposes in mental health is a canary in a coal mine. It means that these technologies can also be harmful and in a way that makes current social media look primitive.
From a surveillance capitalism perspective we must also recognise that the metaverse is going to rely on more than just your posts to generate the profiles it needs to make money. In the metaverse your biometric data will be in the Facebook/Meta cloud waiting to be exploited.
I have no objection to Facebook rebranding and redirecting as Meta but as a society we need to start exploring how we regulate this now, not once we realise we are in a dystopian version of Ready Player One.
Oh, and by the way, the blockchain and AI needed to power this metaverse is definitely not environmentally friendly.