Will the Metaverse change reality? It's already happened
The fear that the ‘metaverse’ – an immersive, virtual, augmented world being developed by the company formerly known as Facebook – could change reality for the worse misses the fact that much of life is already mediated digitally.
The idea that reality in the future will be a world of VR and AR does appear to be far-fetched, more dystopian science fiction than reality. But, at the same time, Meta (formerly Facebook) intends to spend billions to realize this vision. Should we take this seriously or not?
We can be sure of one thing: whatever vision Mark Zuckerberg has of the Metaverse, if it is ever realized, it will be very different from his initial vision. If his announcement was anything to go by, the Metaverse sucks. Legless torsos sitting around a conference room, staring at a Zoom-like video conferencing screen, hardly heralds a brave new world. It looked about as non-compelling as Second Life, launched by Linden Labs in 2003.
But the idea of the Metaverse does raise important questions about a future that is more mediated by technology than we are at present.
Zuckerberg’s claim is that the Metaverse will give the user a sense of immersion. The virtual and real worlds will come together so that information can be projected onto reality, giving users a unique and natural experience. For Louis Rosenberg, a computer scientist and developer of the first functional AR system at the Air Force Research Laboratory, this is worrying, because it would be worse than present-day social media.
He argues that this technology has “the potential to alter our sense of reality, distorting how we interpret our direct daily experiences.” Our surroundings will become filled with persons, places, objects, and activities that don’t exist. But as he says, “they will seem deeply authentic to us.” The danger is that third parties could introduce “paid filter layers” that allow certain users to see specific tags over real-life people. These tags might float above every person’s head, for instance, and provide bits of information about them. “The virtual overlays could easily be designed to amplify political division, ostracize certain groups, even drive hatred and mistrust.”
The problem with this argument is twofold. First, it simply projects the existing situation onto an imagined reality. Rosenberg is right to highlight how much of our lives is already mediated by technologies. But this dependence is nevertheless mediated by lived experience, through the systems of meaning we have acquired throughout life.
The second related problem is the assumption that this mediated life is a manipulated one. This is the idea that we are gullible, that filtered information influences our acceptance even of basic facts. The danger is that because the Metaverse will be immersive, this ability to manipulate us will be even greater.
The Metaverse, according to Rosenberg, could easily be used to fracture society, pushing us from our information bubbles into our custom realities, further entrenching our views and cementing our divisions, even when we are standing face-to-face with others in what feels like the public sphere. Its immersive character will make it almost impossible to walk away from.
It is not clear if we are talking about the future or the present. Social media has already fractured society along political and cultural lines. We might not be using AR or VR devices, but not many are escaping its grip. If this is the unique point about the Metaverse, it is here already!
The problem with this discussion is that it is overly technologically determinist. Concerns that people will ignore things like homelessness or inequality as they build their virtual worlds misses the point that this already happens.
What about those people who go to Third World Countries for holidays where they don’t see the abject poverty all around them while sipping their margaritas on the beach? We don’t need any artificial technologies to accomplish this or invent reality for us.
However, there is a serious point to think about. The billions that Meta intends to spend developing the Metaverse, and the fact that many technology companies will focus on this too, mean that something like this could become a reality. And just as we underestimated how the internet would transform society, mainly e-commerce, it is the case that we may not have a choice but to participate in this new reality.
But as in the case of the internet, this technology could be transformative and/or dystopian. Indeed, its potential for increasing productivity, health, and creativity is immense. But as in all cases of how human beings adapt technologies into their lives, it is not the technology that will determine outcomes, but the broader culture, ambitions, and aspirations present in society. Projecting present-day social media behaviour into the future smacks of presentism, seeing the world standing still while the technology develops. This has never happened in the past. And it will not occur in the future.
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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.