Fear and Loathing of the Metaverse
Fear and Loathing of the Metaverse

Fear and Loathing of the Metaverse

The Metaverse. The concept has been there since 1992, but not many people paid a lot of attention to it until Mark Zuckerberg mentioned it like 72 times in the process of announcing that he was changing his company’s name to Meta, which is so, not, meta. Now, all of a sudden, the Internet is buzzing with conversations about the metaverse, which is not to be confused with the multiverse of Marvel comics. There are web articles numbering in the millions, podcasts in the hundreds, and quiet conversations among technophobes who are at the point of needing their anxiety medication increased. Most of that content is little more than noise.

Why, then, would I spend my valuable time talking about a topic that is already saturating the interested market? Admittedly, part of my reason is knowing that simply having the name in the title will generate more hits than we might normally get. I’m not against pandering just a little bit every once in a while. I’m more interested, though, in debunking a lot of the nonsense that I’m seeing in all this glut of information and calming some of the ridiculous fears that people seem to have about the topic.

I get it, when Mark Zuckerberg, whose trust factor is already about as low as any corporate CEO can get, says that he’s building an online world that will suck us in more than anything else he’s done, the mind tends to shudder at the prospects. It’s difficult to see Zuckerberg ruling over anything other than a dystopian nightmare.

But here’s the thing: Mark Zuckerberg isn’t in charge of the metaverse. He never was, he never will be, and by its very nature, the most he can do is offer an alternative. His may be all glitzy and glamorous and contain a lot of things you think you want, but his will definitely not be the only option, and it already is not the first option out there.

You read that right. There are pieces of the metaverse available to you now if you’re really interested and have that much expendable cash lying around. The difference is that what exists now is severely limited and not nearly as immersive as some are envisioning. There’s also the fact that the technology isn’t close to providing the deeply consuming alternative reality that some people imagine. This type of development takes time and comes with a lot of glitches along the way, glitches that could doom a metaverse project from the start if they’re not addressed before rollout.

So, let’s try and get a better handle on this thing called the metaverse. We’ll try to break it down into easily digestible chunks so that it doesn’t take up all the space you need for thanksgiving dinner.

The Metaverse Started As Fiction

The metaverse is a child of the 1990s, born in 1992, the same year as my first child. We named our offspring Zachariah. Neal Stephenson named his Snow Crash. His main character was named Hiro Protagonist (no, really), a pizza delivery person of mixed race who spends all his non-working hours running down bad guys in an online world threatened by hackers. In the real world, he’s pretty much a nobody, but in the metaverse, he’s a warrior prince. Sitting here in 2021, the plot sounds almost trite.

 In 1992, though, the book was confusing to anyone not actively involved in this burgeoning thing called the world wide web, which, at the time, was more theory than reality. Some considered the book a knockoff of the 1982 video-game-inspired movie, Tron. Others considered it a wildly unrealistic piece of science fiction. And while the book was nominated for several awards, it failed to win any of them. The concept of being wholly immersed inside a digital world was still a little too far-fetched to be believed. 

What the book did, though, was kick-start the imaginations of a lot of other people who found the concept of a digital society fascinating. First came the concept of Proof of Work in 1993. This helped establish the basic security foundation necessary for, well, everything. Wei Dei, a computer engineer, then built on top of that to develop his concept of the first cryptocurrency in 1998, something he called b-money. Again, most of the world was unable to comprehend the idea of a cryptocurrency back then. A lot of people were just starting to figure out how to turn on their PCs. 

When Michael Grieves introduced the concept of a digital twin, an online representation of a physical object, the biggest obstacle was that there were no persistent Internet connections for people outside of work or school. It was 2002, still two years away from WiFi being commercially available, and even longer before home Internet speeds would begin to reach the point where utilizing a digital twin was realistic. 

That was all the foundation anyone needed, though, to create and establish the metaverse that Neal Stephenson had described ten years earlier. Granted, the first games were rudimentary. When Roblox was introduced in 2006, it only had a fraction of the players it enjoys today. Yet, it was critical in that it allowed users to create and play games developed by other users. The number of hours my soon-to-be 13-year-old has spent on the platform is an embarrassing calculation. This is the metaverse, right here, right now.

Development continues, with Blockchain, Bitcoin, Play-To-Earn Technology, NFTs, DAO, and decentralized exchanges. Every one of these along with a number of online games from Pokemon Go to Fortnite is helping to shape the metaverse. This isn’t something Mark Zuckerberg dreamed up, and it’s definitely not something he controls. All these separate pieces are independently developed making it unlikely if not impossible that one person or organization, whether it’s Meta or anyone else, can ever control the entire Metaverse. 

Exactly what the Metaverse will eventually be is still partially a work of fiction. There are hundreds of thousands of ideas, not all of which are practical. Which ones actually make it into reality, virtual or otherwise, remains to be seen.

Who Controls The Metaverse?

When people like Louis Rosenberg talk about the dangers of the metaverse, it often comes down to who is in control of reality when the reality is being constantly manipulated. Rosenberg comes at the metaverse from his deep experience with augmented reality devices and an understanding not only of what is possible now, but what is likely to be possible in the future. The technology, he warns, is already there, and we’re already using it.

Rosenberg points to how we are already captivated by social media platforms such as Facebook, which quickly became a primary medium for communication between groups ranging from families to neighbors, to people with similar interests in things strange and creepy. As we’ve noticed over the past few years, what we see on social media in terms of news and information pushed through sources of dubious origins has the ability to dramatically affect public opinion, playing to our specific belief systems, reinforcing not only what we like, but what we don’t. 

Some have claimed that what social media does is destroy the bridge between people within a community. For example, in a society limited to real-time person-to-person interaction, we often tempered what we said to another person because chances were pretty high that we’d be running into them again, at the grocery store, or the local school football game, or possibly even church. We were more likely to keep our most extreme opinions to ourselves, or, at most, only share them with our closest of friends who were likely to agree with us. Social media destroys that need to hold back because we can deliver our opinion quickly, easily, behind the online shield of social media, fairly secure in the knowledge that we probably won’t see the people we are offending.

To that extent, we’re starting from a negative base. The idea of Meta developing some kind of enhanced reality is frightening because we already don’t trust them. For many people, Mark Zuckerberg is seen as an evil character because the company he heads is responsible for pushing the divisive media on the public in its never-ending stretch for more eyeballs on its content for longer periods of time. If we don’t trust Facebook with what we see in a browser, we’re not likely to trust Meta with what we see in augmented reality.

Rosenberg argues, however, that the danger runs deeper than players such as Meta. The challenge is how technology alters us from a neurological standpoint, changing our ability to tell the difference between what is real and what isn’t. As it stands now, to exit the metaverse, all we have to do is put down whatever device we’re using, close the browser window, and go for a walk. Boom, we’re right back in reality. We can meet up with a real friend in a real bar and have a real beer. 

What a metaverse on AR does is change what we want to see. At first, it may appear really cool. We don’t see littered pavements, we don’t see rundown housing, we see pleasant weather and smiling faces. But then the filtering starts. Just like Netflix curates what movies are suggested based on your previous choices, metaverse operators curate your reality based on what makes you happy, hoping that you’ll stay in that reality longer, spend your NFTs on virtual products, and provide a constantly streaming source of data. In this reality, you only see and interact with people who agree with you. You’re not challenged by points of view that oppose yours. In giving us what we want, the metaverse separates us completely from reality and within a relatively short amount of time, this curated reality is the only reality we want.

While it’s easy to sit here and say, “We’re smarter than that, we’re not going to let some AR or VR set take over our lives,” look at the current reality. How much influence does online content have on where you go to eat, what sports you watch, what concerts you attend, and even where you go on vacation? Take a good look. We’re already under the control of the metaverse. The future, it would seem, only gets worse.

And who is in control of this future? The biggest players in the game. We probably don’t even know the names of the corporations who are likely to have the most influence in our lives over the next ten years. Certainly, they’re already out there, planning and plotting their next move, the new must-have technology, figuring out ways to lower the price point and ease of use so that everyone can be involved.

For the moment, our immersion into a world of augmented reality is limited by the need for clunky, obtrusive, and less-than-attractive goggles. Not many people are willing to walk around town with an Oculus device over their face. That technology is rapidly changing, though. Omega Ophthalmics has already created an eye implant capable of delving the wearer into an AR or VR experience. The technology has existed since 2017 and continues to be developed, with hopes of obtaining FDA approval in the very near future, most likely less than five years.

As that approval nears, media companies will begin developing content to work with the implants. There will be many, at least at first, but like Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and other social media apps have proven, you’re most likely to select the same provider as your friends, so that you’re all seeing the same thing, sharing the same information, and creating a reality that keeps you coming back, because that’s where you’re friends are. Those who you might not like or disagree with are labeled or perhaps blocked from your vision entirely.

When you choose a content provider, any content provider, you are giving them control over that portion of your reality. Sure, in theory, you can take back that permission at any time, but will you? Can you stand the social ostracization and seclusion of not seeing what everyone else sees? History says you can’t.

Not Everything Is Bad

Bashing the metaverse is easy because bashing social media is easy and there’s an intrinsic link between the two, as the existence of Meta proves. Even as we adopt the new technologies and make them part of our lives, we are already adept at pointing out all the flaws and dangers posed by those same technologies. We protest, but we don’t put down our devices. Ever.

For all the negative responses coming after Meta’s announcement last month, there are actually a number of positive aspects to the metaverse, and some of them you’ve already been enjoying. For example, a young boy held his 9th birthday virtually, on Roblox. The platform allowed him to invite friends who went together from game to game playing just as they might have had not the pandemic forced them to stay home. 

If your children went to school virtually or if you’ve been working from home, chances are that you are stepping into the metaverse in order to do so. Yes, Zoom is definitely part of the metaverse. I had a virtual doctor’s visit during the pandemic as well. The tools are already there, though they are likely to seem rudimentary compared to what’s coming.

For example, when we talk about working from home, many people think of endless Zoom calls, which are just as boring as in-person meetings. However, Immersed is a technology company that is changing that with a VR-based app that creates a productivity environment where one can do everything they might do in an office, not just boring meetings. Those who are using the technology, which requires the use of a VR headset, say they’re more productive and “rarely take off the headset during working hours.” They report that they’re enjoying work in this form much more than they ever did in person. 

The metaverse is making an impact on medicine as well. Already, AR is being incorporated into various forms of medical training, giving emerging medical professionals the ability to closely encounter and practice treatments in a virtual environment that poses significantly less risk and allows for greater diversity. VR companies are working on ways to duplicate contagious scenarios that would be too dangerous for in-person training. At the same time, doctors of the future are likely to use AR and VR tools in performing delicate surgeries with greater precision and considerably less risk.

As we look at shifting to a more carbon-neutral world, the metaverse offers opportunities for experiencing travel options without getting on a plane or driving all the way across the continent. Sports events could be experienced in real-time with a front-row seat that would otherwise be unavailable. The same applies to concerts, with options for virtual meet-and-greets with your favorite artists.

Environment-enhancing technologies can even transform some of your favorite real-world experiences. For example, say you’re going on a hike in the woods. Technology in the Omega Opthamolics implants can provide detail on the types of flora and fauna one is seeing, provide warnings as to which plants might be hazardous, and even track the presence of dangerous animals not yet in view. If trekking out on a bicycle, the technology could warn of traffic dangers coming up around a curve or over a hill, reducing injuries and fatalities.

Of course, metaverse technologies are at the core of autonomous vehicles that promise a safer transportation experience with the availability of information such as restaurant reviews, historical context to a neighborhood, and nearby points of interest that the casual traveler might not know were close or available. While there are still some critical bugs to be worked out of the technology, especially in regards to its ability to recognize things such as people darting out into the middle of the road, the promise is real and the future almost certainly includes travel experiences unlike anything available today.

The metaverse is not inherently evil and could potentially make life better, bringing healthcare and education to places and people that are currently unreachable. To dismiss it out of hand because of dystopian fear is short-sighted and probably foolish.

But, What About The Matrix?

The Matrix movie trilogy, which began in 1999, is often compared to the metaverse, especially now that immersive technologies are becoming increasingly likely. Most often, the references are to the situation in the first movie where people reside in gooey pods and are plugged into a VR system that simulates reality while their physical bodies are used to power the whole network. The situation is scary, the type of thing that might be used to warn us against any form of immersive technology.

If we fast forward to the third movie, however, we see that for some people, being connected to The Matrix is preferable. Disabilities are cured. Diseases are healed. Physical injuries don’t occur. In the end, a compromise is found between the machines and the humans, allowing for individuals to choose when and under what conditions they will participate in the massive network. 

The keyword throughout the trilogy is choice. At the very beginning, Neo is given a choice: a red pill or a blue. Sound familiar? Sure, it’s exactly the same type of choice given to Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. In fact, it’s easy to look at the enjoyable story of Alice’s adventures as a prophecy of what is possible in the metaverse, even if Lewis Carroll had no concept of anything digital at all. 

For both Alice and Neo, the choice is what is the critical factor. We choose the reality we want, whether it is physical or virtual. We’ve been making these choices all our lives. The food we eat changes our reality. What we drink or smoke, alters how we perceive the world around us. The jobs we do, the clothes we wear, the groups to which we belong, all communicate information about us to others, even if that information isn’t wholly accurate. When we step back and examine the situation, the ability to exist in an altered reality is not limited to digital worlds. We’ve chosen for centuries to change our realities, and we’re likely to continue to make those choices in the future.

Perhaps the question at this point is what is influencing those choices. Do we know when we take the red pill or the blue pill what it is we’re getting ourselves into? Some, like Louis Rosenberg, would argue that we’re not sufficiently aware of the dangers, that all we see is the glitz and glamour and follow along blindly. He’s not totally wrong. There have always been large portions of society who make blind choices in order to be part of a group, and there have been moments, such as Germany in 1936, where those choices have proven to be disastrous. 

At the same time, there are continually people who look at opportunities like the metaverse and see a chance to improve reality not only for themselves but for millions of people whose current reality is already as dark and dangerous as it can get. They choose to use metaverse technologies to improve the lives of people and make a positive difference on the entire planet. Imagine being able to bring better prenatal care to populations where the infant mortality rate is the highest. Or being able to defend the rights of women and children you’ve never met in newly established VR courts, institutions that have the same weight and authority as their real-life counterparts. 

And if it gets to be too much? You opt-out. Sure, there are going to be some differences and some of those differences may be severe at times. But as long as the choice is yours, there is no Matrix.

A Matter Of Control

Of course, the ultimate question is one of who has control. One of the dreams of the Internet was that it would become the great equalizer, democratizing information so that everyone had access to the knowledge they needed, when they needed it, wherever in the world it was needed. The framework was designed to support that kind of open system where anyone, regardless of race, nationality, gender, or socioeconomic status could access the same information. No barriers.

What happened? Government got in the way. Capitalism got in the way. I distinctly remember sitting in a stranger’s living room one evening as a group of bulletin board operators discussed whether access to the Internet should be treated like a utility, distributed equally to everyone, or commercial service, like cable, with service providers laying the necessary lines and then charging for access. We see who won that argument. 

Today, thirty years after the fact, there are still millions of people who don’t have access to basic Internet services. Thousands of those are in the United States. The president’s infrastructure bill provides funding to address those problem areas, but when we put profit before people, as inevitably happens in a capitalistic society, people get left out.

In other countries, Internet service became a government-regulated service, which means the government decides not only who gets it and who doesn’t, but what information gets through, what gets censored, what gets left out completely, and when the whole thing is turned off. Tyrants and dictators have shown that they don’t like the Internet because it ultimately creates a challenge to their authority.

Given the challenges we’ve had with basic Internet service, we would be fools to expect that the metaverse, for all its promise, is going to be any different. As long as there are power brokers, whether they be corporate or governmental, there will be people left out of the loop. Capitalism is no more democratic than fascism, the means of authority are simply different. Fascists deny some the power to vote. Capitalism denies some people the ability to purchase. Neither system is equitable and bringing either system into the metaverse, which has already happened, means that the same troubles that plague the physical world will continue to upset, disrupt, and eventually dismantle the digital world, no matter how many of them we make.

And here we bring home the point of our last three podcasts. The problem isn’t technology. The problem is people using technology. People are the ones misusing your data. People are invading your privacy. People are spreading misinformation. Technology, regardless of whether it’s the metaverse or a transistor AM radio, is wholly dependent on people. People like you and me make the decisions of where we will spend our money, our time, and our influence. 

So, if there’s a problem with the metaverse, perhaps we need to consider who caused that problem.

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