Our physical identities will become one with the algorithms in artificial reality.
Facebook’s name change to Meta refers to the metaverse. The metaverse can be described as a new and unavoidable evolution of the internet, where the digital and physical come closer together — reality and virtual reality meld into one.
This might sound both mystical and frightening. For young people who have grown up with smart phones and virtual gaming universes, however, this is the next natural step.
To help hurry this evolution along, Mark Zuckerberg is going to transition Facebook from a social media platform to a metauniverse, a type of artificial reality. What does this mean in the bigger picture?
Time and Place Erased
Some think we are on the edge of a technological paradigm shift. The metaverse may offer endless possibilities when it comes to work, entertainment and social life.
While the internet is erasing limitations of time and place, the metaverse will erase limitations of physical presence. You’ll be able to have a face-to-face consultation with a doctor in China, then participate in a lecture from the University of California at Berkeley; in the evening you’ll be able to visit a beach bar in Rio.
The divide between home and office will be erased forever. People will literally be able to do everything they do in the real world through the virtual platform. The possibilities will be almost endless. All by merely putting on some glasses, or maybe even contact lenses.
The metaverse isn’t here yet, but it’s coming. New variants of virtual reality are being developed all the time and are becoming increasingly more advanced. Currently, the most well-known is Second Life, which is a 3D-based virtual world with avatars — virtual representations of ourselves.
In 2007, there was an intense wave of hype around Second Life. Sweden and other countries built embassies and museums in the virtual world. The opening of Sweden’s embassy in Second Life was a “metaverse moment”: During the launch, Sweden’s foreign minister at the time, Carl Bildt, participated via internet in the form of an avatar at a real press conference in Stockholm.
A Technological Shift
The technological paradigm shift toward the metaverse will challenge the role of the smart phone, the great media innovation of our time. First came the printing press, and then came the camera, radio and TV. The smart phone managed to combine all these innovations into one product. Now, it’s almost difficult to imagine an existence without our phones. Everything is made and adapted for mobile phones today.
Now, the metaverse entails a technological shift away from the mobile phone to a virtual artificial universe. This will make it possible for Facebook, now Meta, to free itself from competitors Google and Apple, which control the operating systems (Android OS and Apple IOS) for mobile devices.
However, when the digital and physical are melded together, problems involving the balance between self-control and new technology will pile up. This applies both to regulation of content and especially to personal privacy protection.
What sensory data will Meta be able to exploit, together with other forms of personal data? The metaverse will involve endless data connections and data collecting. It is not very comforting that Zuckerberg will sit in control of all this when you think about all the scandals surrounding the protection of privacy that have already been linked to Facebook.
Faith in Facebook is eroding. Frances Haugen, who previously worked for Facebook, recently went for her former employer’s throat — and it’s not the first time. In 2017, former Facebook president Sean Parker warned that the platform was created to exploit human vulnerability: “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”
Similarly, Haugen has accused the social media platform of deliberately hurting young people and doing nothing to prevent the damage. It has also come out that Facebook has done almost nothing to combat ethnic violence and human trafficking on its platform.
Not only that, Facebook is undermining democracy in the United States and the world. The platform highlights dividing and polarizing content because it encourages more interaction with its site.
There is no doubt that Facebook’s design and technology affects us and democracy. What will it be like in Meta’s social metaverse?
Many wrote Facebook off and predicted its demise when it was first rolled out in 2006. Fifteen years later, Facebook is a gigantic money machine and global public space that we have all become dependent on, for better or worse. On a worldwide basis, 3 billion people on average use at least one Meta service (Instagram, Messenger, Facebook) daily.
A few weeks ago, Facebook disappeared from the internet. The down time of nearly 24 hours made it very clear just how dependent we have become on the site.
What about the Meta universe? We must take it seriously, and it will be here before we realize it. Facebook, or Meta, has enormous muscle. In Europe alone, it is looking to hire 10,000 engineers to create a virtual version of the internet and our life. Therefore, regulation and an analysis of the consequences are urgent.
Facebook’s recommendation algorithms prioritize and direct what we see on the platform based on what will capture our attention and what will engage us over time. In other words, Facebook has a clear target in sight — occupy as much of the user’s data, time and attention as possible. Now Meta will occupy our bodies. Our physical identities will become one with the algorithms in artificial reality.
The problem today is that the algorithms are impenetrable and invisible. Artificial intelligence and algorithms are installed in technology before they have been thoroughly tested and made transparent.
In the metaverse, we will become increasingly part of a new and artificial reality, something that will make us even more vulnerable to manipulation.
It is crucial that the press report on the implications and regulation of the metaverse on before the metaverse becomes operational, and before we are all melded together in Zuckerberg’s meta-world.