THREE CONCERNS ON THE METAVERSE
What are the implications Big Tech’s dreams about the Metaverse? As investments are ramping up and the discussions around the future of the web are intensifying we try to analyze what’s concerning in this vision.
ALESSIO’s mind lives at the intersection between design, digital, technology and social sciences. He is the Head of Innovation at atrain and has always approached technology with a critical spirit and a creative and human-centric approach.
With a career that started as Service Designer in an Italian hospital, and a past in digital-art collectives and punk-noise bands, Alessio’s main job today beside atrain’s is always be wrong in a family with a wife, three daughters, a female dog and two female cats.
Since the press conference in which Mark Zuckerberg announced the rebranding of Facebook into Meta, the discourse on the metaverse took the forefront not only in specialized magazines but also in the mainstream news feed.
Just for the purpose of our discussion, I will recap here a couple of key points on what a Metaverse is. In the vision of the main actors (more on this later) the Metaverse is a parallel, rich, virtual first world. It’s open, it’s based on avatars and digital identities and it’s either running on Virtual Reality (VR) in a fully immersive and tactile experience or on the live integration of digital entities in the real world, AKA Augmented Reality (AR). It’s not necessarily a videogame, but would almost surely have gamifications elements. It definitely has a commercial component, ideally based on money exchange through cryptocurrencies, and it’s viewed by many as the place where we will work, buy, play and represent ourselves as we want ourselves to look like (the concept of avatar). One key element here is that the metaverse will not be “closed” and each single companies will have one (like now with the internet of platforms), but that different “worlds” will be connected, our identities will be consistent across the different services and that there will be a real economy behind this universe, fueled by virtual wallets and cryptocurrencies.
The concept itself is not new, it originates in sci-fi literature and is at the core of some of the most successful online gaming experiences, things like Minecraft or Fortnite can be considered some sort of non-interconnected metaverses. I guess many of you saw Ready Player One and are by now building a certain picture of this in your mind. What makes it different this time is that the building of the metaverse has become the main goal for Meta, one of the biggest and most powerful companies in the world. Anyway, Mark Zuckerberg is not the only person passionate about the topic. Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, explained MS’s vision for the metaverse a few days after Facebook’s rebranding to Meta, and it has a lot of points in common with Meta’s one. Niantic, the company behind Pokemon Go, probably the first game that really brought AR to the big audience, has released a developer kit (a set of tools that developers can use to create software) for AR experiences together with their own vision for the metaverse. And that’s just the last tech-giant in a long list of companies who chimed in on the topic.
On one side this is exciting, because it looks like an effort to build a “new internet” (Web3), but on the other side, I am really concerned about how this is happening. Of course, it might be just because I’ve read too much dystopic cyberpunk literature when I was young, but after many reads and hours of reflection, I think the concerns are real.
At the turn of the century, there was a lot of literature on our nature of “consumers” and the political and social implications of it. No Logo by Naomi Klein was the most popular one of course, but a very interesting one was The Age of Access, by Jeremy Rifkin. The book was predicting a future where everything would be behind “fences” and all of the human experiences would have to be somehow paid for. A key reflection was on the fact that malls and commercial areas were becoming the new public spaces, but instead of being, well, public, they are private spaces owned by companies. In a square, you can gather freely, and no one can kick you out.
You can take a guitar and sing, you can demonstrate, you can just hang out there for days doing nothing. A public square is a place where everyone, also people that are considered (wrongly) at the margins of our society can stay and feel theirs (of course I know that a lot of urban planners and city councils tried to turn this around in the last years, but it’s way more difficult to design a bench that makes impossible for people to sleep on it than just send a security guard and kick someone out of a private building).
In a commercial space, your freedom is limited by what the owners decide you can do, usually buy goods and spend money.
Transferring the role of public spaces to private ones changes the fabric of our society and what we perceive as a community and its role.
Now think of this for a whole world. Think of a whole virtual world where not only someone decided the opening hours, the colors of the walls and stuff like that. Think of a world where a developer can literally define the physical rules, decide if you can fly or not, if you can go to a certain place or not.
A world where you see only and exclusively what an algorithm decides you have to see.
The metaverse has the ambition of becoming our new world, the one where we work, build relationships, spend our free time. And spend our money: that’s why it’s going to be designed based on maximizing profits, not on human needs. Only authoritarian governments block demonstrations, on Facebook this is done opaquely by software and direct decisions of a board that was nominated by shareholders. And this is my first concern.
The second is more or less a corollary: in order for this to work, we will need an ID integrity, which means that we will need to be always “ourselves” and clearly identifiable. On the internet of platforms, today, we can have multiple personalities, we can be on LinkedIn as our professional self, have an account under our name on Facebook where we are more our social self and a “hidden” identity on a forum or on a dating app, or in a videogame. We need to be different selves and have a separation between compartments, but this seems like a problem for the visionaries of the metaverse. A clear, unified, consistent identity allow platforms to track us even more easily than today. And as we move from one experience to another, in a world that covers ALL of our needs and where the designers want us to spend as much time as we can, we bring with us all our actions, making us more and more valuable for everyone who wants to profit there (Meta wants to sell advertising, Microsoft hardware and software. An incredibly effective way to nudge people into this direction is the content-creator economy, which definitely deserves an analysis).
The last, big concern that I have is that apparently what every tech-giant in the conversation is aiming at is building something that’s completely supranational and separated from a reality where things can be controlled or stopped by policymakers. The final (and not so hidden) desire of Zuckerberg is to be a world-creator, the decision-maker and architect of a world that he envisioned and created. How much of a goal is to make even more money and monetize people’s actions when you are already a multi-billionaire? I don’t buy this motivation much, ensuring to have a massive, constant and permanent flow of revenues it’s just a mean to the real goal of being the king of your own kingdom.
That’s the scary psychology behind a lot of tech founders (the race to space that involves Musk, Bezos and Branson is another facet of this): people that are lamenting how much their ideas, visions and businesses are slowed down by politics, activists, and the boundaries and limitations of our society in general. I think that the importance of having a vision has brought a lot of people to a misinterpretation of it, almost making the idea of the vision itself the most important thing in the world: something to achieve in spite of everything, something that transcends rules, because, in a delusional justification of their actions, it’s the final good that when reached will make everyone happy.
I would like to close with a reflection and some positivity. The first thing to say is: is the metaverse here to stay? Is this really going to be the next step in the evolution of internet? Probably yes: the investments in VR and AR are massive and a lot of companies are dedicating huge efforts to it. Also, it’s too promising as a business to let it go. But it’s not the first time that we see a bubble in this sector and even if some sort of metaverse will be part of our future it doesn’t need to be the one imagined by Mark Zuckerberg.
This brings me to the second point. In one way or another, our future is going to be defined by technology, as it always has been in human history. But technologies can be designed and used in many different ways.
We can design a metaverse that’s based on public good and human needs.
Interactions between people are defined by the design of the communication channels and the architecture of the system where these interactions are happening. A big chunk of internet has been defined by non-profit orgs, researchers, and companies with a positive and human centered vision. We, as atrain, can be part of this: in our work with customers we can help them in defining what are the important things to have in mind when they switch to new technology, we can warn them from the dangers of it, we can help them design the interactions and the culture that they want to build in their part of the metaverse.
To do this we need to know what we are talking about, we need to reflect on the consequences of technologies and their applications, we must always take in consideration that the channels and platforms are part of the equation. I’m not going to cite McLuhan, but you know what I’m talking about. ????