On the Metaverse

On the Metaverse

“So Hiro’s not actually here at all. He’s in a computer-generated universe that his computer is drawing onto his goggles and pumping into his earphones. In the lingo, this imaginary place is known as the Metaverse. Hiro spends a lot of time in the Metaverse. It beats the shit out of the U-Stor-It.”

Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash, 1992

This past week, Mark Zuckerberg officially introduced the rebranding of Facebook the company and his vision for a deeply immersive future: Meta and the metaverse.

The change to Meta seems to mirror the change Google made in 2015 when that company restructured to a massive corporate entity called Alphabet, which owns Google, YouTube and its other products. In Meta’s case, there are two sides: the apps we rely on today (Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and so on), and the metaverse.

At the beginning of the Connect event, Zuckerberg started by addressing recent scandals around Facebook’s practices in the most dismissive way possible, calling it a “public debate” and saying that while some think Facebook shouldn’t be focusing on the future and instead should right its wrongs, “I’m not sure there will ever be a good time to focus on the future.”

“We make mistakes,” he says. But Facebook’s numerous violations of privacy and human rights are an inherent part of its business model. They are directly in contradiction with the mission of Facebook as a for-profit company, to increase the wealth of its executives, board members and investors. The business model cannot exist without Facebook doing what it has done for years.

Our dystopian future

Moving on from his combative tone about mass criticism of Facebook, Zuckerberg talked entirely about the future, and his idea of the future is a dystopian nightmare for the rest of us.

Flashy videos and interactive demos, many of which had small type noting that what you see on screen is not yet a real product, showed people relaxing in virtual homes with magnificent views, virtual offices, enjoying walks in a virtual forest, playing games in a sort of virtual clubhouse with friends in real-time.

The term Metaverse was first used in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 Snow Crash. Hiro, the character we meet at the beginning the book, “has a nice big house in the Metaverse but has to share a 20-by-30 in Reality.” The 20-by-30 is a storage unit at a U-Stor-It, not even an apartment. Residents in the Metaverse can hang out, walk down beautiful streets, buy cars and houses, all while escaping from the dystopian reality around them.

So it makes sense that, during an ongoing pandemic with a supply chain crisis, unemployment and homelessness, environmental destruction and – especially – increasing class consciousness and struggle, that the Metaverse will come to be in our reality.

The “creative economy” doesn’t promise stability

Much of the Connect keynote focused on the creators who will make the products available in the Metaverse. Creator has become a catchphrase for the people who make content – social media presences, websites, videos, tutorials and so on – in hopes of monetizing it. The rise of the Internet and social media has brought the merchant who sells their wares on the street online, allowing many more people to produce in hopes of attracting attention – and money.

An overall steep decline in real world good-paying jobs, particularly those with benefits like insurance, job security, pensions and union membership, pushes working-class people into the creator economy as it does to gig economy services like Uber and Grubhub.

The reality of the creator economy does not match the promises. Reportedly only the top 3% of creators on YouTube make more than $17,000 a year from advertisements that YouTube places on their videos, and even this rate requires 1.4 million page views monthly. A TikTok video may receive hundreds of thousands or even millions in views, but it’s forgotten in a day or so, and the creator receives no benefit.

Things to come

Many elements shown during Connect exist, in one form or another, in existing Meta-owned products under the Horizon and Oculus names.

On the other side, phrases like “a way’s off”, needing “a dozen major technological breakthroughs” and “foundational concepts” were common. The Metaverse will not appear overnight. It starts with some of the AR and VR technologies we have today, and as these new breakthroughs are made they will be incorporated into new or existing products.

AR & VR are not the exclusive purview of Facebook. Apple, Microsoft, Google and other either have or are investigating these technologies. Currently a play area for those people with the resources to purchase expensive goggles and other equipment, advances in technology will continue to make the products more available at lower cost.

Four Questions

Ultimately, four other questions appear about the Metaverse as Zuckerberg promoted it:

  • Is it really open? Can people interact with it on their terms? Make contributions to change the basic ways that works?
  • Is it really interoperable? Interoperability would suggest the ability for someone else to create their own Metaverse and have compatibility with Meta’s product.
  • Who controls it? What are the rules for the metaverse, who writes and approves them, and who enforces them? Is it the community of users or is it Meta?
  • What about privacy? The Metaverse concept invades our lives in ways much more intimate than even social media. Is it being built privacy-first? Is it audited by independent experts?

An educated guess is that the answers to these questions are not situations that would benefit people. Facebook, as a for-profit entity, has no incentive to make the product truly open or interoperable with others unless it finds a way to make money, which negates openness and interoperability. Meta will make the rules to stay acceptable to advertisers. And their track record on privacy speaks for itself.