The Metaverse - For Better or for Worse?
The Next Giant Leap For Mankind?
If I told you that in a few years from now you will be able to teleport and make things happen just by thinking about them, would you believe it? Well, not only this, you just have to plug into virtual reality and you will be able to try on clothes, work, attend concerts and that too from the comfort of your home, and no it's not the plot of a sci-fi movie or novel, the metaverse is the next big thing tech companies are working on, through which you’ll be able to bring things from the physical world into the ‘metaverse’ through almost any type of media that can be represented digitally. Photos, videos, art, music, movies, books, games, you name it - lots of things that are accessible through screens today will be transformed into holograms in the future. The term itself is nothing new, having been originally coined by Sci-Fi author Neal Stephenson in his novel 'Snow Crash' in 1992. Stephenson imagined the metaverse as a shared and connected universe within which digital avatars of people could interact with one another and where status is determined by the sophistication of one’s avatar.
The Metaverse and its Players
Though the company formerly known as Facebook is unlikely to take on the dystopian tones of Stephenson’s novel, their vision of the metaverse hews roughly to this concept - a shared and connected virtual world where you can learn, work, shop, meet people, play and create. Not only Facebook, but even Microsoft has jumped on the metaverse bandwagon and plans to bring a collaborative platform for virtual experiences directly into Microsoft teams. This involves bringing both the digital and physical worlds together, creating an entirely new platform allowing one to connect and have a shared immersive experience directly in teams.
Identity Reveal or Identity Crisis
Facebook’s rebranding as ‘Meta’ correlates to Google’s attempt with Alphabet. It depicts their intent to make Facebook a subsidiary because their holding company was also their platform. However, from a business perspective, the branding is done as a ‘universe’ to bind everything in a digital world and creates a vision of how life would be in the same dominion.
Furthermore, Zuckerberg couldn’t offer much in terms of tangible software or hardware developments, although there was confirmation about Facebook working on a new, more advanced virtual-reality headset and an augmented-reality device. We were left to imagine a new digital universe, in which avatars of ourselves and friends and co-workers mingle seamlessly thanks to still-to-be-developed technology. The timing for the rebrand is, of course, convenient. After whistle-blower Frances Haugen’s credible testimony before the Senate about Facebook’s harmful effects, there is more unity and momentum in Congress to rein in the tech giant. But as a diversionary tactic, it’s unlikely to work for long. It is noteworthy that Facebook’s investment of billions of dollars into ‘metaverse’ makes it far more likely to succeed. However, even an enormous chunk of money is no guarantee in the success of such technologies.
By adopting a new name, Facebook may be trying to claim that it is developing innovative technologies that bring people together in new and exciting ways. But in reality, it is a company that is building and promoting potentially dangerous products, harbouring a dysfunctional workforce culture, and losing the faith of its customers.
Furthermore, the metaverse should be open, not closed. The more our digital worlds are cross-platform and inclusive to everyone interested in experiencing them, the richer and more engaging they will be. The metaverse is an expansion of the physical world, not a retreat from it. It should connect people, not divide them. For an open and inclusive platform to work, it needs a strong community that draws people in and welcomes them, without compromising on their mental health.
The Second Coming of ‘Second Life’
While Meta’s announcement has arguably made the biggest splash in this space, they are far from the first or only organisation working on building this new digital world. Early versions of the metaverse emerged in the early nineties, most notably, ‘Second Life', the usage of which peaked in the first decade of the 21st-century, has been cited as one of the earliest examples of the metaverse, a notion that has been picked up by major organisations. At its peak in 2007, this particular virtual world had an estimated 800,000-900,000 active users. Video games like Fortnite and Roblox, and virtual social worlds like Decentraland can all be considered part of the metaverse already wherein fans can interact with and play as some of the classic fairytale characters popularized by Zenescope’s comic books and graphic novels, acting out scenarios and following different storylines.
In recent years, Facebook has alienated some users amid a raft of data privacy scandals and growing outrage over algorithms that amplified harmful content. It’s hard to imagine that consumers, especially the younger ones that Facebook/Meta hope to capture, will be any more persuaded to commit to the company’s vision now. Furthermore, while the tech world is abuzz with metaverse it will take some time before the common public can lay their hands on this tech.
~ Adithi Reddy