Safeguarding our future from dystopian ‘metaverse’

Safeguarding our future from dystopian ‘metaverse’

Safeguarding our future from dystopian ‘metaverse’
An avatar of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg carries a U.S. flag while riding a hydrofoil in the ‘metaverse.’ (Reuters)
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A few weeks ago, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, announced that he was changing his company’s name to Meta. The move was to boldly point to the future as he envisions it, a “metaverse,” instead of just social media “platforms,” as Facebook and Instagram are.
Many of us dismissed the talk about a metaverse, partly because we interpreted it as Facebook trying to shift the discussion away from its biggest bad-reputation period, following revelations by former employee Frances Haugen about the company’s “profit-driven amorality.” But also partly because most of us, I think, including me, were not aware that the metaverse is being constructed by a number of companies and some basic parts of it are already here.
However, if Facebook/Meta has set the metaverse as its prime objective, and considering its global, dominating socioeconomic power and its amoral strategies, then we all must fear this development and we (observers, policymakers, educators, influencers and everyone else) need to have solemn conversations about what should be done about this — before it is too late.
First, what is this metaverse, anyway? To begin with, it is the internet turned into virtual reality, where instead of opening a webpage on a browser or an app on a smartphone, we wear Wi-Fi-connected glasses and enter a space of virtual objects, places and people. So, instead of opening one’s bank account online, one enters the bank’s virtual building and does a transaction there. Instead of accessing one’s school website, one just enters the school’s virtual campus. And instead of writing a message, sending a voice note or video calling friends and colleagues, we set up a virtual meetup — each of us choosing whatever look and voice one prefers in the shape of an avatar. Our world is replaced by a virtual metaverse; reality becomes an old concept. Nicholas Carlson, editor-in-chief of Insider, described the metaverse as a “cartoon world.”
Most importantly, as Facebook tries to do now with its online algorithm, Meta and other companies working toward this big goal will do everything to keep us inside the metaverse as long as possible — making it a giant jail.
As I was curious to see the global reactions to that metaverse announcement, I searched the net expecting to find anxiety-fueled articles and warnings about Facebook/Meta taking us into a virtual world that will be so addictive and manipulative that many users will unknowingly lose important parts of their humanity: Love of others, kindness, generosity, fairness, tolerance, altruism, humility, and many other human virtues.
I did find some articles along these lines, but I also found a number of others that were asking us to just accept this metaverse, insisting that it is already here to some extent and that we should not only get on with it, but indeed buy shares in the companies that are positioning themselves in it.
I will give a few examples of both reactions. Roger McNamee, a venture capitalist, former investor in Facebook and adviser to Zuckerberg, told the BBC: “The fact that we are sitting and looking at this like it’s normal should be alarming everyone… Facebook should not be allowed to create a dystopian metaverse.”
More welcoming reactions came along two lines: The metaverse is already here, get used to it (and its future, more sophisticated versions), and there is money to be made in this huge project, so play it smart. Kenneth Rapoza, a senior contributor to Forbes, wrote an article titled “Why you absolutely must invest in the metaverse,” in which he gave detailed advice on which parts of the metaverse project will soon be financially thriving. These included the infrastructure and platforms of the metaverse and some of its digital elements, such as the “social tokens” and  nonfungible tokens, digital “objects” that people can own, just as we own carpets or other valuable objects in real life.
What really concerns me is this almost nonchalant move to take our lives into a cartoon virtual world, where we replace ourselves with avatars and deal with each other through interfaces. It is true that we have already done this at some low level: Many people use pseudonyms and false or largely modified pics on social media; we use 3D views of our environment on Google Maps and Google Earth; and we connect with others and use goggles to play 3D video games online.

What really concerns me is this almost nonchalant move to take our lives into a cartoon virtual world.

Nidhal Guessoum

I see two big dangers looming with this metaverse if we do not take important steps and regulate its development before it explodes. One is the fact that the current digital, online world and its technology has already produced dangerous tools that can destroy lives: Hacking and data piracy, deepfakes, ransomware and the algorithms that boost hate speech and other evil behavior. The second danger is the loss of reality, the disconnection from the physical and human world: Going out, observing nature, interacting with animals, plants and trees, meeting people, offering (real) smiles, saying a few good words, and offering help.
We must not allow Facebook/Meta and its ilk to transform/ruin our world and the next generation by turning it into a giant virtual landscape, totally controlled and manipulated for profit. The world must impose stringent ethical rules to safeguard our future from such dystopias.

  • Nidhal Guessoum is a professor at the American University of Sharjah, UAE. Twitter: @NidhalGuessoum
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