Mark Zuckerberg wants Facebook to become a “metaverse company.” In August, Facebook launched Horizon Workrooms, an application where users can strap on Facebook’s Oculus VR headset and attend 3D virtual meetings as their personalized avatar. Although Zuckerberg’s first foray into immersive tech might be clunky right now, his belief in the future of the metaverse is not as far-fetched as it might sound. Other Big Tech leaders such as Epic Games’ Tim Sweeney and Microsoft are talking about the metaverse as a very real possibility in the near future.
So, what is the metaverse? Nobody knows exactly, but there is a lengthy body of work on the subject written by venture capitalist Matthew Ball. For those unwilling to dig through Ball’s website, works of science-fiction, like Ernest Cline’s “Ready Player One” or the “San Junipero” episode from Netflix’s Black Mirror present captivating ideas of how the metaverse might turn out to mesh with our day-to-day lives. Imagine finishing a meeting on Workrooms at 3 p.m. on a Wednesday and then instantly transporting yourself to a virtual shopping mall, where you spend hours looking for a pair of cute new bell-bottoms. The metaverse is the overarching structure that binds each space together into a cohesive, navigable whole. It is no surprise that Zuckerberg wants an early stake in the metaverse. The earlier Facebook can build the most popular platform on the metaverse, the more profit they can rake in from advertisers. If the amount of personal data Facebook collects now is cause for alarm, imagine the possibilities for marketing firms once they have access to every word we say, every gesture we make and every place we visit in the virtual world.
At this point, the metaverse should sound like the worst dystopia imaginable. In essence, it is a digital universe designed and controlled by Mark Zuckerberg, in which advertisers can exploit the field of neuroscience for even greater profits than they already are. Why are we not turning our backs and running away screaming?
We love social media, and at the same time recognize how detrimental it is to our mental health. It seems impossible to extricate ourselves from our online social networks, from fear of being left out and falling behind. Once someone comes up with a successful social platform on the metaverse, a similar network effect will occur, driving greater numbers of people to spend time on the newest fad provided by the market.
Assuming, then, that the metaverse (with all its attendant problems) is inevitable, the question becomes how should we respond? Already, there are voices in the tech industry thinking of innovative ways to deal with the potential ethical dilemmas brought up in deciding how to write algorithms. Should our technology filter how we view the real world? Will the metaverse give computer engineers an unbearable burden of decision-making? How will living in a manufactured world impact how we expose our children to the world? It is good to know that current professionals are seriously considering the social implications of their work, but it is not enough.
Here at the University of Michigan, we have a rich tradition of excellence in technological innovation. Our computer science, engineering and various other technology-oriented departments produce successful, industry-leading graduates that go on to accomplish great feats in their respective careers. Larry Page is perhaps the most notable example, but he is certainly not alone. Back in the 1980s, U-M Professor Emeritus Doug Van Houweling led a project to rebuild a National Science Foundation network of computers that arguably invented the internet. We truly are the Leaders and Best.
Now, if we are to live up to our school’s reputation, then we ought to direct our professional efforts toward leading the path forward for the metaverse. Computer science graduates should think in great detail about the impacts caused by the code they write and advocate for positive, helpful developments in our technology. Business students should invest in and found metaverse companies that aim to improve the social welfare of their consumers, even if that cuts into their profits. Political science students should advocate for changes in government tech policy that best reflect their values and work towards the future they wish to live in. We have an opportunity to build the metaverse into something beautiful, and a responsibility to make it as beneficial for the public good as we can.
Alex Yee is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at @firstname.lastname@example.org.