Epistemic status: half-baked at best.
In October 2021, Mark Zuckerberg announced the creation of a software infrastructure for a virtual universe that can closely interact with the physical world called the metaverse. The metaverse offers tremendous opportunities for social life, education and work. It also offers opportunities for large-scale manipulation and engineering addictive dependence. This post argues that we may now be at a tipping point that decides whether we are steering either towards a utopian or to a dystopian future of hybrid virtual/physical realities. It encourages a discussion on the assessment of the problem and brainstorming of potential solutions.
In October 2021 Facebook was renamed to Meta. Their CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced to create the software infrastructure for a virtual universe, called the metaverse. As described in The Conversation, the “metaverse is an immersive virtual reality version of the internet where people can interact with digital objects and digital representations of themselves and others, and can move more or less freely from one virtual environment to another. It can also involve augmented reality, a blending of virtual and physical realities, both by representing people and objects from the physical world in the virtual and conversely by bringing the virtual into people’s perceptions of physical spaces. By donning virtual reality headsets or augmented reality glasses, people will be able to socialise, worship and work in environments where the boundaries between environments and between the digital and physical are permeable. In the metaverse, people will be able to find meaning and have experiences in concert with their offline lives.” Even if a significant fraction of apps and environments may not be created by Meta, they will likely build or depend on their infrastructure in one way or another. In other words, within a decade, we may have created a virtual universe that influences the physical universe. Unlike the fairly democratised structure of the internet, the power over the metaverse will largely be in the hands of a company with a strong track record on influencing elections and drawing people into addiction.
The metaverse could become a utopia where we
- Stay in touch with friends and family abroad (or potentially AI avatars of deceased loved ones).
- Do sports, go to concerts, museums, go shopping.
- “Travel” for sightseeing, conferences, etc with close to zero carbon footprint.
- Do practical courses on chemistry lab work, fire rescue, aircraft maintenance. Some of these courses can be cheaper to conduct, and some would allow practising of scenarios that are currently considered as too dangerous in physical environments.
- Study science, as a more effective replacement to textbooks, thereby accelerating learning and ultimately scientific discovery.
The metaverse could also become a dystopia, where we
- Do not have ownership of our virtual personality.
- Have to pay money or data for virtual property that could be created for free in a democratised system.
- Face environments that are engineered to be addictive.
- Are subject to highly effective and scalable manipulation.
- Are caught in a bubble that prevents exposure to a diverse set of opinions.
Most of the above points are true for present social media, but a metaverse will be social media on steroids.
I believe competing with Meta on a technological level will unlikely be successful due to narrower budget and potentially ethical constraints. However, one could look at cases where the internet adopted open protocols against the wishes of large companies and try to replicate this with metaverse protocols.
Beyond that, I consider governmental legislations as sensitive interventions points to guide metaverse developments into a utopian instead of dystopian future. These regulations may include:
- Avatars must be based on open-source infrastructure. Everybody should be able to modify and disseminate the code avatars are based on, and everybody should be able to store all information associated with their avatar on their own hardware. Avatars that adhere to very basic single sign-on standards must be allowed into all public environments.
- There must be substantial open-source infrastructure to create public environments and private environments for personal use.
- There must be restrictions on what information can be shared with virtual environments.
- There must be restrictions on what information about avatars/consumers can be shared to third party environments/entities.
- There must be restrictions on actions that would be considered illegal in a physical environment. There is often no need for punishment, as such actions can often be technologically prevented.
Two barriers towards governmental legislation include (1) lack of technological sophistication in most governments to create and enforce large legislation, and (2) conflicts of interest in using the metaverse to influence elections. Both problems grow with the technological capabilities of a metaverse, making it critical to act early on.
Qualitative SNT statement
- The scale of the problem of a de facto centrally powered metaverse would almost certainly exceed the importance of several election outcomes plus the damage done by current social media addiction. On the positive side, I struggle to estimate the counterfactual benefit of a democratised metaverse over its centrally governed counterpart.
- Given current attention to the COVID19 pandemic and several environmental crises, I have not yet seen any parliamentary discussions on metaverse regulations. Democratising the metaverse currently seems highly neglected.
- Laws like the EU General Data Protection Regulation and the California Consumer Privacy Act demonstrate the tractability of implementing regulations. I am uncertain about their effectiveness compared to zero regulations and a hypothetical loophole-free system.
Call to action
- Please comment below on whether you think democratisation of the metaverse is a worthwhile cause area
- If you think so, please help me to improve this post by suggesting/commenting on its Google Docs counterpart.
- If you and the community think metaverse democratisation is a worthwhile cause area, please share information on this issue with friends in relevant positions.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to EA Graz for the discussion on the topic and Aditya Vaze for his feedback on the draft.