• Will Southall

The Metaverse is Coming - But At What Cost?


Imagine a virtual world bringing a new dimension to social interactions and gaming. An alternative to reality, where you move around not as yourself, but in avatar form, chatting with friends, meeting new people, and playing games along the way. The world you are imagining already exists. It’s called Club Penguin.


Throw in some virtual reality goggles and better graphics and you’re looking at a potential multi-trillion-dollar industry. Such are the hopes of today’s biggest tech giants, and those who fancy themselves as the tech giants of the future. But whilst there are many reasons to get excited about the metaverse, there are just as many reasons to be concerned.


One of the key players in the metaverse market will undoubtedly be Facebook who, just a couple weeks ago, changed their name to none other than ‘Meta’. The new branding aims to signpost a different focus and direction for the business, but the timing of the name change is somewhat suspect. The harmful nature of Facebook’s social media algorithms was recently brought into the spotlight by former employee Frances Haugen, who claimed the company was falling well short of its legal and moral obligations to make its sites safe.


Furthermore, concerns over the spread of misinformation on its platforms, and accusations of antitrust law violations made by the US Federal Trade Commission, have also contributed to a great deal of negative press surrounding the brand. All this considered, it would be fair to assume that adopting a new name is nothing more than an attempt to change the public conversation and deflect from negative media coverage.


But whilst this may be true, it would be a mistake to assume that Facebook’s, sorry, Meta’s, change in focus is either rushed or unconsidered. Meta have been investing in this area for some time, ever since their acquisition of virtual reality company Oculus back in 2014 for $2 billion. And they are not alone. Microsoft recently announced that in 2022 they will be rolling out a virtual reality add-on to Teams, called Mesh, which will be aimed at enabling work connections with a ‘new depth and dimension’ compared to traditional video calling. Meanwhile, Apple look to bring to market ‘Mixed Reality’ products, a combination of both AR and VR, in the second half of next year.


Socialising under the influence of big tech-controlled platforms has become the normality, and whilst many would admit to concern over the amount of data we are freely handing over to these platforms, over 2 billion of us have decided that it is a price worth paying for the convenience of online messaging and social media. Turning the experience 3D, however, brings renewed concern over the exchange of data and privacy, in return for access to new digital means of socialisation. Consumers need transparency over what data they will be freely parting with for such new technologies, to be able to make informed decisions and understand whether they are getting a good deal.


TikTok star ‘Chip Girl’ shows us exactly what can happen when consumers turn a blind eye to the data we give up to access utility derived from a new technology. Having implanted a chip in her hand, the biohacking influencer can now open all the doors in her house without the need for a key. Whilst vast amounts of data could be flowing from her body to the chip manufacturer, Chip Girl seems to have calculated that using a key is so inconvenient it’s worth paying your full privacy to avoid.


Research from Harvard University shows that after only 5 minutes of playing time on a VR headset you could be identified through the subtlety of your movements. Further studies from Stanford have found that over 2 million data points are recorded for every 20-minute session using the headset. As the metaverse is beginning to take shape, serious questions need to be asked by regulators in order to protect the privacy of consumers and limit the control of companies who are set to run these platforms.


Facebook has been rightly scrutinised for their poor handling of online abuse and the seemingly uncontrollable spread of misinformation on their platform. The company has had well over a decade to put in place checks to limit the spread of hate and lies on their sites, and yet such issues are far from being resolved. It is therefore unsurprising that so many are yet to be convinced by Meta’s promises of strict online safety enforcement across their new virtual platforms. If monitoring users’ content has proven difficult enough, just think of the challenge ahead of these companies who, on a 3D platform, will have to begin monitoring users’ behaviours.


It’s hard to avoid the feeling that an enhanced version of social media won’t simply enhance the issues facing current platforms. Instagram was recently found to make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls; it’s difficult to see rates of body dysmorphia falling in a world where you can sculpt exactly what your body looks like from scratch.


And it is not just consumers who need to pay close attention to the way this technology develops. Some are concerned that profits derived from the metaverse may not be shared fairly among developers and will instead be swept up by Big Tech and their shareholders. Interoperability, or the ability of different computer systems to work in conjunction with one another, will be key in ensuring that the revenue generated from a whole new digital economy is distributed equitably. And assuming the metaverse is a success and consumers start to spend more time, and crucially money, on online goods and services with no value in the real world, what does this mean for ‘real’ economies and the institutions which control them?


The recent boom of the Non-Fungible Token (NFT) market has shown that a lack of any real physical value attached to a product acts as no barrier to consumers looking to part with their cash, and in an online world it may not be sterling or dollars being exchanged, but rather new digital currencies. Central banks could be set to lose out big if they don’t take measures to limit the use case for Big Tech controlled online forms of payment and stores of value. If unregulated, Meta’s blockchain based currency Diem for example (formerly Libra), could have over a billion users from Day 1.


All this being said, the utility that we stand to gain from the metaverse will likely be much higher than that enjoyed by Chip Girl. There are, of course, so many ways in which the metaverse could enrich our lives. But whilst this technology is still in its infancy, it is perhaps wise to consider the potential costs of an increasingly virtual world, and what can be done to reduce them. For some, the advance in metaverse technology marks the next logical step in human advancement, for others it provides nothing more than another solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.


Either way, consumers, businesses, governments, and regulators all need to learn the lessons from social media and start taking the metaverse seriously. Technology cannot be un-invented, and if it turns out we are heading towards a future existence spent increasingly online, then we need to be tooled up to deal with the inevitable negative externalities proactively. Because just as we have learnt from social media, retroactive regulation of a world becoming increasingly virtual, is virtually impossible.


This is one part of a two part article. To check out the second part, head over to the Oxford Business Review here!


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