A shared, persistent, virtual, collective space—created by a convergence of virtual reality technologies and the Internet.
From Meta (popular speech: beyond, higher, transcendental) and Universe (all that exists in time and space.)
Since the beginning of the World Wide Web nearly thirty years ago, the amount of cultural and social activity on the Web has escalated exponentially. Accelerated by the ongoing pandemic, we now have a sense of how much can be done virtually, but perhaps also of how unsatisfying it may feel. The latter, that is, our experience of the interface that grants us access to the virtual, can, however, change very quickly. New immersive technologies are being developed, and behind the scenes there is a battle of ownership and dominance over what will become the new Metaverse.
The Metaverse, which to this day is more an idea than what it is a full-blown reality, refers to the ever-expanding virtuality that we share. As humans living in the information age, our being-in-the-world is increasingly mediated; by being able to record and transfer almost every conceivable human activity as digitized information, we work in the abstract realm of the virtual. The Metaverse is the ultimate realization of this pattern; not through computers and smartphones necessarily, but through powerful, immersive technologies such as VR and AR. When these technologies become accessible—which is what may happen way sooner than we think—the value of such a Metaverse will be hard to even imagine.
The reason for this is quite simple: Virtuality is more affordable and flexible than reality. Virtual offices and screens, for instance, cost almost nothing, and there is not then any need for long commutes to work. Beyond opening for new solutions, however; the value of the Metaverse will first and foremost be connected to everything that is already done virtually, such as social media, banking, information, gaming and entertainment. The ability to synthesize, transform and translate these tasks into our encompassing reality completely alters the nature of virtuality. Everything we already do effectively at the WWW we may be able to experience in “the format of reality,” as opposed to abstract symbols on our smartphones. This has great business potential, to say the least, as we humans will be deeply involved in the technology; become dependent on it, and thus spend vast amounts of time on the platforms of the owners.
In short, the potential of the Metaverse is huge, and even if it is yet not realized, the giants are on the ball to make sure it will be. Oculus, the largest VR company in the world, just released their newest flagship-model: the Oculus Quest 2. The wireless VR headset is standalone so it does not need a powerful PC; has superior graphics and resolution; and has in its category of wireless, standalone HMDs no real competitors. The price is at only 299 dollars: so low in relation to the competition that many potential buyers wonder how it even is possible. What can lie behind this very clearly subsidized price?
When Oculus started by means of a Kickstarter in 2012, VR technology was only a remote dream for many. Two years later, the company was bought up by Facebook for 2 billion dollars. Fueled by Facebook money, VR innovation has skyrocketed ever since. It seems that Oculus is the long-term strategy of Facebook to secure market dominance over social communication also in the future. To prevent that they themselves lose their standing as the number one social network due to disruptive innovation, Facebook does not just buy out contemporary competitors such as WhatsApp and Instagram; they also secure themselves by purchasing tech companies that could take them down in the future. Oculus, or now increasingly Facebook Reality, is like a department of innovation that slowly but steadily lays the foundations for the Metaverse. Delivering cheap head-mounted displays to consumers is a part of this plan: getting a billion people into VR. The cheap price, of course, entails that the consumers pay in other ways than with money.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to see the difference between Facebook and Oculus. All new users of Oculus devices, and all those who have purchased an Oculus Quest 2, now have to register at Facebook—with real names and ID. If you delete Facebook, use a false account, or break the terms and conditions, you lose access to all your purchases and applications. This is the reason for the subsidized price: the wonderful, white reality gadget that can take you to different worlds, simultaneously restricts you from leaving the infrastructure of Facebook. Facebook’s demand for real, ID-verified accounts is very unusual in the technology world, and when this is connected to threats of banishment and confiscation of virtual possessions, the situation is chilling. Here we see a company that seeks to create and control the Metaverse, and is already in position to exercise their power as they wish. For the use of power seems excessive. Even users who linked their Facebook to their Oculus account voluntarily can not delete their Facebook without losing access to their purchased games. If it meant not having access to Quest’s native social features, although regrettable as well, this would not be such a brutal move as bricking a device. This sheer use of power to lock in users gives the Quest—which when it came oozed of freedom and Cyberpunk glory—a bitter, sour taste.
The point here, however, isn’t that it is a tragedy to lose access to Beat Saber, necessarily. What is potentially much worse is the consequences that this power exercising may bring forth when virtual reality is a much larger part of our lives than mere gaming. Being banished from the Metaverse of the future will have far greater consequences than losing access to a couple of games; it can, in fact, be comparable to regular societal punishment. So, I guess we’ll just have to follow the rules?
The Need for a Virtual Public
The Battle of the Metaverse have begun because where we humans are, we can be affected—whether this is through advertising or political conviction. The challenge of giving that much power to private companies is the potential discrepancy between our interests and the interests of the private actors. We already see this with social media today, and the problems will only grow with the increased immersion and data being gathered.
Facebook’s success criterium is screen time: the longer we are on the screen, the more advertisement they can sell. Their algorithm, which has as its aim to increase screen time and engagement, is, unfortunately, the same algorithms that end up promoting conflict as this keeps us active and increase our screen time. We see the same in news media as these companies are also in a position where they have to fight for our attention; to increase screen time and clicks, misleading headlines and exaggerations are used extensively. The result is conflict and polarization.
For these reasons, it is important for us to retain the power to be able to shape the Metaverse after our own criteria—where the success criterium is not screentime, but rather what is best for our selves and our society. First of all, we must find out what we want, and perhaps we want to pay for this in another way than our personal data. Taxes come to mind, but although governments are democratic, keeping our data away from governments too would be even better. The best would perhaps be to create and support companies with different business models (e.g. Signal) that give our selves the building blocks to build the virtual societies after our own fancy with open source, end-to-end encryption.
The Customers of Facebook
One may object and say that although Facebook is not democratic, as a company, it is naturally in their own interest to make money, and they make money from creating value for their customers; us. If they fail to do so, they make room for competition, and as such lose our business. Although being hopeful is permitted, I don’t think it is possible to reduce the situation to this principle. Facebook continues its successful strategy of buying their competition, as they’ve done with Oculus, Instagram, WhatsApp and more. It is also very hard to compete with an established social network as the value they offer is not in the source code, but in the fact that you can contact your friends on the platform. A new social network company will, therefore, not be able to offer the most important component of the social network, which naturally is the social actors between which the network is constituted. Even worse, Facebook is currently, again, being accused of squeezing out and killing rival companies. To be fair though, Facebook does actually serve their customers very well. It just so happens to be that you are not their customer in the traditional sense, you are, if anything, the product of Facebook. Your data, or their data of you, is sold to the real customers of Facebook; the companies that wish to purchase advertising. Oh well.
The Road Ahead
As human beings, we need to take responsibility for where we want to exist and keep the power to set our own success criteria for the kind of metaverse we want to have. We need to secure the possibility to affect the world around us to the better for our selves and our society. To be clear, the challenge with Facebook is not that they necessarily have intentional evil plans; it just means that they are not fundamentally democratic, and this can prove problematic when they in the future might facilitate and control our encompassing reality.
It is naturally not easy to lay a plan to outmanoeuvre one of the worlds largest companies, but there are several things that we can do to move in the right direction. Investing in open access research can increase our knowledge of mediating information technologies so that we can design these to the best for our selves. At my own University where I’m currently doing my PhD, there is now established a Research Centre for Responsible Media Technology and Innovation. Such initiatives might prove extremely valuable for society in the long run. Further, investing in virtual, public infrastructure can loosen the grip that private actors have over our own society.
The largest and most important thing we do, however, is to keep the dialogue on the potential of XR technologies going, so that we can establish an attitude and relationship to our own priorities. That is what Matrise is for, as well as our VR & Philosophy podcast and our YouTube channel AltVR. Fortunately, this mostly does not involve preparing for doomsday scenarios. It is equally important, if not more, to envision the positive potential of these technologies. We need more discussions regarding what we actually need and want, and how we can design the technologies of the future in a way that serve us well. To frame it more positively, then, what we need is a free Spatial Internet, a free Metaverse, where we ourselves can decide how it is to be structured.
A version of this article was first published in Norwegian for Vox Publica. Thanks also go to Kai Reaver for inspiration after joining me in conversation about this very topic at the VR & Philosophy Podcast.
The interested reader can go on to these entries discussing ideation of Virtual Reality:
In Meaning and Virtuality we discuss the following questions: Will the fundamentally immaterial, virtual nature of VR impact the kind of relationships that we can develop to it? What will “meaning” look like in the virtual worlds of the future?
In The Virtually Extended Mind, we discuss how we may virtually extend our minds, and what kind of VR Minds we would like to create.
In The Virtual Freud, we discussed how VR can induce what we can call out of body experiences; by allowing us a view of ourselves from outside, we may allow us to be more compassionate towards our selves.
In Virtual Embodiment we discussed how powerful illusions can be facilitated so that users can identify completely with virtual avatars and so help us overcome prejudices, reduce racism and violence.
In A Psychedelic Virtual Reality we discussed how VR may take inspiration from psychedelic drugs and facilitate for non-dual states of consciousness through the merging of self and other.
This blog post was also partially made into a YouTube video if you want to check it out below.