Challenging Meta’s Metaverse
I am distrustful of the idea of Meta’s “Metaverse”. My doubts are an intensified version of the impressions I have of the corporation’s Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram. My mistrust of Twitter is as long-running and profound. Meta now looks set to combine the downside of those technologies with those of online virtual reality gaming. I am not a technophobe, having used word processors to write books since the very early 1980s and internet messaging and file sharing since the late 1980s. Besides, here I am loving WordPress. I am also a devoted fan of online digital imaging, and am trying to advance its cause. Nonetheless, the Metaverse – or “multiverses” – would be a small step for Meta, but a giant leap for mankind. We must address its hazards as well as its merits.
The Metaverse is upon us, whatever it is or turns out to be. I assume it is properly named and conceived as a virtual alternative to the real universe. It wouldn’t have to be dystopian in every part of its work to be dangerous. Humanity has never seen such a potent mix of online clubbablity, privacy, anonymity and autonomy (OCPAA) as Meta seems about to power-up. The Freemasons, the Hellfire Club, Downing Street, the Vatican, the Mafia or Mau-Mau will seem like goldfish bowls of transparency and accountability by comparison. The Metaverse bids fair to offer virtual spaces which could become by turns veiled sanctuaries and steel-doored torture chambers in a technological leap which adds the habits and kit of online virtual reality (VR) gaming to the on-screen Twitterised public square and the Facebook world of mini-website self-promotion. To people used to absenting themselves from their real-world fellows by deploying headsets (for eyes as well as ears) behind closed doors as, often, they rather unsociably use existing “social media” and online gaming, this new isolation may seem liberating and rewarding, but surely it is wise to question it.
I want to avoid the impression that I am a technophobe. I am an old hippy of some sort, and was impressed from the start by James Martin’s 1978 Wired Society. Besides, I am very interested in the parallels between the new internet global connectedness and Teilhard de Chardin’s “Noosphere” which seems to me a numinous account of man’s consciousness and spirituality, and is valuable even to people like me who do not share his Roman Catholic faith. Moreover I am well aware of the way anti-technology Luddism ignores arguments as old as those over sailing ship exploration, gunpowder, small arms, steam, internal combustion, and fusion and fission power. In a nutshell, guns don’t kill people, people do. I am running up a red flag about the metaverse, but I don’t think that involves the modern equivalent of walking in front of trains with a red flag.
But we do now know the perils of Twitter and Facebook. In particular, they technologically compound various post-60s post-modern cultural trends, and in particular the increasing belief that there are no such thing as facts and no meaning to a quest for truth (or even truthfulness) and hence there is no need to have regard to evidence when forming opinions. Equally, they have revved-up a sense that there is no point burnishing societies’ capacity to develop decent elites: one doesn’t have to look up to anyone else when one can more easily look down at one’s phone. Twitter and Facebook have disconnected much argument and self-presentation from civilisation’s long-standing and wary respect for wisdom. They have seemed to empower individuals in their waywardness; but paradoxically they have also driven insidious and unbridled peer-pressure. As William Hague argued on Times Radio recently, they have helped undermine political debate and process. They seem to have threatened both public and private well-being. (I hope soon to write a short essay on the real world and its reliance on “polity”, which is suffering attrition in our time.)
Gaming presents similar problems. Online VR gaming in virtual worlds seems quite innocent in that it seems quite familiar. Theatre, novels, religion, sci-fi, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, medieval myths, thrillers, military re-enactments, even sports, like gaming, invite us to escape to imagined worlds for pleasure, thrills or succour. So nothing new there. Besides, even the lone gamer in the back bedroom is likely to grow out of his or her obsession. Moreover, gamers are in a limited and perhaps phoney sense quite clubbable: they co-operate online. Paradoxically the Meta people or others may have spotted that it is precisely this that represents an opportunity.
The Metaverse bids fair to produce something which intensifies all the threats of TFG (Twitter-Facebook-Gaming) by combining them. Suddenly, online clubbablity, privacy, autonomy, and anonymity (OCPAA) can allow quite new congregations or gangs hang-outs uniquely compelling alternative worlds. That was Channel 4’s take recently (Monday 18 April 2022) and it seems plausible. The problem here is clear: TFG is already a vast distraction from the real world; it adds to the difficulties of making the real world a better place; and it posits that the individual’s judgement is of value however unconsidered or unwise. The Metaverse looks like being an even more addictive and uncontrolled world. It may allow all sorts of actors to live virtually unattached to the real world, uninterested in its wellbeing, uncommitted to any of its causes. Such persons may only switch off their virtual world to wreak havoc in the real world.
I was much taken by the view of Herman Nerula, Improbable’s CEO, as expressed to Ian King on Sky, that the Metaverse was the next big thing but that Meta should not be allowed to monopolise it. That sounds appealing. Long live the idea of multiple open source and SME metaverses in the plural: I will call them Multiverses. There is a caveat: oddly, the more Multiverse platforms there are, the harder it will be to police them. If anyone could set up a private VR Metaverse, its very privacy might make it a hazard. Imagine a house in a street. Roughly speaking it is policed at least informally by nosey neighbours. But in the VR multiverse, the possibility of anonymous perpetrators suborning anonymous victims behind password protected doors would be ghastly.
So maybe it is a good thing that the lords of the Metaverse will seek the same sort of Hegemony of Free – the one-stop critical mass – they have achieved in Twitter and Facebook. Even the online VR gaming world seems to be dominated by conventional corporates, on a paying basis. Perhaps the Lords of the Metaverse will offer many goodies for free (in a free-for-data swap), whilst offering subscription deals for access to virtual inner sanctums, free of data-mining and scrutiny. Politicians may have failed to regulate TFG properly so far, but at least its malfeasances are in plain view and its owners’ corporate structures render their owners vulnerable, in principle, to regulation.