We can’t walk blindly into the metaverse
In recent weeks, both Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft’s Satya Nadella announced with great fanfare that the metaverse offers an antidote to the lack of human connection. Perhaps I’m old-fashioned, but interacting with others through cartoon avatars is not my idea of establishing meaningful connections.
Indeed, avatars with limited emotional expression and no evidence of subtle nonverbal communication appear to me to be another step toward dehumanizing interpersonal relationships.
Facebook and Microsoft have chosen this moment to set out the metaverse as a virtual realm in which they propose to be both the leading landlords and the architects of a new social order. Unlike previous groundbreaking innovations, we are being given a very public notification that another paradigm shift is imminent—or, at least, that some of the world’s most powerful corporations are working to make it so. They will succeed only if enough of us buy into it.
A virtual world
Now is the time to have a serious conversation about the metaverse. Few technologies are either all good or all bad. We must try now to envisage what the tradeoffs might be.
It has been clear for many years that this is where the tech giants see humanity heading: into a virtual world, where we work, learn, and play through avatars of ourselves. Indeed, as soon as Zuckerberg renamed Facebook to Meta, and presented his vision of the future, Satya Nadella got into the act, making sure we understood that Microsoft would be a leading player in this expansion of the digital universe.
The notion of the metaverse was initially explored in works of fiction, such as Snow Crash—which coined the term in 1992—and 2011’s Ready Player One. In 2003, software developers inspired by Snow Crash created the online Second Life through which anyone could create a cartoon avatar of themself and interact with others in a variety of virtual spaces. More recent applications have facilitated attending meetings or online events as avatars in virtual spaces.
With hindsight, we missed the opportunity, willfully or ignorantly, to think deeply or imaginatively enough about what the downsides and tradeoffs of social media platforms might be. If we had foreseen 10 or 20 years ago how social networks would fracture societies or enable misinformation, would we have approached them differently? I hope so.
Just as with social media platforms, there will be upsides to the metaverse. I can imagine it enriching education and entertainment, as well as improving democracy through participation in the new digital public square.
The potential downsides? Data is an obvious concern. The story of the social media age has been that we give up more and more data about ourselves and our lives, which enables the providers of services to know us more intimately, so they can better manipulate our attention and desires.
The metaverse will give companies like Facebook unprecedented access to additional data about us, and with it, our status as a product will gain immense value to third parties. Should we elect to don headsets and haptic gloves, they will learn in great detail about our bodily movements, emotional states, and biodata such as heartbeat and temperature changes.
How might this improve the ability to manipulate our attention and behavior for political or economic ends? I have no exact answer—but that is the kind of ethical question I would like to see investigated and debated.
A ‘more human connection’?
More deeply, we should ask ourselves just how much of the experience of human connection we believe can be reduced to the flow of information over a network. Zuckerberg talked of providing “the most important experience of all: connecting with people.” Nadella claimed Microsoft’s plans are “all about creating more presence, more human connection.” The fact that they say this does not make it so.
It’s no coincidence that these pitches are being made when many of us have become so tired of working remotely. Compared to Zoom or Microsoft’s Teams, the novelty of the metaverse might indeed feel both compelling and more complete, at least initially. But we should compare it, instead, to meeting in person.
I recently had the experience of meeting a colleague that I had worked closely with during the pandemic for the first time. I already knew this individual well in many ways, but in person, I felt like I was getting to know them through a whole new dimension. Some might use unfashionable words like “spirit” or “soul.” It was a reminder of how much we communicate to each other through gestures, unconscious cues, and our presence. How sure are we that this all can be captured by a haptic suit and conveyed over the bandwidth of a 5G network?
In other words, life in the metaverse is one more step toward diminishing, depersonalizing, and dehumanizing our ability to connect with each other.
Maybe the eventual promise of the metaverse will make initial sacrifices appear worthwhile. But based on experience to date, we need to make sure we are not walking blindly into this new physical-virtual reality. Otherwise, we may one day find ourselves living in a distorted virtual world, created by software designers who view us as products and promoted by powerful corporations to make money, wondering when we were ever consulted.
Wendell Wallach is a Carnegie-Uehiro Fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. He codirects the Carnegie Artificial Intelligence and Equality Initiative (AIEI), which seeks to understand the innumerable ways in which A.I. impacts equality, and in response, proposes potential mechanisms to ensure the benefits of A.I. for all people. His latest book is A Dangerous Master: How to Keep Technology From Slipping Beyond Our Control (Basic Books).
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Fortune’s upcoming Brainstorm Design conference is going to dive into how businesses are building experiences in the metaverse. Apply to attend the event on May 23-24 in New York.