Metaverse is a term created by Neal Stephenson in this novel Snow Crash from 1992. In the book the protagonist Hiro enters a virtual reality called metaverse as an escape from his physical reality living in a shabby shipping container. The term metaverse has since caught fire among developers and is now being used to represent experiences in both virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) – even though these are two different things. In the words of Stephenson:
”The purpose of VR is to take you to a completely made-up place, and the purpose of AR is to change your experience of the place that you’re in.” (Neal Stephenson, Vanity Fair)
Many describe the metaverse as the next generation of the internet that will allow people to access it in a more seamless and engaging way e.g., through glasses or bracelets. It is a virtual universe representing the internet where people can use digital avatars and advanced technology to interact in new ways.
Big companies with huge user bases such as Facebook (now Meta) and Fortnite (Epic Games) are experimenting with defining and creating technological structures and economic models of the metaverse. On the Facebook Connect 2021 Mark Zuckerberg talked about a “metaverse economy” or a “creator economy” where creators can use non-fungible tokens (NFTs) to monetize custom worlds, digital art, and online events like we have not seen before. Epic Games have already hosted virtual concerts in Fortnite with performers like Adriana Grande using an avatar to represent herself (BBC).
But it is not just artists and performers who can create things in the metaverse. Meta (Facebook) plans to launch Horizon Home where you can build a virtual version of your desired home, Horizon Worlds where you can create online worlds, and Horizon Workrooms where you can engage with coworkers in virtual and AR office spaces. In the metaverse people will feel like they are “inside” the internet, not just watching it on a screen from the outside. Meta (Facebook) envisions that the metaverse will enable hosting virtual parties, owning property of digital territory, buying virtual clothes for our avatar, and collecting digital art to show in our virtual homes. “Digital goods and creators are just going to be huge,” Mark Zuckerberg said.
According to Zuckerberg the aim is to connect people and give an experience of virtual presence when engaging online with others. He mentioned at the Facebook Connect 2021 that interoperability is an important feature of the metaverse they are envisioning. And in a blog post written by Nick Clegg, their vice president of global affairs, it is stated that:
”No one company will own and operate the metaverse. Like the internet, its key feature will be its openness and interoperability. Bringing this to life will take collaboration and cooperation across companies, developers, creators and policymakers.”
However, even though Facebook is presenting the metaverse as an open experience, they are for now building a hardware infrastructure with features and games are exclusive to their own VR headset (Oculus Quest 2). An example is their Horizon offerings that are planned to only be accessible thought the Oculus Quest 2 (Wired). Robin Mansell, a professor of New Media and the Internet at the London School of Economics, said to the The Guardian:
“For me, it seems like it is simply another step in the monetisation of data to the benefit of Facebook and other large platforms sold to people as fun, exciting, helpful for productivity at work and so on”.
In the same article Dr David Leslie, the Ethics Theme Lead at the Alan Turing Institute, expresses ethical concerns, such as, who will build and control the metaverse? How will privacy be protected? And how do we create an infrastructure that ensures equal access to the metaverse? Experts warn that regulation is still struggling to catch up with the impact of present social media and that the metaverse can be a way for companies to profit even more on user data. Dr Brent Middelstadt, Senior Research Fellow in data ethics at the Oxford Internet Institute states that:
“Suddenly you have more data sources than currently exist being combined and funneled through this one thing – the metaverse. And if Facebook gets its way, then you’d obviously be spending a significant chunk of your time on there.” (Dr Brent Mittelstadt).
Some critics even warn that the metavers could become an “dystopian nightmare“, like in the novel by Neal Stephenson, where people use the virtual realm to escape problems in their lives. We need to make sure that the technological solutions being created right now, will help solve real world problems and not just offer an opportunity for escapism. And yet others points out that the launch of the metaverse and the rebranding of Facebook as a “metaverse company” comes at a convenient time. Whistleblower Frances Haugen have testified before Congress and pointed out several problems in the company including its “… reluctance to change its algorithm to slow misinformation and limit Instagram’s negative effects on teen mental health,” (Forbes).
It is important that we trust the companies who are developing the metaverse for all of us. Luckily Meta (Facebook) and Epic Games (Fortnite) are not the only players creating infrastructures for the metaverse, alternatives are being developed. Two of them are Mysilio and Uhive, decentralised solutions based on user control and private data ownership. Mysilio is based on Solid which is a decentralised web project being led by Sir Tim Berners Lee and Uhive is based on blockchain technology and their Magna Carta Protocol that aims to give back control to the users.
However, many of these alternatives do not have an existing use base and they might struggle with reaching the critical mass of adopters. As Facebook and Fortnite already have huge user bases their versions on the metaverse will most likely be adopted by many. This means that hardware- and software silos could be repeated in the metaverse.
The future of the metaverse is still to be determined. But unless it becomes fully interoperable and open, users will not have a real choice of which services to use in the metaverse. User must ask themselves if they believe that Facebook’s version of the metaverse will truly support interoperability, security, and privacy, or if their version will facilitate an omnipresent Facebook even more engaging that the present version.
Here are some of the ethical issues:
- How to distinguish between a machine-driven avatar and a human?
- How do we make sure that humans are in control of the metaverse?
- How do we make sure that humans are in control of their data?
- What about rights to data – can you participate without giving up on your privacy?
- Copyrights and ownership – if you create stuff in the metaverse, who owns it?
- How do we avoid big tech black box ownership in which people can be monitored, manipulated, and monetised?
- Will there be a formal “right to opt out” of this dystopian “place”.
- Will children be allowed in the metaverse
- Will access to real world services: municipal, private, community, etc be mediated through the metaverse creating access disparitiee? Today, it is hard to function without a smartphone, but in the metaverse it could be worse in all sorts of ways
Please send ethical considerations to firstname.lastname@example.org and we will keep a list of ethical issues in the metaverse.
Signe Agerskov is researching blockchain ethics at the European Blockchain Center and is a member of the European Group on Blockchain Ethics (EGBE).
Photo: Lucrezia Carnelos, Unsplash.com
A good read on the metaverse is: A Dark Horse in the Metaverse