The Metaverse and What It Means for Human Society And Identity

Mark Zuckerberg presents Facebook’s new name, Meta, at a Connect conference; Source: Crypto Dispatch.

Last week, Mark Zuckerberg notified the public that it changed its company name from Facebook to Meta, indicating that it would pivot its energy and resources into what’s known as the Metaverse.

Numerous other Fortune 500 companies have reflected a similar interest, but none were as bold as Facebook to make a company-wide pivot.

Here’s what three news sources are saying about three Fortune 500 companies:

  • Facebook (Meta): Two weeks ago, Facebook held a conference in which CEO & Founder Mark Zuckerberg publicized the company’s name change to Meta, along with its plans to become a ‘metaverse’ company.

“Zuckerberg’s plan appears to be the most ambitious of the Fortune 500 CEOs and Meta plans to spend billions to build their digital world.” — Crypto Dispatch.

Mark Zuckerberg standing alongside a look-alike avatar; Source: News Hub.

“During its BUILD conference earlier this year, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella described an “enterprise metaverse” made up of digital twins, simulated environments, and mixed reality. “With the Metaverse, the entire world becomes your app canvas,” Nadella said.” — Investopedia.

Two agents interact in a virtual environment in a Microsoft Teams call with what appears to be language conversion functionality; Source: Gist Vile.
  • Nike: Nike, too, has been “quietly preparing for the metaverse,” according to an article by CNBC. Last week, Nike filed seven trademarks relating to major signifiers of the company, including its brand name, swoosh logo, and other major hallmarks like the “Air Jordan” and “Jumpman” logos. What’s more, the company posted job openings for a “virtual material designer of footwear and other virtual design roles.”

“The trademark filings ‘would very clearly be a nod to this idea of the metaverse,’ Gerben said. “They’re filing new applications for the company’s main trademarks, saying that they’re going to launch and start selling virtual clothing, headwear, shoes, in online and virtual worlds.’” — CNBC.

“Nike is planning to sell virtual sneakers as it prepares to ride the metaverse wave”; Source: Business Insider.

So, there’s all this hype around this meta-idea, but what is the Metaverse?

The first thing to understand is that Metaverse does not yet exist. It’s more of a term that describes a digital world of interaction.

If you’ve ever played Pokemon Go, you would notice Pokemon emanating from the ground of your surroundings as captured by the phone — this, in essence, is augmented reality (AR).

Pokemon Go user tries to catch a Pikachu in AR mode; Source: Youtube.

Virtual reality is the next step after that, where your entire world is immersive.

The metaverse takes virtual reality upon a new frontier, just as the world-wide web took the internet to new heights several decades ago.

One reporter from an independent publication (Sylo), notes the following:

One of the reasons ‘the Metaverse’ is hard to explain, is because it doesn’t necessarily exist. Except, it does. Everywhere, and also nowhere. And you’re there, and I’m there, right now. But it’s also a place of what will be, and what might be, that is being created as we speak.

Numerous sources point toward the term’s origin as coming from Science fiction author Neal Stephenson’s novel. Snow Crash, which envisaged the metaverse as being a 3D virtual world where “people, represented as avatars,” could seamlessly interact with other members within the virtual world, including non-human, artificially intelligent entities.

Facebook, itself, describes the metaverse as:

“… a set of virtual spaces where you can create and explore with other people who aren’t in the same physical space as you.”

How will the Metaverse work and what is its significance?

Several key attributes of the metaverse that can be expected are outlined by Tech Xplore.

  1. Operation in a virtual world / virtual reality
  2. Other people
  3. A world without an off-switch
  4. Connection to the real world

Operation in a virtual world / virtual reality

The metaverse will likely be accessible in numerous ways: computer, gaming console, mobile, wearable technology, though an interactive virtual reality (VR) headset would likely be most prominent. As such, the metaverse will have complex features such as 3D graphics, sound dynamics, and the most fundamental laws of physics, in order to make the experience most user-friendly.

A person interacting in VR; Source: Arkamys.

What the implications of these changes are on society is a question that I’ll dig into later.

Other people

The Metaverse is inherently meant to be a social environment where avatars have a convenient medium for interacting with others in their circles. While some of these avatars might be your co-workers, professors, students, or friends, they may also exist as artificially intelligent entities or virtual assistants designed to aid you in the work that you do.

Considering Facebook’s previous focus as being a social network, there would no doubt be a HUGE emphasis on a social element within the Metaverse. And with increased fluidity in communicating with others in a virtual space, people would be able to be connected from all parts of the world.

Below is a tweet referencing Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s speech at the Connect conference. In it, Mark Zuckerberg suggests that, at its core, the Metaverse is a virtual world concept centered around human connection. An aside: the metaverse is much more than that.

Source: The Recount on Twitter.

What’s more, researchers believe that communication could be made more natural than current digital practices like video conferencing. With the ability to move and direct one’s avatar in the metaverse and to modify sound dynamics accordingly to where one is standing, interaction would be much more fluid in digital workplace settings, most of which don’t enable the multitude of complexities that interaction in the real world does.

A world without an off-switch.

Like the world-wide web, the metaverse is a place that can be accessed whenever users want. Individuals will be able to own certain “corners” of the metaverse—perhaps noted as domains of residence—in the way that name domains are available for purchase to users today. Users will be able to build these domains as they choose, placing buildings, sofas, stadiums, basketball courts, among other things, as they see fit. Ultimately, the metaverse would take digital creations to the next level, including social media posts.

Connection to the real world.

The metaverse may also have practical applications in the real world, for example in the case of conducting remote surgeries. A doctor might be able to control a series of equipment in the metaverse which allows them to operate on individuals using a robot whose motions could be synchronized with the doctor’s. Or, a person might control an exoskeleton in order to accomplish a particular task. This would have profound implications on ultimately bridging the barrier of having to be in a location in order to complete a task. This potential of the metaverse speaks to a 2018 research paper which cites individuals as seeing the real and the digital world as akin to one another, being “digital twins.”

A person controlling an exoskeleton’s movement by mimicking the desired motions in VR; Source: Youtube.

Another profound usage of the metaverse involves economic interaction. With a heightened emphasis on digital currency—i.e., cryptocurrencies—over the more traditional fiat money, whose value is primarily dependent on the government that issues the money, decentralized systems will disable large entities from having too much economic power. Moreover, because cryptocurrencies are far less likely to spike in valuation any one way, and thus are far more stable than nation-tethered currency which is subject to economic ruin in dire circumstance, an incentive for users to adopt the currency if it is used on a mass scale.

A diagram showing a comparison between fiat money and cryptocurrency. Ultimately, cryptocurrency is more stable due to being dissociated from the market, and furthermore it is decentralized, preventing any one individual or group from too much control on its valuation; Source: Zigurat.

What does the metaverse ultimately enable for individuals?

There are many benefits that come with the metaverse:

  • Most digital infrastructures, including Blockchain, cryptocurrencies, and digital assets, will be benefited by this world of interaction. This could take form with transactions in real estate, banking, or even retail, which would be able to be conducted with greater fluidity and accessibility.
  • Individuals can train in simulations provided by the metaverse, such as flying an aircraft, a spacecraft, or even conducting a medical procedure.
See the source image
Doctors experimenting with VR headsets during a mock-medical procedure; Source: ARVR Journey.
  • Sports and entertainment could be viewed in the metaverse, where individuals could watch games from the comfort of their VR headset. Concerts, which are often limited by the cost of operating in particular venues, as well as the number of seats available at that venue, can also occur in this realm. In fact, virtual concerts have already made their way on the major gaming platforms Fortnite and Roblox where artists, like Marshmallow and Zara Larsson, have made their debut.
A virtual concert featuring Marshmallow integrated within a game of Fortnite; Source: Youtube.
  • Identity in the metaverse is among one of the most interesting things to consider. It is likely that identity will be far more fluid than it exists today, where labels often bucket us into certain categories that may be limiting. In the metaverse, there will likely exist affinity spaces where members of certain identities will be able to converse with one another, and even traverse into other public affinity spaces to learn more about other identities.

There are also, of course, negative effects to consider:

  • Just as phones have reduced our attention in the real world, a Metaverse is likely to do the same with its all-enticing features. Such features will make you appear more present in the Metaverse, and less present in the everyday world.
  • The metaverse does not engage much with the real world for safety concerns. In that sense, you are not able to, for instance, go for a real walk in nature, where plants fill the aroma with natural smells.
  • Electromagnetic pollution from exposing yourself to WIFI and electronics for extended periods of time could be harmful to your health.
  • Your senses will be deprived of normal sensory experience, a term that technology like this would slowly start to erode.
  • With any increase in accessibility means an increase in accessibility to things that are bad. Prostitution, for instance, would likely be common in the metaverse, which, in addition to its profound immorality, would cause people to adopt poor sexual relationships in the real world. You also can’t procreate when you’re in the metaverse anyway.
  • When the metaverse becomes so appealing to members, just as the comfort of the content on our phones are to us, it is without a doubt that people will get highly addicted. This may set them up for failure in the real world as it may render them unable to function.

Additional Reflection (more subjective and opinionated).

All in all, the metaverse is one of the most powerful things that will come into the lives of humans, and it will indubitably come one way or another.

As elucidated previously, with the metaverse will come a lot of changes in the way that society operates, some of which will be beneficial, and others which will be harmful.

I believe that this technology can be used for good, and that it has the potential to powerfully impact our lives for the better, spurring economic growth and enabling greater collaboration like never seen before. It will, without a doubt, take human society to a newer frontier.

My skepticism, however, lies in the fact that Facebook is one of the companies pioneering this space. A meme of Mark Zuckerberg (shown below) suggests my concern for a company like Facebook’s to be the primary pioneers of something like the metaverse, mainly due to their countless exploitation tactics on human society and data in the past.

Meme of Mark Zuckerberg; Source: Article by independent publisher, Sean O’Donoghue Morgan.

To serve as a reminder, below is a comprehensive list of the actions of Mark Zuckerberg, in the past, as highlighted by independent publisher, Sean O’Donoghue Morgan:

[Mark Zuckerberg] has failed to respect our basic privacy rights throughout his leadership of FB.

  1. He has failed to respect our freedom of speech throughout his leadership of FB. Wrongthink is flagged, shadow banned, demonetized, deplatformed, and warning messages are placed under posts.
  2. He has actively tried to get children as young as 6 to be his clients. He shows no interest in establishing healthy boundaries for technology and children.
  3. He has ignored and downplayed how social media causes depression and suicide. Is this a bug or a feature to him?
  4. He has meddled in our democratic process through censorship and funding a record number of mail in ballot efforts in democratic districts.
  5. He has failed to address technology addiction despite it being a common aspect of modern life that affects most of his customers.
  6. A Hollywood movie was made about his life which showed he was willing to stab his best friend in the back and do pretty much anything for control and money. It’s called “The Social Network”.
The Social Network is a movie outlining the rise to power of Facebook and its CEO; Source: DVD-Insiders.

Furthermore, I worry at the implications of my own interaction with the world around me. Already, so much of our lives as humans are being replaced by screens, by social media, by entertainment, myself included, and the metaverse, if inappropriately managed, could have even further disastrous implications on all our lives.

Summation

People’s lives will so dramatically afflicted by the metaverse. Many will hold the metaverse to such a high esteem that they find it far more addicting than the real world, due to its heavily enticing attributes. This has potential for such dire consequences that will ultimately change the lives of its users— whether those changes are good or bad are certainly not to be experimented upon without proper research, policy-work, and careful oversight.

Another major concern with Facebook picking up this torch is that society isn’t ready for a shift like this. Policies have not been enacted yet that put the interests of the people at heart and society is still trailing behind on what the implications of a metaverse might bring up several decades down the line. Even the term, itself, metaverse, has been shown to create confusion among members worldwide, as explicated by the varied and sometimes contradicting sources online.

In moving forward, society ultimately needs a task force that will refrain from putting money, power, politics, and/or data as underpinnings to their actions when it relates to the metaverse. Rather, they ought to make decisions for the sake of humanity and progress. Only then, can we move in a way that allows individuals to thrive as much as possible.

Until then, it is imperative that we remain cautious.

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Oscar Petrov

Oscar Petrov

A curious manifestation of billions of exploding neurons. I like to think about brains + the universe. Also passionate about ethics, philosophy + human rights.