What does Mark Zuckerberg really mean when he talks about the “metaverse”

Mark Zuckerberg and his team are renaming Facebook a “Meta” and reorienting the company toward developing a “metaverse.” On the one hand, this move is likely exactly what it sounds like: an attempt to divert attention from the multiple legal, regulatory, and political crises facing the company. At the same time, it is important to remember that being an agile and disruptive company is in the DNA of Facebook / Meta. Considering Zuckerberg’s personal control over the company, his continued creative investment in products and engineering, as well as the recent promotion of Chief Hardware / Oculus Chief Andrew Bosworth to CTO, it’s worth taking a moment to go. Beyond the marketing jargon and ask yourself: What really is a metaverse? “We can think of the metaverse as an internet personified,” Zuckerberg explained recently, “where instead of just viewing the content, you are part of it.” He only needed to say: “the metaverse is you.” In this context, what happens with an open internet, with freedom of expression and privacy?

As it is being marketed, the metaverse is a broad concept that incorporates much of the jargon related to virtual and augmented reality that appears in The Matrix and Minority report. It is a new world to explore and a new dimension that is superimposed on the previous one. Zuckerberg describes it as “a persistent and synchronous environment” that “will be accessible through all of our different computing platforms; virtual reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR), but also from computers, mobile devices and video consoles ”. It is clear that Zuckerberg, the geek, Is excited. See the metaverse as the next big leap for the internet, comparable to the transition to smartphones and the mobile network. But what’s new here? Don’t we already have Gmail, Fitbit and Second life?

A key difference is that this personified internet involves new sensors that monitor us as we navigate, interact and move around the world. Many new sensors. Each new version of Facebook has been adding more. At the center of recent versions of the Oculus VR device is “Oculus Insight”, an artificial intelligence monitoring system that uses three types of sensors: those that follow the orientation and movements of the virtual reality glasses, as well as their controls, four cameras built into the device that map the room where you are, and LEDs on the controls tracked by the glasses. All of this feeds Insight with information that allows it to “follow your position and surroundings in real time with sub-millimeter precision.” Oculus controllers now contain capacitive sensors that accurately detect finger movements. Oculus also connects with your phone and other devices for heart rate and fitness tracking. Zuckerberg has hinted at and shown eye and face tracking for future Quest / Cambria models. Recent Quest Pro leaks suggest that fingerprint sensors could be implemented. In the parallel world of this advanced reality, Facebook’s new Ray-Ban smart glasses contain cameras to take photos / videos and a microphone to answer calls. The addition of new cameras and sensors increases the amount of personal data that Facebook can collect.

More than a crypto maze, the metaverse is a high-tech medical exam. The metaverse inextricably links the user’s physical body with that person’s ideas and actions. It is about tracking and defining individuals in an increasingly detailed way, until we reach our subconscious and involuntary reactions. What’s surprising about all this is how easily the wow factor of VR headsets and glasses has distracted us from the main, unavoidable problem. The more these devices connect to Facebook’s ecosystem of applications and identity, the more the same problems that Facebook has always suffered from will come to light again: massive systematic surveillance, the development of biased and opaque algorithms, as well as indifference. for transparency or accountability. In case there were any doubts, Facebook has already started integrating its main social media services with VR hardware – it integrated Facebook login a long time ago, and earlier this year launched the Facebook Messenger integration in Oculus.

So your VR and AR headsets are nothing more than new ways to keep tabs on your users. What can Facebook do with this new data? To quote Zuckerberg himself: “Senator, we run ads.” The metaverse, as an umbrella and unified user interface across all Facebook properties (and pointing to the entire internet), would be the largest information broker: it would provide its users with a carefully organized and fully monetized flow of information and experience, based on in our interests, interactions, and what (literally) makes our hearts flutter. It involves an intensification of the surveillance / advertising system, which is at the core of Facebook’s business model. When Zuckerberg says that the metaverse will be “persistent, synchronous,” he means that “everything will remember and always stay on.” When it says “open”, it means “linked to each of your accounts and devices”.

It seems that the metaverse requires trust. It also implies new forms of global exposure for the most vulnerable. Even assuming some good faith and sufficient investment in privacy and security on the part of Facebook, the lack of anonymity and the bilateral data sharing agreements implicit in this model are deeply concerning for anyone – journalists, activists, whistleblowers – who faces the challenge. can. Furthermore, the unified (or fragmented) identity model that the metaverse appears to entail is not only risky, but fundamentally unsustainable for large numbers of people. Facebook directly addressed this concern during a live broadcast last October, where it announced the rebrand to “Meta,” stating that open protocols will be used and that a Facebook login will not be required for this. However, Facebook has never hesitated to collect data from third parties and integrate its services with others. Interoperability implies greater surveillance potential. The threats to freedom of expression from such a system are both direct (the reluctance to be online when you want to maintain privacy about your orientation in real life, the risk that health information affects your employment potential ) and environmental (the chilling effect of fear of exposure). In the metaverse there is no anonymity, there are no crowds. Connect with your Facebook ID or with one of our partners.

None of this is to say that VR and AR do not have a valid and sometimes profound cultural and humanitarian potential. As it becomes more realistic and more compatible with different types of hardware, VR becomes very promising for people with special physical and cognitive needs, allowing a broader spectrum of public participation that will benefit us all. It offers exciting possibilities for new kinds of personal, artistic and creative expression for communities. However, the metaverse is to virtual reality what AOL (America Online) was to the World Wide Web. We cannot allow the exciting, the new and the potentially liberating of a new technology to be associated with a single company. And we can’t let Facebook use the novelty of its powerful VR and AR hardware to distract us while it hides its business model under the rug. The history of the last 15 years of Facebook under the leadership of Zuckerberg, as well documented by Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang in their book An ugly truth, as well as in the Facebook Papers leaks, it is a double narrative: on the one hand, a perpetual crisis faced through pressure groups and public relations, and on the other, a simultaneous and relentless drive towards the development of new products. acquisitions, and growth. It is critical to assume that Facebook will go ahead with the development of its metaverse while ignoring public and regulatory pressure. Facebook’s rebrand is not a tipping point, but an acceleration disguised as a tipping point.

For those who care about social justice and freedom of expression, getting carried away by the maelstrom of the metaverse would be a huge mistake. However, ignoring it would be too. The problem is that Facebook is a trillion dollar company that can afford to pay lawyers, lobbyists, data scientists and product developers simultaneously. Facebook’s “internet personified” represents not only a major step in its ambitious all-out surveillance plan, but also an attempt to sidestep the regulatory debate. As whistleblowers continue to testify and the regulatory debate continues, we can expect Facebook to continue “procrastinating, denying, and diverting attention.” But that’s in Washington. In Silicon Valley, the D is for data.

This article is published thanks to a collaboration of Free Letters with Future Tense, a project by Slate, New America, and Arizona State University.

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