Since Facebook’s fashion brands are looking at the metaworld, what does the term really mean?

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently announced that the tech giant will transform from a social media company to a “meta-universe company”, operating in an “embodied Internet” that connects the real and virtual worlds more than ever before. So what is the “metaverse”? It looks like what billionaires are talking about to earn headlines, like Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who tells “pizza” on Mars. However, given that almost three billion people use Facebook every month, Zuckerberg’s proposal to change direction deserves some attention.

The term “metaworld” is not new, but it has recently become popular thanks to Facebook and fashion brands, as well as speculation that all this may mean in practice. The idea of ​​a metaverse is useful, and it will probably be with us for a while. This is a concept that is worth understanding, even if, like me, you are critical of the future that its supporters envision.

Metaverse: a name whose time has come?

People have developed many technologies to deceive our senses, from audio speakers and TVs to interactive video games and virtual reality, and in the future we may develop tools to deceive our other senses, such as touch and smell. We have many words for these technologies, but at the moment there is no popular word that would mean a combination of a mixture of old-fashioned reality (physical world) and our fabricated extensions of reality (virtual world).

Words like “internet” and “cyberspace” have become associated with the places we get to through screens. They don’t quite capture the steady interweaving of the Internet with virtual reality (such as 3D game worlds or virtual cities) and augmented reality (such as navigation pads or Pokémon GO). Equally important, the old names do not reflect the new social relationships, sensory experiences, and economic behaviors that come along with these extensions of the virtual. For example, Upland combines the virtual mapping of our world with fixed tokens (NFT) and real estate markets.

The Facebook ad speaks to his attempts to imagine what social media might look like in the metaworld. It also helps that “metaverse” is a poetic term. Scientists have been writing about a similar idea called “augmented reality” for years, but it’s a rather boring name. Metaverse, which was invented by science fiction writer Neil Stevenson in his 1992 novel The Snow Catastrophe, has a much more romantic appeal. Writers have a habit of recognizing trends that need to be named: “cyberspace” comes from William Gibson’s 1982 book; “Robot” – from a play by Karel Chapek in 1920.

Recent neologisms, such as the cloud or the Internet of Things, have taken root in us precisely because they are convenient ways to refer to technologies that are becoming increasingly important. The metaverse is in the same category.

Who benefits from the metaverse?

If you read too long about big technology companies such as Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft, you may feel that advances in technology (such as the growth of the metaverse) are inevitable. Then it’s hard not to start thinking how these new technologies will shape our society, politics and culture, and how we might fit into this future. This idea is called “technological determinism” – it is the feeling that advances in technology shape our social relations, power relations and culture when we are ordinary passengers. It does not take into account the fact that in a democratic society we have the right to vote on how all this will happen.

For Facebook and other large corporations determined to take the “next big thing” ahead of their competitors, the metaworld is exciting because it provides opportunities for new markets, new types of social networks, new consumer electronics, and new patents. It is unclear just why we were all excited.

Familiar story

In the everyday world, most of us struggle with things like pandemics, climatic emergencies, and the mass extinction of man-made species. It is difficult for us to understand what a good life looks like with the technologies we have already mastered (mobile devices, social networks and global connectivity are associated with many side effects, such as anxiety and stress). So why should we worry when technology companies are investing countless billions in new ways to distract us from the everyday world?

Ideas in the style of the metauniverse can help us organize our societies more productively. Common standards and protocols that combine different virtual worlds and augmented reality into a single open metaworld can help people work together and reduce duplication of effort. In South Korea, for example, the Meta Universe Alliance is working to persuade companies and governments to work together to develop an open national virtual reality platform. Much of this is about finding ways to combine smartphones, 5G networks, augmented reality, virtual currencies and social networks to solve society’s problems (and, more cynically, make a profit).

Similar requirements for sharing and collaboration were made at the beginning of the Internet. But over time, the original promises have been replaced by the dominance of large platforms and supervisory capitalism.

The Internet has been extremely successful in connecting people around the world with each other and functioning as a kind of modern Alexandrian library, which stores vast repositories of knowledge. However, it has also intensified the privatization of public spaces, attracted advertising to every corner of our lives, tied us to several giant companies more powerful than many countries, and led to the virtual world consuming the physical world through environmental damage.

Outside the one world

Deeper problems with the metauniverse relate to what worldview it represents. In one worldview, we can think of ourselves as passengers in a single reality that is like a container for our lives. This view is probably familiar to most readers, and it also describes what you see on something like Facebook: a “platform” that exists independently of any of its users. In a different worldview, which, according to sociologists, is common in indigenous cultures, each of us creates the reality in which we live because of what we do. Practices such as work and rituals connect people, the earth, life and spirituality and together create reality.

The key problem of the first point of view is that it leads to a “single world”: a reality that does not allow other realities. This is what we already see on existing platforms.

The current version of Facebook can expand your ability to connect with other people and communities. But at the same time it is limiting how you connect to them: features such as six pre-set “reactions” to publications and content selected by invisible algorithms shape the whole experience. Similarly, a game like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (with over 100 million active users) provides endless possibilities for how the game can be played, but defines the rules by which it can be played. The idea of ​​a metauniverse, transferring even more of our lives to a universal platform, expands this problem to a deeper level. It offers us an infinite opportunity to overcome the limitations of the physical world; but in doing so, it only replaces them with the constraints imposed by what the metauniverse will allow.

Nick Kelly is a Senior Lecturer in Interaction Design at Queensland University of Technology. (This article was originally published by The Conversation)

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