By Rohit Vakkalagadda ’24
“The successor to the mobile internet.”
Mark Zuckerberg said this in his company’s hour-long special, Meta Connect 2021. In October this became the new frenzy of tech wizards and regular social-media users alike, with many people either frightened about the seemingly dystopian aura it emanated, or many others on the opposite end of this spectrum, hailing this new development as, in fact, the next big thing since social media. In this commotion, those stuck in the middle are the people that this new technology is directed to: teenagers. With that in mind, I wanted to give my opinion on this new development, and what it means for people like us in the next few years.
First of all, I’d like to preface this opinion by saying that Facebook has been infuriatingly vague about the details of the Metaverse. Will we pay for this new service? How will advertisements work? Do we use VR? Although there are definitely some muddy areas regarding this tech, we have enough to base a rudimentary analysis on. This new metaverse will build off the current fragmented VR landscape by connecting disjointed VR worlds that now can be put together through the control of one, singular parent company–Facebook. We can use the same avatars in different “Landscapes” like Zoom meetings or Facebook chats or video games. Having a metaverse allows people to interact in new ways.
My first concern with the metaverse is safety. Facebook has had a shaky record of being safe with its customers data, as can be seen with the infamous Cambridge Analytica scandal which saw millions of people lose their personal data to hackers. With the metaverse becoming increasingly personal, even more personal than social media, it means that hackers can take advantage of more personal data and make it even more deadly for us to use this new metaverse. One potent example can be habits. Unlike social media, virtual reality and motion capture can capture physical habits, say someone’s slouching their back or someone using a cigarette. If Facebook takes an interest in finding out these new niche personal traits it can mean that advertising can become increasingly unsafe and jarringly personal. One more area of concern is conversation. In the metaverse, we are more likely to be directly conversing with our peers, unlike social media, where we use messaging or talking with people in real life. With the metaverse in place, however, these very conversations become substituted for those in the metaverse. That means that deeply personal conversations that we might have had in real life suddenly get transferred to the digital realm, which ensures that Facebook has another branch of looking into our personal lives.
Unless Facebook alleviates the concern of safety, the metaverse is unusable. That’s because people will not be open to using it for everyday life, and that makes the metaverse defunct. The very universe that Facebook wants to create has to be a universe where people want to interact every day. Funnily enough, it’s ironically reassuring that Facebook needs to address safety, because it’s in their best commercial interest to do so. Their commercial success and safety are directly correlated, and one cannot live without the other.
In Ernest Cline’s famous book Ready Player One, we saw a metaverse of its own that severely limited in-person interaction. Especially for the past two years, we’ve seen how important in-person interaction is for our mental health and for our happiness. This leads me to my second main concern with the metaverse: a lack of real interpersonal human interaction. If the metaverse can allow our parents to substitute in-person meetings for metaverse Zoom meetings, it isn’t a stretch of the imagination to assume that people who miss school can attend it virtually through the same system. It disincentivizes people from human interaction because it provides an empty feeling of “interaction” with virtual avatars. Having no in-person discussion isn’t just emotionally depriving — it also creates a false sense of self-image. We’ve seen the terrible effects that social media has had on many young people’s body image, and having virtual avatars only exacerbates this issue. People aren’t comfortable in their own skin and can use virtual avatars or the metaverse to get away from their true selves. While this isn’t a big issue for many commercial actors looking in on Facebook’s new development, it’s a poignant issue for teenagers and people like you and me who will use the metaverse more than anyone else.
However there are still some positives that the metaverse brings. First, I believe it will bring increased international connectivity. If you want to visit your grandparents overseas or out of state, it might be a lot more personal and connected for you to visit them in a virtual space where they can have a sense of touch, and it can bring families together, especially during a time like the pandemic. In a purely business standpoint, this system can allow people to work from home instead of going on long and time-consuming business trips. Although this has significant negative ramifications including less interpersonal interaction, it may allow those who are extremely busy to spend more time with their family at home. My favorite thing about the metaverse is the fact that it’s just so cool. It opens the door to many new technologies like augmented reality or virtual reality and we might even see a new generation of glasses, or accessories. Today’s AirPods could very well be tomorrow’s Virtual Reality armband.
Although the future is uncertain with this new technology, we should hope for the Metaverse to be a step forward, not a step back.