Meanings of the metaverse: Productizing reality

Welcome, Earthlings.

Facebook, it’s now widely accepted, has been a calamity for the world. The obvious solution, most people would agree, is to get rid of Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg has a different idea: Get rid of the world.

Cyberutopians have been dreaming about replacing the physical world with a virtual one since Zuckerberg was in Oshkosh B’gosh overalls. The desire is rooted in misanthropy — meatspace, yuck — but it is also deeply idealistic, Platonic even. The world as we know it, the thinking goes, is messy and chaotic, illogical and unpredictable. It is a place of death and decay, where mind — the true essence of the human — is subordinate to the vagaries of the flesh. Cyberspace liberates the mind from its bodily trappings. It is a place of pure form. Everything in it reflects the logic and order inherent to computer programming.

Hints of that old cyberian idealism float through Zuckerberg’s conception of the metaverse — he’s big on teleportation — but despite his habit of reminding us that he took philosophy and classics courses in college, Zuckerberg is no metaphysician. A Mammonist rather than a Platonist, he’s in it for the money. His goal with the metaverse is not just to create a virtual world that is more encompassing, more totalizing, than what we experience today with social media and videogames. It’s to turn reality itself into a product. In the metaverse, nothing happens that is not computable. That also means that, assuming the computers doing the computing are in private hands, nothing happens that is not a market transaction, a moment of monetization, either directly through an exchange of money or indirectly through the capture of data. With the metaverse, capital subsumes reality. It’s money all the way down.

Zuckerberg’s public embrace of the metaverse, culminating in last week’s Meta rebranding, has been widely seen as a cynical ploy to distract the public from the mess Facebook has made for itself and everyone else. There’s truth in that view, but it would be a mistake to think that the metaverse is just a change-the-subject tactic. It’s a coldly calculated, high-stakes, speculative bet on the future. Zuckerberg believes that several trends are coming together now, commercial, technological, and social, that justify big investments in an all-encompassing virtual sphere. He knows that Facebook — er, Meta — needs to act quickly if it’s to become the dominant player in what could be the biggest of all markets. As one of his lieutenants wrote in a recent memo, “The Metaverse is ours to lose.”

For Meta, Facebook and Instagram are cash cows — established, mature businesses that throw off a lot of cash. The company will milk those social media platforms to fund billions of dollars of investment in metaverse technologies ($10 billion this year alone). Much of that money will go into hardware, including virtual-reality headsets, artificial-reality glasses, hologram projectors, and a myriad of digital sensor systems. Facebook’s greatest vulnerability has always been its dependence on competitors — Apple, Google, Microsoft — to provide the hardware and associated operating systems required to access its sites and apps. The extent of that vulnerability was made clear this year when Apple instituted its data blockade, curtailing Facebook’s ability to track people online and hence making its ads less effective.

If Meta can control the hardware and operating systems people use to frolic in the metaverse, it will neutralize the threat posed by Apple and its other rivals. It will disintermediate the intermediaries. Beyond the hardware, though, the very structure of the metaverse, as envisioned by Zuckerberg, would make it hard if not impossible to prevent a company like Meta from collecting personal data. That’s because, as Zuckerberg emphasized in his Facebook Connect keynote Thursday, a universal metaverse requires universal interoperability. Being in the metaverse needs to be as seamless an experience as being in the real world. That can only happen if all data is shared. Gaps in the flow of data become holes in reality.

And what data! Two of the most revealing, and unsettling, moments in Zuckerberg’s keynote came when he was describing work now being done in the company’s “Reality Labs.” (Does Facebook have a Senior Vice President of Dystopian Branding?) He showed a demo of a woman walking through her home while wearing a pair of Meta AR glasses. The glasses mapped, automatically and in precise detail, everything she looked at. Such digital mapping will allow Meta to create, as Reality Labs Chief Scientist Michael Abrash explained, “an index” of “every single object” in a person’s home, “including not only location, but also the texture, geometry, and function.” The maps will become the basis for “contextual AI” that will be able to anticipate a person’s intentions and desires by tracking eye movements. What you look at, after all, is what you’re interested in. “Ultimately,” said Abrash, “her AR glasses will tell her what her available actions are at any time.” The advertising opportunities are endless.

“Come into my parlor,” said the spider to the fly.

But that’s just the start. Meta has designs on our bodies that go well beyond eye-tracking. Zuckerberg explained that Reality Labs is at work on “neural interfaces” that will tap directly into the nervous system:

We believe that neural interfaces are going to be an important part of how we interact with AR glasses, and more specifically EMG [electromyography] input from the muscles on your wrist combined with contextualized AI. It turns out that we all have unused neuromotor pathways, and with simple and perhaps even imperceptible gestures, sensors will one day be able to translate those neuromotor signals into digital commands that enable you to control your devices. It’s pretty wild.

Wild, indeed. If Facebook’s ability to collect, analyze, and monetize your personal data makes you nervous now, wait till you see what Meta has in store. There are no secrets in the metaverse.

There is, however, private property. One of the obstacles to the computerized productization of reality has always been the difficulty in establishing and enforcing property rights in cyberspace. Fifteen years ago, a company called Linden Lab took a stab at building a proto-metaverse in the form of the much-hyped videogame Second Life. The company promised its users, including many of the world’s biggest businesses, that they would be able to buy, sell, and own virtual goods in Second Life. What it failed to mention was that those goods, being composed purely of data, could be easily and perfectly copied. And that’s exactly what happened. Second Life was invaded by the so-called CopyBot, a software program that could replicate any object in the virtual world, including people’s avatars. An orgy of piracy ensued, dooming Second Life to irrelevance. Today, thanks to blockchains, cryptocurrencies, and non-fungible tokens (NFTs), the copyability problem seems to have been solved. Property rights, including identity rights, will be able to be enforced in the metaverse, which vastly expands its commercial potential.

Just because Zuckerberg wants a universal metaverse to exist doesn’t mean that it will exist. Anyone who’s been on a Zoom call knows that, even at a pretty basic level, we’re a long way from the kind of seamless, perfectly synchronized virtual existence that Meta is promising. As Michael Abrash himself cautioned, “It’s going to take about a dozen major technological breakthroughs to get to the next-generation metaverse.” That’s a lot of breakthroughs, and no breakthrough is foreordained.

But Zuckerberg has one thing on his side: When given the opportunity, people have shown themselves to be willing, even eager, to choose a simulation over the real thing. The metaverse, should it arrive, may feel like home, only better.

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Part 2: “Secondary Embodiment.”
Part 3: “The Andreessen Solution.”