Should Big Tech’s plan for a metaverse scare us?

While passing through a park in Manhattan recently, I spotted a plaque with a poem on it, “Poem of nature ”, by Tommy Pico. It includes these lines:

When nature squeezes my neck, I can’t tell if it’s a
romantic comedy or horror movie

I feel a similar ambivalence when I contemplate the “metaverse,” a concept pioneered by Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and other tech moguls. It demands a much more immersive experience for consumers of social media, games and other digital technologies. The Metaverse takes us into the sci-fi territory of The matrix, in which evil robots inject a false reality into the brains of captive humans.

Is the Metaverse so implausible as to be silly? Or is it scary? I can’t decide.

According to a useful story of the metaverse compiled by tech scholar Ben Thompson, Neal Stephenson introduced the term metaverse in his science fiction novel Snow accident in 1992. Stephenson describes the metaverse as a three-dimensional virtual reality generated by glasses worn by the hero of the novel, Hiro. The metaverse is “a computer-generated universe that [Hiro’s] the computer pulls on his glasses and pumps into his headphones.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella mentioned the metaverse at a conference last May. Nadella’s speech didn’t get much attention, perhaps because her description of the Metaverse is a bit murky. He says a “metaverse of digital twins, simulated environments and mixed reality is emerging as a first-class platform.” “Digital twins” are simulations of real things, such as cars, kittens, and humans.

The metaverse generated more buzz after Zuckerberg discussed it last July. Zuckerberg says the metaverse goes beyond virtual reality and computer games, with which it is often associated. He describes the metaverse as “an embodied Internet, where instead of just viewing content, you are there. And you feel present with other people like you are in other places, having different experiences that you might not necessarily be able to have on a 2D app or webpage, like dancing, for example, or different types of fitness. It looks like a rom-com version of The matrix.

Zuckerberg could tout the metaverse for distracting the public from the ongoing scandals at his company. A year ago, the former Facebook data scientist Sophie Zhang indicted Facebook by failing to prevent “blatant attempts by foreign national governments to abuse our platform on a massive scale to mislead their own citizens.” Another whistleblower, Frances Haugen, recently told Congress that “the company’s products harm children and attack division,” as National public radio said so.

If the Metaverse is a PR ploy, not everyone is fooled. In August, Jessa Crispin, columnist at Guardian, posted a fiery metaverse criticism. By grouping it with the space programs of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, Crispin calls the metaverse another escape fantasy of “tech billionaires trying to leave the world to escape responsibility for their malevolent influence on it.”

Given the world’s immense problems, Crispin argues, “living in an inconsequential space of your own imagination, physically and psychologically separated from your fellow citizens to strut around with avatars and ghosts, is philosophically and psychologically wrong.”

Like the Netflix movie The social dilemma points out, Facebook and other tech companies care more about profits than social welfare. These companies already wield tremendous power over us, which grows as they collect more data about us, and the metaverse could amplify that power. Tim Sweeney, founder of Epic Games, producer of Fortnite and other popular games, warned in 2017 that the Metaverse could become a dystopian nightmare if it is controlled by a few companies.

“As we build these platforms towards the metaverse,” Sweeney says, “if these platforms are locked down and controlled by these proprietary companies, they will have a lot more power over our lives, our private data, and our private interactions with other people than any platform in the previous story. And Sweeney has promoted the metaverse.

The metaverse poses technical and public relations problems. The most immersive interface today for digital simulations is the Oculus-type virtual-tech glasses, which Facebook bought in 2014. Tech companies are exploring so-called brain-machine interfaces that go beyond reality glasses. Virtual. These interfaces could further blur the line between us and our devices.

Some brain-machine interfaces detect neural signals through external electrodes or optical sensors attached to the skull or other parts of the body. Such interfaces can also manipulate thoughts with transcranial electromagnetic impulses. These non-invasive devices, however, only allow rough reading and mind control.

Tech companies are looking at much more ambitious interfaces that work through electrodes implanted in the brain through holes drilled in the skull. The devices can read signals and transmit them directly to neurons, potentially enabling the kind of mental reading and precise control envisioned in The matrix and other science fiction. Facebook has funded research on both non-invasive and invasive brain-machine interfaces.

I raised doubts on the potential of brain implants. Implants designed to treat depression and other mental disorders by stimulating neural tissue did not live up to their hype. And influencing mood through direct neural stimulation should be much easier than creating detailed hallucinations and stimulating intelligence, memory, and other cognitive abilities.

Facebook would have interrupted, at least temporarily, research on brain-machine interfaces, which produced disappointing results. But other companies, in particular Elon Musk’s Neuralink, continue to develop established interfaces. What’s more, Christof Koch, a leading neuroscientist, has become a kind of cheerleader for brain implants.

In a 2017 opinion piece for the the Wall Street newspaper, Koch advocates an “emergency program to design safe, inexpensive, reliable and durable devices and procedures for manipulating brain processes within their protective envelope. Here’s another troubling fact to keep in mind: The Pentagon pumped tens of millions of dollars in brain-machine interface research.

I wish I could dismiss the Metaverse – and especially the brain implant-based version – as silly tech hype. But scary things that once seemed inconceivable have happened in recent times. A rogue buffoon becomes the most powerful man on earth. A plague is sweeping the planet, killing millions of people and forcing survivors to wear masks and keep their distance from each other.

Given the unpredictability of the world, I find it hard to rule out the possibility that an unholy alliance of high tech and the military is forcing an implant-compatible metaverse on us. After all, as the real world gets more and more spooky, the Metaverse might become more and more appealing. In our frightening future, the metaverse, not religion, could serve as an opiate to the masses.


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