Law in the Internet Society
_On 28 October 2021, Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced changing his company's name to Meta, to reflect his focus to the next digital frontier-the meta verse. In this essay, I discuss how this possible future under Zuckerberg's leadership could look like and what could be its possible consequences for us all. At the same time, I discuss ways in which we can ensure that all the harms that exist on Facebook do not translate to the Metaverse so that this technology develops in a safe manner. _

Towards a safer Metaverse

-- By MuhammadUsman - 08 Dec 2021

Imagine walking down a road back from work and you see your favorite restaurant, your preferred clothing shop, your choice of desert and a billboard of your favorite movie. Now imagine playing monopoly with your friends under the great pyramid of Giza, all the while you are sitting in your smelly old apartment in Lahore. That is the world, or rather an alternate world, that Mark Zuckerberg desires for us—a world that is lived on demand, and a world that allows us to shape our surroundings to meet our desires. Depending on your perspective, this can be an exciting prospect or your worst nightmare.

Since the past few years, Facebook has been in the middle of widespread criticism. In the wake of Leaked internal documents exposing Facebook’s management, immense scrutiny regarding user’s data, Cambridge Analytica scandal, lawsuits asserting discriminatory advertisements, and allegations of destroying democracy, Facebook decided to rebrand itself. Mark Zuckerberg has now changed Facebook’s official name to Meta Platform Inc., or “Meta” for short, to reflect Mark Zuckerberg’s focus to the next digital frontier—the metaverse.

As a whole, the word "metaverse" generally refers to a virtual world that lies beyond, on top of, or is an extension of the physical world. It can also be understood as the internet brought to life. Zuckerberg describes it as a “virtual environment” you can go inside of. It is meant to be a virtual world where you can have interactive experiences with people from all over the world. Mark Zuckerberg also says that “a lot of metaverse experience is going to be around being able to teleport from one experience to another.” In his video demonstration, Zuckerberg says “users can have a home-space with views of whatever you find most beautiful.” Based on the video demonstration and statements by the company, it appears that Zuckerberg’s Metaverse will be a virtual reality tailored to each user’s interest’s, behaviors and preferences. Given that Meta already possesses treasure troves of data on user’s activities both on and off Meta and has successfully created what are arguably the most complete consumer profiles on earth, this does not seem too wild of an idea.

However, there is a flipside. Metaverse would also mean fewer social gatherings, public ceremonies, birthday celebrations and even in person dinners. Because this tailor-made virtual heaven’s success would depend on users spending as much time on it as possible, Metaverse will attempt to dimmish all our reasons to interact in the physical world. Given how much time most users spend on their screens already, imagine the addiction with an immersive experience where most of our senses are more engaged. The more detached we become from the physical world, the more emotional numbness we would feel. The more we interact with avatars and robots, the less human we would become. The consequences could mean detachment from reality, isolation, increased mental health distress and depression, all of which have already been proven as consequences of excessive use of social networking sites like Instagram and Facebook.

The concept of a Metaverse is also not new. The tech world has seen the rise and fall of a number of metaverse’s such as Second Life, MOO, OZ Virtual and a few others. Ethan Zuckerman narrates that the future imagined by Zuckerberg’s metaverse has been imagined before and contains similar flaws. Perhaps the most major flaw and the biggest reason behind the failure of metaverse’s like Second Life, Sean Monahan asserts in his essay, is that people often prefer reality and do not necessarily want to spend a majority of their time in virtual environments. In other words, people do not always want all that technology can offer. Ian Bogost, in his article states that, most people would not prefer a Metaverse simply because it cannot capture all the details of the real world and that real life still seeps through the seams of computers. However, despite these drawbacks and flaws, emergence of a Metaverse made by a surveillance-assisted advertising company must be feared.

Personally, I cannot imagine Zuckerberg redefining our relationship with technology without feeling a deep sense of dread. This is because Zuckerberg’s focus has always been on data collection and profit maximization and not on producing good technology that is beneficial to the community. When Professor Eben Moglen said that Mark Zuckerberg has done more harm to the human race then anyone his age, he did not mean that Meta’s relationship with human social activity is necessarily bad. He meant that Meta’s model is abused and cannot be “managed” non-destructively. We must acknowledge that that the network’s we use to connect with others do not technologically require that simple services be offered in return for comprehensive behavior collection. However, while behavior collection remains at the core of Meta’s business model, much of the existing problems with Facebook would continue to exist in Metaverse. It would also open a new world of data source in which the company could track our facial and finger movements and possibly even brain reading. After the full-on datafication of the society by Zuckerberg and his agents, and after already ruining much of our human social interactions, Meta seeks to destroy whatever is left.

Going forward, it is essential Meta allows researchers and journalists to study its digital platform in depth. At the same time, Meta should collaborate with civil rights groups, government agencies and neutral bodies to make Metaverse a safer place. It must also be ensured the Metaverse is not allowed to monetize its users. Our laws must also catch up with technology and Congress can start by revising the anti-trust laws that allows these big tech companies to enjoy near monopolies. Furthermore, as a matter of policy, the government should carry out public awareness campaigns to ensure all potential users, including children and vulnerable groups, are aware of the harms and consequences of Metaverse. Until all of this is done, I would rather stay in the physical world.

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r3 - 17 Jan 2022 - 18:53:40 - MuhammadUsman
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