Patrick K. Lin is the author of Machine See, Machine Do: How Technology Mirrors Bias in Our Criminal Justice System.
When Facebook became Meta in October 2021, the rebrand was seen as a distraction from the company’s many scandals: whistleblower revelations, disinformation, and political polarization. While promises of a virtual reality may or may not make us forget about what Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg have done in our actual reality, the fact remains that social media is no longer their primary focus. Meta is, after all, a metaverse company.
Broadly speaking, the so-called metaverse is imagined as a persistent social cyberspace that interacts with the real-world economy as well as other online platforms. It is selling a new and innovative experience through virtual reality immersion, user-generated content, and digital ownership. However, the metaverse is not innovation for the sake of the consumer, but rather for advertisers. There are three key areas that should prompt skepticism.
1. Consumer Homogenization
The idea of the metaverse—a single, consolidated cyberspace—is not likely to become reality. Despite its rebrand, Meta is not the only player in town. The result will be multiple metaverses. Each will be interoperable within the confines of a brand or ecosystem, not unlike the way the Internet of Things was both a hospitable terrarium for its brand loyalists (at least for a time) and a walled garden to anyone who did not fully commit to that ecosystem.
If you’ve ever clicked “Sign up with Facebook” when registering on a new website or app, then you’ve already gotten a preview of what a connected metaverse could look like. This ease of use and connectedness is convenient, but it isn’t just for your benefit. It’s to make it easier for Facebook to collect your data and its client companies to advertise to you.
The current vision for the metaverse is little more than an elaborate corporate safety net. As Meta continues to buy up companies with some bearing on the metaverse, the goal is to bring as many disparate franchises, properties, and brands under a single tech giant’s umbrella.
By cramming as many consumers as possible into a single, consolidated cyberspace, companies can safely launch a new product to a massive pool of potential customers, collect information on those customers, and advertise future products to them. The metaverse will bundle together everything businesses could sell you while making you feel involved and connected to what they do. It allows companies to manufacture a sense of community while turning that community into a massive target demographic. If you shop, socialize, and play in the metaverse, companies won’t need to find you. You are already where they want you to be.
2. Digital Scarcity
In December 2021, someone spent $450,000 to purchase a virtual plot of land next to Snoop Dogg’s NFT house in the Snoopverse, a virtual world the rapper is developing within The Sandbox. Meanwhile, the Metaverse Group, a real estate company focused on the metaverse economy, bought a piece of land in virtual platform Decentraland for $2.43 million.
In the real world, the value of scarce assets depends on factors like opportunities and constraints. Real estate, for instance, increases in value when it has proximity to infrastructure, services, and economic hubs. There are also limits on real estate, such as costs, traffic and congestion, and physical space.
In the metaverse, where does virtual land derive its value from? Are we concerned about virtual commuting times? Are there too many students in the virtual school district? What happens when Snoop Dogg “moves” to a different NFT house? Scarcity cannot solely exist for its own sake. Otherwise, any value derived from scarcity is arbitrary and artificial.
The price of genuinely scarce assets, like limited edition products or collectables, are generally set by market mechanisms driven by the value of access. In contrast, the price of artificially scarce assets, like NFTs or land in the metaverse, is not tied to a finite supply. A company can create an unlimited number of “limited edition” digital assets and sell them to consumers, collectors, fans. A disciplined business could limit output, but the temptation to fully monetize the consumer base will be ever-present, especially when Meta gets a 47.5 percent commission on the sale of all digital assets in its metaverse.
There are some features of the real world that should not be emulated in a virtual one.
3. Data Collection
Facebook spent nearly two decades honing its “copy-acquire-kill” strategy. By buying up would-be competitors like Instagram and WhatsApp, Facebook secured its position as the biggest social media company in the world. Among its acquisitions was Oculus, which it purchased in 2014 for $2 billion. The Oculus Quest 2 is the most popular VR headset on the market, capturing nearly 80 percent of all AR/VR headset sales in 2021.
A VR headset is also a prerequisite for entering the metaverse fully; using such devices will expose new categories of our personal data for processing. This could include biometrics, physiological responses, facial expressions, gestures, vocal inflections, vital signs, and other types of reactions an avatar could convey during interactions in the metaverse. Compared to traditional social media, the metaverse can track users much more intimately and tailor advertising campaigns in an exceptionally targeted way.
Right now, it is difficult for a retailer to accurately gauge consumers’ feelings and opinions about a product. Whether you are a window shopper or an enthusiast attending a product launch event, a business can only do so much to survey and record your thoughts. But what if your reactions are captured by the VR hardware that contains multiple sensors and recorded in the persistent cyberspace in which your avatar exists?
Like the “likes” and reactions you voluntarily provide to social media algorithms, the version of you in the metaverse will provide this data to whoever owns the metaverse and the companies that buy into it. But in the metaverse, this data can be collected at a much greater frequency, quantity, and scale. Nearly every website records your mouse movements and clicks to figure out what content you engage with the most and which products you spend the most time looking at. Imagine what Mark Zuckerberg can learn about you when he can record your every move in his virtual world.
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The metaverse as it is being packaged and sold does not benefit us in a meaningful way because the metaverse is not being built for us. It is being built for them. The metaverse, at least at this stage, is just more Big Tech. Despite Facebook’s rebrand, its metaverse experiment is just the next stage of its ad-based business model. Data processing is key to that business model. It’s worth remembering that Meta’s social media incarnation has little understanding of its own data collection and has paid billions of dollars to U.S. and European Union regulators for various data abuses. As the metaverse expands, so too must privacy laws. While the metaverse is being built, there is a window of time for regulators to proactively address its privacy implications. The metaverse—a convergence of VR and a second life in cyberspace—may seem glamorous, but if a company like Meta is positioning itself as a leader in this space, it will just become another platform to sell you things.
Patrick K. Lin is the author of Machine See, Machine Do: How Technology Mirrors Bias in Our Criminal Justice System, a book that explores technology through the lens of history and policy to better understand the consequences of treating artificial intelligence and other high-tech tools as inherently fair and objective. He is also a fellow at the Internet Law & Policy Foundry and junior board member of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (S.T.O.P.). Patrick has worked for a variety of public interest organizations, including the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy & Technology Project, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Previously, he interned for federal judges in the Eastern District of New York and the Southern District of New York. Patrick’s research and writing focuses on AI, surveillance technology, and predictive algorithms.