I can’t remember a period in my lifetime where the political and social conversation was more polarized. For every opinion, no matter how inane, you can find someone on the internet to vehemently disagree. However, one take is nearly universally endorsed across the sociopolitical spectrum: Mark Zuckerberg is not a force for good in the world.
The recent news that Meta can take nearly a 50% cut of goods sold on Horizon Worlds, its metaverse platform, received widespread condemnation, uniting everyone from Fortune 500 CEOs, to left-wing Twitter, to whatever category Elon Musk falls into. The headlines hit many of the familiar talking points levied against Meta: greedy, hypocritical, unfriendly to creatives, and run by a cruel young cyber-monarch. But, more importantly, this news also sheds light on Zuckerberg’s troubling concept of the metaverse: a top-down, closed system controlled by a single organization.
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The potential of the metaverse is astounding; it can change the world, for the better. But if it’s controlled by Zuckerberg and the “top-down” approach of Meta, the dream of the metaverse will almost certainly turn into a nightmare. The metaverse can connect people, inspire creativity and even save lives. Mark Zuckerberg wants to turn it into the world’s biggest shopping mall.
Facebook and the Metaverse Gold Rush
The metaverse, defined here as the collective possibilities of virtual reality and augmented reality, is a relatively new part of the public consciousness. But it is hardly a new concept.
Gaming historians will recall the Sega VR-1 and the Nintendo Virtual Boy. Government agencies like NASA and the US Airforce used elements of the metaverse for training purposes and simulation exercises as early as 1986. In fact, the first prototype VR headset, “The Telesphere Mask,” was patented in 1960 by Morton Heilig.
Despite this long history, it was Facebook’s purchase of Oculus in 2014 that signaled the beginning of what has been an eight-year gold rush for AR and VR. When Zuckerberg dominated headlines for months with the Meta rebrand, the concept of metaverse began to exit the confines of geekdom and enter the mainstream conversation.
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Perhaps it was the shock of hearing one of the world’s biggest brands essentially disown its name, or maybe it was consequences of a couple years without sustained real-life contact with other human beings; but it seems late last year, the public was finally ready to start treating the metaverse as a real, even inevitable, possibility.
There’s a dystopian picture often portrayed of the metaverse: a Matrix-like simulation; a cold, lonely world with each participant isolated, detached from reality, and spoonfed misinformation and advertisements from corporate overlords. Given Facebook’s track record over the past decade, this isn’t pure fantasy.
Under Meta’s control, we could absolutely see this grim premonition become reality. But the possibilities opened up by AR and VR are vast, and there’s an alternate vision of the metaverse as something that enables human connection, rather than isolation. This vision includes a metaverse that solves problems and doesn’t only create new ones.
The Potential to Change the World for the Better
The metaverse can provide opportunities for participants in an increasingly online world to forge human connection in their daily online activities. Think, for example, of the possibility of attending a virtual family reunion, with family members around the world. I’m not talking about a Zoom call, but an actual shared virtual experience. Or think about the access to sporting events, concerts, and other fan experiences that the metaverse enables.
Even as COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, the opportunity to attend an NBA game or an Ariana Grande concert is a distant one for the majority of people in the world. The metaverse can democratize these kinds of fan experiences, making them available to everyone at a much lower cost than it would be to attend in person.
The metaverse can be an outlet for human creativity, providing a greater platform for creatives, makers, and artists. The use of remote assistance and AR glasses has incredible potential: expert car mechanics can help fix automobiles in 10 different cities in one day. A NASA rocket scientist located in Washington, D.C., can use that same AR technology to solve a tricky engineering problem in a Houston facility. Lives can be saved in the metaverse, with surgeons using augmented reality to provide critical care to patients in remote locations.
We can even use the metaverse to help heal our republic. In an op-ed, Derek Robertson writes that town halls held in the metaverse have the ability not only to connect people more easily to the political process, but to actually improve the political discourse. He writes that the metaverse, in theory, allows us to create “closed-off spaces for the like-minded to congregate and converse in, without the social-media mechanism of a central ‘timeline’ or news feed to hijack public attention en masse.”
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To call Zuckerberg a pioneer in the metaverse is insulting to the true innovators like Morton Heilig, Myron Krueger, and Jaron Lanier. But he is undoubtedly a savvy and influential adapter. With Facebook user numbers going down for the first time in history and Apple’s beefed-up security policies endangering the social network’s core advertising business model, Zuckerberg made an extraordinarily bold and intelligent pivot by going all-in on the metaverse. But his vision of the metaverse is a virtual shopping mall run by a megacorporation, where you’re being sold something at every turn and where your every move is being monitored.
But this is not the only way forward. At the end of the day, I truly believe that the future of the metaverse will be open, with cross-platform data sharing and interoperability. There’s an open, bottom-up approach to the metaverse, exemplified by companies like Nvidia. This approach would lead to a metaverse where creators and users are empowered and data is not controlled and exploited in a closed system. But in order to achieve those possibilities, we need to fight tooth and nail against a Meta monopoly.
About the Guest Author(s)
Brian Hamilton is executive chairman of LiveSwitch, which enables companies to build interactive live video into their metaverse applications and broadcasting experiences. LiveSwitch technology is used by organizations like Adobe, Sloan Kettering, and the Golden State Warriors. Prior to LiveSwitch, Hamilton founded Sageworks, which helped millions of business owners translate complex financial information. Hamilton also stars in Free Enterprise on ABC, based on his Inmates to Entrepreneurs program.