The media has been overloaded with talk of the metaverse after Facebook announced it was changing its name to Meta to represent a strategic shift and significant investment into creating a virtual universe. For the unfamiliar, the metaverse promises a digital reality, where participants can don a set of virtual reality goggles, and navigate a stylized version of themselves, called an avatar, through virtual workplaces, entertainment venues and other interactions.
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Participants might also play immersive games and perhaps purchase some virtual goods along the way, with everything from digital accessories for their avatars, to as-yet-undefined collectible digital merchandise available. Some of the more expansive visions for the metaverse include a digital currency and an economy of makers designing and plying these virtual goods from virtual stores, ultimately generating real-world cash. The owner of the metaverse will, of course, collect slices of the various transactions and presumably use its understanding of each being in the metaverse to sell them real and virtual goods.
If all this sounds vaguely familiar, you may have been exposed to the last metaverse push in the early 2000s. Serious companies like IBM and entertainment products like the still-operating Second Life advocated very similar capabilities and features, including the same virtual offices, concerts and shopping that Mark Zuckerberg demonstrated in his announcement of the Meta brand. Proponents of the metaverse note that processing power, cost and networks all constrained these early iterations of the metaverse, problems that a decade of technology evolution have largely solved.
Advocates also suggest a long list of benefits from the metaverse. It’s easy to imagine catching up with one’s colleagues in a virtual conference room before a meeting being more enjoyable than the awkward small talk exchanged with a too-large or -small talking head on Zoom. Or the ability for a design team to virtually inspect the factory where the product is coming to life.
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As someone who has yet to visit Egypt, I remember donning Google Cardboard glasses and visiting the pyramids, surprised at how immersive and exciting I found an experience created by a hunk of cardboard and my smartphone. Imagine seeing the world’s treasures, visiting the moon or attending a Beatles or Tupac concert, all without leaving your room and at a fraction of the cost.
Utopia or anti-social dystopia?
Technology is primarily blamed for failing those first attempts to create a metaverse, although it’s more nuanced than merely suggesting we didn’t have enough compute and network power. In 2021 I still have a noticeable amount of hiccups in simple Zoom and Teams meetings, from choppy bandwidth as everyone in the neighborhood logs in at the start of the day, to updated USB drivers disabling my camera until I do the “unplug, count to 4-Mississippi, replug” routine. VR goggles are more streamlined these days, but try wearing a one-pound set of eyeglasses for a few hours and see how your neck feels by lunch.
One of the great blocks to remote work was that the technology provided a barrier just high enough that a non-zero percentage of the workforce quickly grew frustrated and abandoned it for years. It took a global pandemic to force everyone to invest the time to figure out how to operate the technology, but without a similar event, the barriers to the metaverse will be even higher in a workplace context.
Even if these technical barriers are solved, just because technologists can create a digital version of the universe it’s worth asking whether we should. The incredible power of and recent consternation directed at social media companies comes from their ability to gather data about us and rapidly determine what content hooks us and makes us come back.
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We’ve all had the uncanny experience of our devices trying to sell us a product hours after we mention it to our friends, and some of the world’s best technologists have proven our devices aren’t listening to us. The reality is perhaps worse: Our devices have become so good at modeling and categorizing our behaviors and predicting what we’re likely to buy next that they realize we’re interested in something around the same time we’re able to verbalize that interest.
Imagine that, rather than hours spent on social media feeding these information-gathering machines, your entire life and all your interactions are on display. Rather than merely knowing that I bought a pair of tickets to a Black Crowes concert, the metaverse would be able to track which song made me bob my head to the beat, whether and how I danced at the virtual show (the answer is awkwardly) and which avatars caught my eye.
It seems inherently dangerous to provide that much data to any entity, let alone one with a business model founded on using sophisticated brain science and behavioral modeling to get you to spend more time with its products. Add the additional layer of profound moral and philosophical questions that an expansive and immersive digital universe creates.
What happens to those who can’t afford the hardware that gives access to the metaverse, an expense that represents the annual salary for people in more than half the world’s countries? Do we trust tech titans to become literal gods in a digital universe that’s their creation and property? As a student of history, it’s hard not to see parallels between the visions of a utopian digital universe and the utopias imagined by various tyrants that ultimately went terribly wrong.
It’s both fascinating and sobering that technology has smashed head-on with ethics, and the impacts of our work as tech leaders now touch on very real and profound human questions. Before you don your goggles and jump with both virtual feet into the metaverse, it’s worth considering, reflecting on and speaking with your colleagues, friends, and communities about the impacts of the metaverse, positive and negative. We have the opportunity, and perhaps obligation as tech leaders, to help our organizations decide what’s good for our people and the broader world, rather than just slinging the code and connecting the devices that make it all happen.