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What is the “metaverse”? (and should you worry about it?)

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Daniel Esparza - published on 11/04/21

Can (or should) Facebook’s new “promise” deliver more than a virtual, prosthetic extension of our already natural capacities and functions? Do we even need it?

On October 28, Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook (not the social network, but the overall company brand) now goes by the name of Meta. One doesn’t necessarily have to be classically trained to know the Greek particle meta literally means “beyond.” The new name quickly became the butt of the joke, ironically enough, on plenty of Facebook timelines: for most critics, with Meta, Zuckerberg is just trying to go “beyond” the many scandals the brand has been through in the recent past — from selling users’ data to purposely contributing to political polarization.

But the blue social media giant is not only still feeling the effects of a yearslong trust crisis. It is also the case that most of its users are now, demographically speaking, “beyond” the ideal target age. Facebook’s core audience is rapidly aging, and its users might consequently not be necessarily as technologically literate (and hence, tech-enthusiastic and dependent) as the 1 billion monthly users TikTok has been able to amass. With users unable (or unwilling) to adapt to new technologies and change their tech habits, possibilities of innovation are obviously scarce. Facebook has little room to maneuver.

This gives Zuckerberg, at least, two different problems. The first one is quite obvious. As Kevin Roose puts it, younger users are simply abandoning the apps grouped under the Facebook (Meta) umbrella (Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp) in favor of other, “cooler,” newer apps (again, TikTok, but also Snapchat, or Telegram). Facebook’s youth problem “hasn’t hurt it financially yet, but ad revenue is a lagging indicator, and there is plenty of evidence that even Instagram — the supposedly healthy app in Facebook’s portfolio — is rapidly losing the attention of teenagers and twentysomethings,” Roose concludes.

The second problem is Meta itself. At least for Zuckerberg, “Meta” is more than a rebranding:  the name itself is a promise, and the possibility to finally bring to life one of his lifelong obsessions. Zuckerberg intends to create a metaverse.

What is a metaverse?

For Roose, Meta is “Zuckerberg’s escape hatch.” A strategy that, if he’s able to deliver (and that’s a big if), could really give Facebook the chance to return to its former glory: “Mr. Zuckerberg painted a picture of the metaverse as a clean, well-lit virtual world,” Roose writes, “entered with virtual and augmented reality hardware at first and more advanced body sensors later on, in which people can play virtual games, attend virtual concerts, go shopping for virtual goods, collect virtual art, hang out with each other’s virtual avatars and attend virtual work meetings.”

Manuel G. Pascal’s explanation is a bit more detailed:

Wearing special augmented reality glasses (naturally developed by Oculus, another tech-company owned by Zuckerberg) users will have access to a basic initial space, more or less like one’s own Facebook profile. Only this space is a house —one’s own Horizon Home. Once “home,” users can interact with their contacts. The kind of conversation one would have in a Whatsapp group could seamlessly take place in one’s Horizon Home kitchen, with our friends’ avatars moving freely around the room as they please. But an integration of the real world with these virtual environments is also, well, on the horizon: holographic projections, in the real world, of these very same virtual avatars would eventually be also available.  

(Of course, Horizon Marketplace will be there to help users buy everything they need to make their Horizon Home feel cozy and warm. The same goes for the virtual offices that will be available on Horizon Workrooms.)

Going full virtual. Or fully hybrid.

The question is whether users will really need (or want) to go “full virtual,” or even “fully hybrid.” Even more so, it is not even clear whether the alleged blurring of the distinction of the virtual and the real is that attractive after all. As the Peruvian philosopher Victor J. Krebs explains, due to the preeminence of the “virtual” in our lives (and especially during and after lockdown), our understanding of the “virtual” needs to be critically revised over and over.

In a recently published book, Human Virtuality and Digital Life, Krebs analyzes our understanding of the virtual as a mere prosthetic extension of our already natural capacities and functions (which seems to be Meta’s take on it). Most of the time, the virtual is conceived as either an enhancement (“augmented” reality) or as copy of the already-existing universe (“virtual” reality). However, Krebs explains, the idea of the “virtual” was originally linked, even etymologically, with potentialities instead. The medieval Latin virtualis derives from the original Latin virtus, meaning not necessarily “virtue” (as one might naturally assume) but rather “potency,” designating the capacity one has to be or do something potentially: a seed is potentially (virtually) a tree, and a tree is potentially (virtually) a log cabin. A human being is potentially … well, that’s the problem right there: can Zuckerberg’s metaverse help its users become what they potentially are? In other words, can this virtual, augmented-reality based parallel-yet-integrated world actually become the kind of agora-shopping-mall-arena-coffee-shop it intends to be and help its users develop their full human potential? Can Meta, as Manuel G. Pascual simply (and rather bluntly) puts it, improve the world 17 years after fostering (whether wittingly or not) some of the worst evils that currently afflict it?

As Charles M. Blow writes, the Zuckerberg metaverse, as is often the case with all new things, might appeal to some, maybe to millions, maybe even to most. Sure, social media has many virtues: “After carefully curating the people, institutions and outlets that I follow, I now encounter more information than I could ever have imagined, more information than I can process. It is an embarrassment of riches, really.” However, Blow continues, it also “has so much ugliness […] so much misinformation and manipulation, that its prominence in my life, it became clear to me, held more problems than benefits. I have attempted to reorient myself primarily to the real world (even that feels strange to write). To write more things that I don’t immediately share. To write for the idea and not for viral impact — things that no one may “like” but that I still want to find a way to craft into their clearest form.” Making all “realities” collide in one single space does not necessarily seem to be what some users could be longing for, after all.

In any case, Zuckerberg’s metaverse is still but a promise — so no, you shouldn’t really worry too much about it. At least for now. Whether it will be massively adopted by the billions of users who are still on Facebook is surely a bet that goes “beyond” the parameters of any viable predictions.

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Technology
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