In November 2020, Facebook announced they were switching their brand name to Meta, and unveiled their new vision for the future of their platform in an announcement video.
Zuckerberg has described the Metaverse as “internet that you’re inside of, rather than just looking at,” and the video focused heavily on VR and mixed reality / augmented reality technology. It’s no surprise that most people took it at face value, and the discussion has been focused around that aspect of it. Heck, even memes are rampant.
But the reality behind the virtual reality is much more disturbing.
The ‘metaverse’ is not a new concept — since the early days of contemporary science-fiction, it’s been a staple concept. From complex novels like Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, to more well known examples such as the Holodeck in Star Trek, to the virtual world of Ready Player One, the idea of being immersed in cyberspace is well understood — which perhaps makes it more accessible for people.
But these “virtual worlds” aren’t just science fiction — they have been implemented many times before.
Digital avatars are nothing new — the Nintendo Wii was perhaps among the first to create a 3D digital avatar of yourself. Playstation had a “Home” feature, with your digital avatar and ability to interact with friends and others in a virtual world. There’s MMOs such as Second Life which have no goal other than existing in a digital space. There’s even a blockchain (cryptotechnology) world “Decentraland” which uses this concept.
So what is Meta / Facebook really trying to do here?
The announcement video talks a bit about their sensor platforms they are working on: Project Cambria and Project Nazare, which aim to more tightly integrate real-world interactions and sensor data into virtual worlds. It talks about mapping your facial and hand movements into a virtualized representation, and building sophisticated sensors into a wearable, glasses-like platform.
There’s a growing recognition that mobile sensor platforms — such as mobile phones, with their ability to have always on microphones — may have a highly detrimental impact to privacy on a societal scale. Many people swear they get ads for products they only mentioned in conversation near their phone, or receive ads in other languages when they spend time in environments where that language is spoken. And of course, Google Glasses had a video recording ability right in your glasses, which was considered so invasive that many private businesses had prevented their use on their premises.
Having an always-on, mobile sensor platform, which is monitoring both your actions as well as everything around you, should give people pause. Mobile phones are bad enough — but this can be worse, since it’s leveraging facial recognition and sentiment analysis.
Facial recognition isn’t just about identifying you — it is most widely used for sentiment analysis, or emotional detection. You can tell if someone is angry, sad, or anxious using widely available coding libraries and simple webcams. By using your facial emotions, as well as other sensors such as pulse detection, pupil tracking, language processing — it’s a good chance that these platforms will know what you’re thinking and feeling before you do.
Zuckerberg wasn’t kidding when he said they are “design[ing] technology around people”.
A man takes a psychology class at a local college. The professor says to him, “I can tell if you’re married or not by asking one simple question. Do you own a lawnmower?”
“Yes, I do,” the man replied.
“A-ha! Well, if you own a lawnmower, you must have a yard that you keep up. And if you have a yard to maintain, you probably own a house. To own a house (especially in this economy), you’re likely married. So by asking about the lawnmower, I’m confident you’re married.”
“That’s amazing!” the man thought. So he goes out with a friend at the bar, and tries this same question on him.
“Do you own a lawnmower?” the man asked his friend.
“No,” the friend replied.
“Then the conclusion is that you’re gay!”
In 2015, it came to light that using data from people’s online behavior (especially Facebook), that research firms were able to very accurately identify user’s unspoken preferences, such as political leanings, income levels, and all sorts of conclusions with a high level of accuracy — so much so that the FTC levied a $5 billion dollar fine.
While the joke above may be a little tasteless, and the man jumps to some wrong conclusions by misunderstanding that some data can only be construed one way, it illustrates the sort of unspoken data that can be put together with frightening accuracy from our personal data.
Now imagine instead of just your social media presence, that they are able to have insight into your actual presence?
They could make assumptions about you based on your home — the art on your walls, the books on your bookshelf, whether or not the dishes have been done. They could more closely monitor your interactions with others in the Metaverse, not just your text or DMs, but your actual, real-time conversations, and use that for more than just invasive marketing practices — but to directly influence you via crafted information, changing your views and psychology in subtle ways.
The Walled Garden of Everything
In the early days of the World Wide Web, it was a common practice to ‘surf’ the web. Using search engines and tools like StumbleUpon, people would spend hours finding all sorts of obscure sites, put up by hobbyists and geeks.
Those days are long over. The internet as we know it, has moved to “walled gardens” of service providers, such as Facebook and Instagram, Apple, Microsoft, Reddit, and Google. When most people think of the internet now, they think of these Apps / services, and for many people, that’s all they know.
These walled gardens try to keep you in their tightly segregated offerings, to force you into pricey subscription models or for ad revenue.
I believe that Facebook is trying to expand the walls of their walled garden, to encompass everything — they want to cast as wide a net as possible, to ensure you’re using their services.
It’s not just VR. They talk about their vision for “work” within the Metaverse, starting at about 4:09 in the video. While touting it as a “positive for society and economy, giving people access to more jobs in places no matter where they live, spending less time in traffic and positive for the environment”, and having separate work accounts to keep your personal and work separate. (Which, of course, they can correlate on their end.) While they lead with the positives, the opportunity for corporate espionage and anti-competitive behavior is rife.
Notably missing: Diem (or, “FacebookCoin”)
Besides what was shown in the video, there are other things Meta / Facebook is working on, which seems to be notably missing from the video.
In 2018/2019, Facebook proposed Libra, a new cryptocurrency which initially had backers such as Uber, Visa, and others. They had a mixed validator pool, consisting of 100 nodes ran by various companies, which would make it somewhat distributed, albeit not fully decentralized. They had pegged it to a basket of major world currencies (USD, EUR, CNY, JPY) which would have made it a very stable coin with only +/- 5% volatility over the past 25 years.
Immediately, central banks all over the world, such as the European Central Bank, and even the SEC in the United States, strongly denounced this initiative as interfering with monetary authority. Facebook was forced to back down from that initial plan, especially as major investors then bailed.
They have since rebranded their offering to Diem, which is separately pegged to various currencies in various jurisdictions — Diem-USD, Diem-EUR, Diem-CNY, etc, to not raise the ire of banking authorities around the world.
In their vision of a highly interconnected world, all centralized under the Meta platform, it’s hard to imagine that they wouldn’t want to also “provide an easy way to take and make payments, regardless of where you are.” Competing with domestic and global payment processors is no small task, but if everyone is using your platform, then you’re already halfway to adoption.
I originally was hyped for Libra — so much so that I setup a test network, and even ‘hacked’ their Demo Wallet address by depositing Libra to it, in the amount to match my phone number at the time. (Sadly, I never received a phone call, and within a week or so they cleared that wallet and locked it from receiving deposits.) Having a widely available, easy to use cryptocurrency would surely see a rise in adoption, which is something I’ve supported for years now.
But I should have known better.
Trusting a single company to provide monetary services like that, versus truly decentralized and anonymized cryptocurriences, is asking for trouble. Another data point they could glean is how you spend your money, and use that to both track you and invade your privacy, as well as targeting ads to you for spontaneous or more targeted purchases.
In short, Facebook / Meta isn’t just creating a new VR MMO space for you and your friends — they’re trying to capture more of your time, energy, and data by expanding into everything, for their own benefit. Don’t be fooled by the promise of hypermedia — remember to an analog lifestyle in today’s digitial age.
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