Here comes the metaverse, at least if some major players in the technology industry have their way.
What is the metaverse? According to the website of Fortune 500 company Nvidia, the metaverse is a shared virtual three-dimensional “world, or worlds, that are interactive, immersive, and collaborative.”
While the metaverse may seem like a pie in the sky idea, some of the brightest technological minds and many billions of dollars are already invested to move society into the metaverse over the coming years. And much more investment is coming.
Meta Platforms, Inc. (“Meta”), the social media company formerly known as Facebook, recently rebranded itself by changing its name to reflect what it foresees as the technological wave of the future. Meta Chief Executive Mark ZuckerbergMark ZuckerbergHillicon Valley — States probe the tech giants Executives personally signed off on Facebook-Google ad collusion plot, states claim States push forward with Facebook antitrust case, reportedly probe VR unit MORE sees the metaverse, which will take five to 10 years to go mainstream, as “the next frontier in technology — the place where people will live, work and play.”
Metaverse evangelist David Rubin imagines the eventual commercial applications of the metaverse as: “Coca-Cola paying for prime placement of a pavilion, Ford paying for its virtual cars to be usable or Procter & Gamble promoting its brands on digital billboards. Gucci could open a virtual store and Comcast would pay for a giant sign that says, ‘Comcast: Get Better MetaSpeed!’”
Apple Inc. for its part, is rumored to launch a mixed-reality headset in 2022. Alphabet Inc., formerly known as Google, had attempted its own version, known as “Google Glass,” which may be resurrected in the future.
Microsoft has unveiled new features in its business oriented and collaborative Teams software, which will let businesses create immersive spaces where workers can meet. The technology uses Microsoft software called Mesh that enables augmented reality and virtual reality experiences across a variety of goggles, including Microsoft’s own HoloLens.
And dozens of other technology companies are investing in potential applications to the metaverse.
Three-dimensional business meetings may seem benign, but the enormous likely costs of the larger metaverse are all too foreseeable: individuals’ further detachment from reality.
Even if the metaverse is collaborative in the sense that there can be multiple user participants within a three-dimensional platform, we would have even less reason to physically interact. The implications would likely be even fewer in-person common meals, public ceremonies, celebrations, parties and so forth.
The further removed from reality we become, the more emotional numbness and distance we feel. The less interactive. The less human. The highs are lower and the lows are higher. Any form of prolonged escapism will do this, whether mind-altering drugs, television, gambling, pornography or, it would seem, the metaverse.
We saw a preview of this with the mental health crises that corresponded with the COVID-19 lockdowns — the reported cases of depression and anxiety have exploded as we isolated from each other, despite having technology at our fingertips.
Given how most individuals are already so addicted to our screens, imagine how much more addictive, and immersive, the metaverse will be when the senses are more fully engaged. The implications could mean more isolation, suicide, mental health distress, poor physical health — and the list goes on.
Therefore, should not society, and public policy, favor reality? To favor reality does not mean going back to the days of the horse and buggy. It means we can favor guardrails against technologies that do not advance human freedom and flourishing but restrict or even suffocate it.
Technology is a tool and can be miraculous. But public policy should support technology that further enables real-world existence, not escapism. There may at times be a fine line between the two, but it is a line worth drawing.
To the extent that the applications of the metaverse prove simply an escape from reality, society should oppose it. If it cannot be developed without spiraling the world into further detachment, then the metaverse should be altogether opposed.
Some might say that the free market must prevail and guide technology forward. But freedom can exist only when grounded in reality and in truth. Who will shape the reality of the metaverse? Will it be a handful of tech oligarchs, overseeing a “land” of censorship and rank commercialism at the expense of meaningful discourse and dialogue?
Given the lack of guardrails to protect children from the harmful effects of social media, how much worse would the metaverse be?
Given the seeming imminence of the metaverse, policymakers would do well to consider these issues now, rather than waiting for them to arrive.
Congress could start by repealing the research and development tax credits undergirding the development of the metaverse. Then Congress should revise existing anti-trust law that allows large technology companies to continue to enjoy wide moats and near monopolies in their respective industries, fueling these grand visions for what could be a dystopian future.
Until adequate safeguards and oversight exist, I will stick with reality over the metaverse. Policymakers should, too.
Chad Bayse is a Navy judge advocate and former counselor to Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsPress: For Trump endorsement: The more sordid, the better Those predicting Facebook's demise are blowing smoke If bitcoin is 'digital gold,' it should be taxed like gold MORE and attorney at the National Security Agency. The views expressed in this article are his own and not those of the Department of the Defense or the Navy.