When the average person thinks of Facebook, they tend to think of a social media platform, and a dated one at that. But Facebook, Inc., is in fact a multi-headed hydra composed of 78 different companies, including the extremely popular WhatsApp and Instagram. If Facebook happened to be a human being, where would he or she currently find themselves? In a federal prison, I imagine. The company’s transgressions, too numerous to list, are as varied as they are outrageous. But Facebook is now one of the most profitable companies in the world, with a market cap of more than $1 trillion.
Led by Mark Zuckerberg, the conglomerate’s power is vast. As the pandemic brought the world to its knees, the Facebook CEO became wealthier, much wealthier. In 2020, he had a net worth of a mere $82 billion; twelve months later, he is now worth $124 billion. The conquest of the social media market is not enough for Zuckerberg, however. The 37-year-old is now embarking on his most ambitious project to date: the creation of the metaverse.
The average person now spends a large part of their life living on the internet. However, once the metaverse arrives, users will live out their lives in the internet. Yes, in it. In a recent interview with the Verge, Zuckerberg referred to the metaverse as an “embodied internet,” where we won’t just view content, we will find ourselves living “in it.” A portmanteau of “meta,” which means beyond, and “universe,” the metaverse combines elements of the physical world and merges them with all things digital.
Thirty years ago, the sci-fi author Neal Stephenson coined the term in his novel Snow Crash. Then, the metaverse was a thing of fiction. That was then, as they say, and this is now. Yesterday’s fiction is today’s reality. There is plenty of room for concern. As Wired’s Toby Tremayne notes, conglomerates like Facebook are little more than “walled gardens increasingly centralised and controlled by corporate interests.” Facebook, Inc., already “owns WhatsApp, Instagram and Oculus, giving them ownership of our friends, our behaviour, our gait, eye movement and emotional state.”
With the metaverse, how much more of us will Facebook, Inc., control? If you think data issues are bad now (and they are), then just wait until the metaverse arrives. To access the metaverse, biometric data will most certainly be required. This will include face scans, iris scans, speaker identification, and hand geometry recognition. Will you trust Facebook, a company that has a history of misusing our data, with such personal information? It looks to be just a few years away.
In this near-future metaphysical Wild Wild West, what laws will apply? What if I find myself in the metaverse and decide to commit a crime? Will I be arrested, or will my avatar be arrested? Will the laws of the physical world apply, or must new laws be drafted? How do we legislate for the metaverse when we can’t even regulate cryptocurrencies?
In search of answers, I interviewed Matthew Ball, a metaverse guru of sorts. It’s best to think of Ball as, for a certain kind of technofuturist, the Dalai Lama, Steve Jobs, and Malcolm Gladwell rolled into one. An essayist, entrepreneur, and Silicon Valley veteran, his metaversal knowledge is unparalleled.
“The very premise of the metaverse,” Ball tells me, “means that more of our lives will be online, rather than just data relating to our lives.” What about the world’s economies? They “will run virtually rather than just be augmented digitally (i.e. via email, ecommerce, etc.).”
Relocating to the metaverse comes with significant risks. In fact, according to Ball, relocating there (wherever there may be) “intensifies many present-day risks, such as those of misinformation, data security, data rights, etc.” I asked if it would be possible to regulate the metaverse. Ball’s response, “I don’t have a good answer for you,” left me more than a little uneasy.
The reason for Ball’s uncertainty is understandable. We are entering uncharted waters. In “the United States, there’s over a century of regulatory frameworks and anti-trust precedents spanning countless products, issues, and markets,” he told me. However, “they’ve proven to be a poor fit for the digital era in which strength comes from intangible network effects and data, the best businesses are platforms, and most revenues have little-to-no-marginal cost.” Around the world, governments are asking themselves “is Apple too powerful, and if so, why, how, and what do we do?”
“The metaverse will not develop as the internet did,” cautions Ball. With the world wide web, “public institutions, military research labs, and independent academics” led the internet’s development, as “they were effectively the only ones with the computational talent, resources, and ambitions” available at the time. “None of this is true when it comes to the metaverse.” Now it’s the Big Tech giants involved in an arms race of sorts.
The push for a metaverse appears unstoppable and Facebook, at this point in time, appears to be winning. Is Facebook the best company to lead us into the metaphysical unknown? No, most definitely not. However, the likes of Microsoft and Amazon will take over if Facebook drops out. There are no good options.
Before we parted ways, Ball left me with a quote from Tim Sweeney, the CEO of Epic Games: “This metaverse is going to be far more pervasive and powerful than anything else. If one central company gains control of this, they will become more powerful than any government and be a god on Earth.”
This should comfort no one except, of course, Mark Zuckerberg. Interconnected simulations, Ball told me, are inevitable. In other words, if one attempts to avoid the metaverse, then they will find themselves, almost certainly, left behind by the rest of society. Have you tried existing without the internet lately? I didn’t think so. Other than a social exit of that nature, when it comes to the metaverse, resistance may be futile.
John Mac Ghlionn is a researcher and essayist. His work has been published by the likes of National Review, New York Post, South China Morning Post, and the Sydney Morning Herald. He can be found on Twitter at @ghlionn.