The Metaverse: A Chilling Window into our Digital Future
Facebook's recent name change to Meta, and its demonstration of the proposed metaverse therein, is a dire warning for the future, not the grand utopian vision Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is making it out to be.
For those who didn't watch the event, Zuckerberg displayed his vision for a world that exists over the web through the use of Meta’s existing digital infrastructure: Users would don their Oculus Rift VR headsets, chat with friends through WhatsApp and enter virtual video chats, all in the space of a fabricated reality. For a good reference point, Zuckerberg’s presentation reminded me of the film “Ready Player One,” a story in which Earth has become decrepit and its entire population interacts and exists in a virtual worldscape. On top of that, the evil conglomerate vying to take full control over that virtual world only wishes to do so to be able to increase profits through advertising, rather than to improve the lives of its users. Frighteningly similar, I know.
Rather than piquing my interest and idealism with its vision of the future, Facebook's announcement encouraged me to remove myself from social media even more than I already have. This realization came through my understanding of what social media is compared to what our idea of socialization should be. Ironically, the realization came through using one of Facebook’s apps: WhatsApp.
I'm in a film group chat with friends in which we all share anything of interest relating to film. One day, after I had sent in something particularly interesting, I had the sudden urge to share it with more people who were interested in film. As a probable symptom of the 21st century’s always-connected mode of existence, I had the thought to share it with people in concentric circles. First, I thought of people I was friends with who were interested in the subject but just weren’t in the group chat. Why shouldn’t they still have the opportunity to see the content? Immediately after that, I felt an urge for people I didn't even know to share in my enjoyment of the film tidbit I had found. Since I found it interesting, I wanted others passionate about the subject to be made aware of it. I felt that they had to know, and on top of that, I felt that the more people I shared it with, the greater the likelihood that some of them would find it intriguing.
In an increasingly digital world, the difference between socializing and social media is distinct, and what had just happened to me was my proof. In this case, the group chat was my social life, and the urge to share for sharing's sake was social media. Nonetheless, the effect that these two structures have on the psyche are similar.
Sharing with friends in a group chat of no more than a few people is the closest approximation social media can give to a real social life and a conversation with friends. The responses are somewhat genuine and the target audience is the same. On the other hand, the urge to share endlessly and without a specific audience is the fabricated socializing of social media. This model can only conjure feelings of loneliness.
It works like this. After sharing whatever it is I wanted to share to a large social media audience, there are a few possible outcomes: Either no one finds the content interesting, a few people do or everyone does. If no one finds the content interesting, I'm left with a resigned, rejected feeling, wishing I had stuck to my group chat and only shared the info with my close friends who I knew would care to begin with. If only a few people found it interesting, I would still feel dejected, seeing as my intended audience was much bigger but only a few people responded. Lastly, even if a great number of people responded positively, the ultimate feeling of elation would quickly decay, drowned out by a sense of impersonality and a craving for the attention once again. No real connections would be made and I'd be left preferring I had only shared it with a few friends. Large-scale social media is a dead end of empathy.
This paradigm of social media versus sociability will be expressed powerfully in the metaverse. Rather than having the depression of social media anchored strictly to a box in our hands, Facebook is trying to make it into a new black hole of modern reality.
After the pandemic, we’re all too familiar with humanity’s penchant for virtual alternatives. Why would children go to school anymore when they could just put on their VR headsets and stay at home? Why would consulting firms send consultants around the world when they could stick them in a boardroom and give them Oculus Rifts? The potential of a virtual landscape to interact with others across the globe has undeniable perks, but we know all too well how addictive social media has become. Make no mistake: Facebook’s name change to Meta does not mean that the metaverse will be run by a different organization. This new reality of an all-encompassing social media would still be run by Facebook, the company which has been all over the news for its unethical use of social media. Who knows what effects that could have on the psyche of the world at large.
The metaverse has the tragic potential to become not just an accessory or a fun game to play after you get home, or even just a new form of social media, but our new reality altogether. The metaverse doesn't excite me — it terrifies me.
Photo Caption: A man wearing a virtual reality headset
Photo Credit: Minh Pham/Unsplash