When Facebook rebranded as Meta last October, it brought into the mainstream a concept that has been exciting the bright minds of Silicon Valley for years: the metaverse. Mark Zuckerberg’s unveiling of a vision for a new era of integrated, immersive technologies was met with enthusiasm in some quarters, and cynicism in others. It’s easy to see why. Skepticism is a natural reaction to something that sounds like it’s straight out of a science fiction novel — in a way, it is — especially when there are wider societal concerns about how tech operates in the two-dimensional world.
Many rightly ask: what is the metaverse and why should I care? And even if I can be persuaded that it is worth getting excited about, how can I trust that these new technologies will be built and governed responsibly?
When Facebook started 18 years ago, we mostly typed text on websites. When we got phones with cameras, the internet became more visual and mobile. As connections got faster, video became a richer way to share things. We’ve gone from desktop to web to mobile; from text to photos to video.
In this progression, the metaverse is a logical evolution. It’s the next generation of the internet — a more immersive, 3D experience. Its defining quality will be a feeling of presence, like you are right there with another person or in another place.
A wide range of technology companies — from big players like Microsoft and Google to smaller ones like Niantic and Emblematic — are already building experiences and products for the metaverse. Early versions of it already exist in the virtual worlds of games like Roblox, Minecraft and Fortnite. It incorporates technologies like virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) that, while still young, have been in use for some time.
And all of us have a stake in the metaverse. It isn’t an idea Meta has cooked up. There won’t be a Meta-run metaverse, just as there isn’t a ‘Microsoft internet’ or ‘Google internet’ today.
The metaverse isn’t just about the detached worlds of VR, where we don headsets that take us out of our environment in the physical world and transport us somewhere new. VR is one end of a spectrum. It stretches from using avatars or accessing metaverse spaces on your phone, through AR glasses that project computer-generated images onto the world around us, to mixed reality experiences that blend both physical and virtual environments.
The word ‘metaverse’ is actually a little misleading, as ‘verse’ implies you are transported to another ‘universe’. Of course, there is escapism inherent in using some of these technologies — like an immersive gaming experience. But the metaverse is much more than that. It’s ultimately about finding ever more ways for the benefits of the online world to be felt in our daily lives — enriching our experiences, not replacing them.
Imagine, for example, how useful it could be to wear glasses that give you virtual directions in your line of sight, or immediate translations of street signs in foreign languages. Or even make it possible for you to have a conversation with someone who is thousands of miles away as a three-dimensional hologram in your living room instead of a head and shoulders on a flat screen. And, as I will go on to explain in more detail, the potential societal benefits — particularly in education and healthcare — are vast, from helping med students practice surgical techniques to bringing school lessons to life in new and exciting ways.
As someone in their mid-50s who has spent most of my career in British and European politics rather than Silicon Valley, it wasn’t until I started using some of the early products that I started to properly grasp the potential. For several months now my close team has been meeting weekly in Meta’s Horizon Workrooms app, in which you interact with colleagues as avatars in virtual meeting rooms, complete with whiteboards, boardroom tables, wall art, and futuristic cityscapes visible through the windows. Yes, we are meeting as stylized representations of ourselves, but there really is something about the sense of place and space, and the directional sound in particular, that makes the meetings feel much more human than talking to thumbnail faces on a laptop.
We can exchange glances and private asides with the person next to us, get someone’s attention with a gesture, even read each other’s body language — rudimentary as it is when we are blemish free avatars. I can be in my home in northern California talking to a colleague an ocean away in his garage in Milton Keynes, England, and yet it feels like he’s sat three feet to my left. If he gesticulates too wildly while disagreeing with me, I get a genuine urge to lean away.
Different technologies will enable different levels of immersion that suit the individual and their environment. They won’t be a replacement for our experiences in daily life any more than the internet is today. What they will be is a way to build on the interconnectedness the internet enables, so that we can do more and have even richer experiences. All this has the potential to unlock new opportunities and spark new ideas we haven’t yet imagined, and to have a huge positive impact both socially and economically.
For people to actually want to use these technologies, they will need to feel safe. Companies like Meta have a lot of work to do both to build the credibility of the metaverse as an idea, and to demonstrate to people that we are committed to building it in a responsible way. That starts by explaining as best we can what our vision for these technologies is and the challenges we believe will need to be considered as it develops. It means being open and transparent about the work we’re doing and the choices and trade-offs inherent in it. It means drawing on existing work to protect marginalized communities online, and listening to human and civil rights, privacy, and disabilities experts as systems and processes are developed to keep people safe. And it means being clear that our intention is not to develop these technologies on our own, but to be one part of a wider technological movement.
The metaverse is at a critical early stage in its development. There is nothing deterministic in the way a technology impacts society. Technology isn’t good or bad in and of itself. People will use it as they see fit — and people will misuse it as well. Just as we have seen how problems in our physical society have manifested on the internet, they will reoccur in any system or platform regardless of what it is or who builds it. That is why we must create thoughtful rules and put guardrails into place as the metaverse develops to maximize its potential for good and minimize the potential harms.
Done well, the metaverse could be a positive force for inclusion and equity, bridging some of the divides that exist in today’s physical and digital spaces.
Collectively, we can think of this process as developing a system of governance for the metaverse. And it mustn’t be shaped by tech companies like Meta on their own. It needs to be developed openly with a spirit of cooperation between the private sector, lawmakers, civil society, academia, and the people who will use these technologies. This effort must be undertaken in the best interests of people and society, not just technology companies.
In this essay, I’ll set out why the metaverse is a compelling new evolution of the internet; some of the potential benefits it creates for education, healthcare and economic opportunity; the importance of building it in a way that ensures it is open and interoperable; some early thoughts on how to approach questions of governance; and how I believe we have time on our side to ensure it is built collaboratively and responsibly.
In doing so, I hope to shed some light on how Meta intends to go about this work. In turn, I hope that a better understanding of our approach will help others — in both the private and public realms — to make informed decisions of their own about what they want in this next phase of the internet.
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