The metaverse is the last thing tech needs
Steve Kelman makes the case for more of "real reality."
Most blog readers at this point have probably heard of the so-called “metaverse.” The New York Times defines the metaverse as one where “virtual reality serves as a computing platform for living a second life online. In virtual reality, you wear a headset that immerses you in a 3-D environment. You carry motion-sensing controllers to interact with virtual objects and use a microphone to communicate with other people.”
The metaverse’s aspiring hyper-in-chief (in both senses of the word) is Mark Zuckerberg. Zuckerberg’s Meta (the company formerly known as Facebook) ran a Superbowl ad that the Times described as showing “an animatronic dog and its friend, a pink-tentacled monster, separated in their physical reality but reunited via the company’s Quest 2 virtual reality headsets.”
To me, the metaverse is dystopian and scary, like the product of a mad scientist. Do we really want people, especially young people, to be spending anything more than trivial chunks of their time hidden behind virtual reality headsets and creating artificial avatars? Don't we want people to exist in the world of real reality, interacting with real people?
Just as people widely recognize the value of face-to-face contact in the workplace, in everyday life such contact is even more important -- not just as a source of information but especially as an opportunity for people to feel psychological and emotional ties with others. Without physical contact – including eyes looking at each other and hands placed on shoulders -- we would lose a crucial part of the experience of being human.
As my colleague Kathleen Adams, formerly a senior tech official at the Social Security Administration, wrote on my Facebook page, “Sad that people would choose to live in a pretend world. Perhaps just an extension of reality TV...”
As many readers of this blog (or my Facebook page) are probably aware, I have been less critical of Facebook than the conventional wisdom. I think the disinformation story is overblown, I agree with the view that Facebook should err on the side of allowing more free speech, and I am more inclined to accept the bona fides of Facebook's content moderation efforts. And, as my participation in Facebook suggests, I find the site a very helpful way to communicate and learn.
I also have nothing against escapism, though I will confess I probably have fewer escapist tendencies than most. Escapism is mostly anodyne. But the metaverse is anything but benign.
I am raising this issue in a tech pub because the basic building block of Zuckerberg’s metaverse is a piece of (not-yet-fully developed) technology – virtual reality headsets. The tech world should be speaking out against this. I am hereby raising my voice and hope others in the community will join me.
PS: Speaking of Facebook, I have recently established a second blog (though nothing can compete with my first child, The Lectern) called “Steve Kelman on Politics, Culture, and Life.” It appears on the newsletter site Substack. It is basically a compilation of my short Facebook posts on these topics. I publish it about three times a week. If you are interested in subscribing for free, click here.