Computers, Privacy & the Constitution
Surveillance and the Metaverse Ingrid Li

In this day and age of technological pervasiveness, surveillance capitalism has become particularly relevant. In a podcast interview with Shoshana Zuboff, the author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Zuboff defines surveillance capitalism as a new economic system that “unilaterally claims private human experience as a source of raw material.”

Zuboff’s observation is not surprising in a world where Target uses its marketing analytics to predict teenage pregnancies and smartphones listen to private conversations to serve targeted advertisements.

In light of Zuboff’s new economy, the “metaverse” movement seems to be an opportunity for technological surveillance to become even more extractive. Facebook, which has renamed itself as “Meta”, announced its plan in 2021 to create a 3D universe that is sophisticated enough to rival the world that we live in now.

Leveraging Meta’s acquisition of Oculus in 2014, Meta plans for the first generation of the metaverse to be accessed through virtual reality headsets and hand sensors. In fact, Meta is set to launch its first physical retail space, the “Meta Store”, this very month—customers can try out and purchase these products for themselves.

The concept sounds cool, and a lot of industry titans are jumping on the bandwagon: JPMorgan recently became the first bank to set up a metaverse office, and Nike’s been designing digital versions of its shoes and apparel. And a growing number of investment firms have been purchasing digital land in various metaverses, one example being the $2.4 million dollar deal for a plot of prime real estate in Decentraland, another metaverse platform.

But all this novelty has a price: in the metaverse, we are wired in and fully traceable. In an interview with Kavya Pearlman, founder of the XR Safety Initiative, the infrastructure that supports the metaverse, such as virtual reality headgear and software, will actively collect data on the ways in which users respond to their digital world. For example, Oculus’ Project Cambria is developing technology to track eye focus and facial movement, so that even our most subtle reactions are captured and converted into raw data.

As revolutionary and ominous as the Metaverse sounds, the question remains: will enough people buy into the Metaverse?

The promise of a great, virtual equalizer seems attractive at first glance. In an interview with Marc Andreessen, an early Facebook investor, Andreessen outlines the concept of Reality Privilege:

“A small percent of people live in a real-world environment that is rich, even overflowing, with glorious substance…[e]veryone else, the vast majority of humanity, lacks Reality Privilege — their online world is, or will be, immeasurably richer and more fulfilling than…in the quote-unquote real world.”

According to Andreessen, the metaverse is an attractive alternative way of experiencing life for nearly everyone except for the elite few.

However, if we were to look into the trajectory of previous attempted “metaverses,” it would seem that enthusiasm for digital world platforms is niche and short-lived. Most notable among this slew of metaverses is Second Life, which was launched in 2003 with a nearly identical value proposal as that of Meta’s: users were to create a visual representation of themselves, explore and create their new, digital world, and participate in activities that parallel what people would do in real life.

In the article Hey, Facebook, I Made a Metaverse 27 Years Ago, Ethan Zuckerman observes the rise and anticlimactic taper of Second Life: while Second Life’s launch was initially greeted zealously by some metaverse enthusiasts, the company struggled to grow its user base beyond 1 million monthly users. Zuckerman also notes the niche nature of the user base, with a significant portion of the users logging onto Second Life for very specific activities and venues. It seems like the metaverse trend could not catch on.

One could make the argument that Zuckerberg’s Metaverse is distinguishable from Second Life on the basis of its advanced technology.

Zuckerman disagrees:

“[Zuckerberg’s] metaverse looks pretty much like we imagined one would look like in 1994…you could do this in Second Life 10 years ago, and in somewhat angular vectors in VRML 20 years ago…even with a bajillion dollars to invest in a video to relaunch and rename his company, Zuckerberg’s team is showing just how difficult it is to create a visually believable virtual world.”

There are also some other logistical hurdles for the metaverse technology: the VR headset is uncomfortable and clunky, and using the headset for more than just a couple of hours is visually exhausting.

In an interview with Philip Rosedale, the inventor of Second Life, Rosedale is also skeptical as to the technological readiness of Zuckerberg’s Metaverse, predicting it to be at least 10 years before Zuckerberg’s team could create a meaningfully realistic metaverse compatible with VR headsets.

However, even surpassing the technological threshold, Rosedale mentions a more fundamental obstacle: building trust. According to Rosedale, a virtual world needs to be done in a way so that users can build a genuine trust between each other.

We could take Rosedale’s idea one step further and argue that users have to trust the platform itself in order for the Metaverse to work. This goes beyond just how advanced the technology is—rather, the issue is more existential. Zuckerberg has to convince us that our lives in the Metaverse are real, not just a virtual tenancy. And such a task seems formidable, if not impossible.

However, despite lessons that could have been gleaned from previously failed metaverses, Zuckerberg and many other tech enthusiasts press forward in building the digital frontier. Even Rosedale announced earlier this year that he would be returning to Second Life as an advisor to help the company transition into the metaverse.

It is unclear as to whether the metaverse movement will make significant strides this time around, but in the event that it does, it will come at the expense of our privacy and authenticity.


Webs Webs

r5 - 05 May 2022 - 00:55:42 - IngridLi
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