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The Hindu Editorial Analysis

       09 November 2021          

Breaking the hype around Metaverse:

Its commodification in the hands of one corporation could be detrimental to the Web 3.0 decentralisation movement

About Metaverse:

  •  ‘Metaverse’ is a broad term encompassing interconnected 3D virtual worlds made possible through advancements in technologies such as augmented reality (AR)/virtual reality (VR), artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchains.
  • Literal Meaning: The term metaverse is made up of two terms “meta" and “universe". The prefix “meta" comes from Greek and means beyond, after or across. Thus metaverse, would connote a place that is beyond the world or the universe as we know it, one that exists in the virtual realm but feels just as real. The term has originated from Neal Stephenson’s 1992 speculative science fiction novel, Snow Crash.
  • Data collection: It takes a lot of personal data to process virtual reality. This reality has an avatar of you which makes you experience the virtual world. Each interaction with your avatar is a data collection and data processing exercise.
  • Today's internet systems can be termed as Web 2.0 internet systems. A Web 2.0 (also known as participative web and social web) refers to websites that emphasize user-generated content, ease of use, participatory culture and interoperability (i.e., compatible with other products, systems, and devices) for end users. These are largely controlled by tech giants such as Google, Facebook and Amazon.
  • The Next generation or Web 3.0 is the name given to the next generation of Internet architecture that will supposedly be free from the centralisation that is a part of today’s Web 2.0 Internet systems.
  • Decentralization: Web 3.0 proponents advocate the use of technologies such as blockchains and tokens to create a decentralised Internet for online interaction and online payments, and a hypothetical metaverse run on these platforms could be a good example of what an ideal future digital environment could look like; hence the push for an ‘Open Metaverse’ by some organisations.
  • Advantages of Metaverses:
    • In an ideal world, the metaverse would be a truly open and inclusive space for empowerment, expression and exploration.
    • Metaverses have great potential to revolutionise fields such as education and health care, but as long as they are run purely from a profit motive, the benefits would likely be lesser.
    • Virtual economies might also develop around the customisation of metaverse ‘avatars’.

 Facebook's metaverse and the concerns:

  • Facebook/Meta is not the only company that has been pushing for the idea of the metaverse to become a reality lately; although the branding exercise that has just begun will likely make millions believe so. The chosen name reflects an attempt to associate the idea of the metaverse with one particular corporation and turn it into a household name. Other companies that have similar metaverse-building goals, such as Epic Games, now face a huge disadvantage.
  • Features:
    • Interoperability, or the ability to seamlessly transfer data between different virtual worlds is being promised, which allows for rich social and economic possibilities.
    • ‘Creator economy’: NFTs (non-fungible tokens) will allow proof of ownership of digital assets, for example, virtual goods, paintings and memorabilia. However, the most common criticism of NFTs is that they are an attempt to create value and scarcity.  Artificially created scarcity helps drive profits and money-making. 
  • The aim is likely to get to the next level of commodification of human interaction. Here every single action, down to the tiniest levels, is tracked and surveilled for profits, to give most diverse experience. It is designed in a way to maximise data collection and keep the user coming back for more.

 Challenges:

  • Facebook Monopoly/Oligopoly: However, the metaverse in the hands of one corporation would surely be detrimental to the entire Web 3.0 decentralisation movement. Competitors are likely to pop up with their own versions of the technology, leading to a number of ‘Closed’ metaverses, which would basically be the Web 2.0 system all over again.
    • It is a concern that competition law regulators might have to look into them someday.
  • Psychological Impacts: Recent whistle-blower revelations have unveiled that the corporation was well aware of the psychological effects Instagram was having on teenagers. One can therefore assume that metaverse ‘avatars’ will be the new version of showing off glamorous social media profiles — both masking who the person really is behind-the-scenes, perpetuating narcissism, mental health issues and insecurities.
  • Regulatory concerns:
    • Privacy and security: Facebook/Meta has acknowledged this concern, declaring its commitment to creating secure platforms. Yet, rampant health and biometric data collection are expected to continue in the metaverse, as real world identities will be more connected to the system than ever before.
    • Data breaches and theft could prove even costlier.
    • Centralization: It still remains to be seen if corporations such as Facebook/Meta will follow Web 3.0 standards or come up with their own standards in closed corporate metaverses.
    • Cybercrimes could also take on new forms in these new virtual worlds.
  • Violence & Hate: Facebook’s role in promoting violent and hateful content to drive user engagement has been well documented. If left unregulated, something similar could happen on an even larger scale in immersive virtual worlds, through targeted advertising and propaganda.
  • Questions of jurisdiction and governance: In the distant future, virtual worlds could even someday grow into alternatives to the nation state itself, as the rise of blockchain-based DAOs (decentralized autonomous organisations) seems to suggest. Big Tech firms already have GDPs higher than several small countries — if they all get to operate full virtual worlds of their own, it could necessitate large-scale rethinking of the very foundations of technology law.

Real world costs, impact

  • Impact on environment: The metaverse, as it is promised, will combine the technologies of cloud computing, big data, advanced AI systems, AR/VR, blockchains, NFTs and much more. Each of these technologies requires tremendous processing power and, consequently, would lead to a great cost in terms of the environment.
  • Energy usage: The level of resource extraction required to run such a huge system smoothly is too gigantic to comprehend.

 Conclusion: With the metaverse, possibilities are aplenty. But so are the dangers.