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Latest blogpost: What’s so troubling about the metaverse and what can we do about it?

Dr Andrés Domínguez – Core Researcher at REPHRAIN

High profile moves by big technology companies, such as Facebook’s rebranding as Meta and their acquisition of virtual reality hardware manufacturer Oculus, have created a sense of inevitability about the advent of the metaverse. Mark Zuckerberg described the metaverse as “the successor to the mobile internet” and “as an embodied internet, where instead of just viewing content — you are in it” [1]. While different metaverses have existed for many years, mostly focused on gaming, the current hype has amplified Meta, evoking the looming possibility of mass adoption of the metaverse and the proliferation of enabling technologies such as virtual, augmented and extended reality. In these future narratives, the metaverse is envisioned as a space not just for gaming and entertainment, but for work, learning and other forms of social interaction. Currently, the points of entry to Meta’s Metaverse are expensive VR headsets or AR glasses, and an ecosystem of hardware manufacturers and application developers is quickly emerging. Yet while the public sphere is inundated with optimistic future possibilities, these developments are also raising concerns about how emerging modalities of experiencing and accessing the internet could expose people to similar or worse harms to those evidenced with conventional uses of the internet [2]. Some of these include cyberbullying and harassment, misinformation, toxic speech, grooming, discrimination, fraud, privacy violations, biometric profiling and surveillance, etc.

In response to the numerous concerns over emerging digital technologies, major technology companies (Google, Microsoft, Meta) have begun to build internal capabilities to grapple with questions at the intersection of technology, ethics and society. In the case of Meta, they have published a list of responsible innovation principles [3] which point to the company’s commitment to address issues of privacy, safety, agency, transparency and inclusivity. While these efforts are laudable, we must question whether these initiatives are robust enough to address the ethical concerns or are merely forms of ethics washing aimed at driving public acceptance and eluding regulatory oversight [4]. Meta’s metaverse aims to capitalize on their massive user base and a business model that trades on data and attention where users are encouraged to spend more time online and share more data. In this context, it is crucial to examine the potential risks of these emerging socio-technical developments to cause and exacerbate individual and social harms. How can users and non-users, academics, journalists, policy makers contend with future uncertainty and the ethical concerns raised by the potential mass adoption of the metaverse in various domains of life and work? What actions can be taken now to prevent harmful and exploitative scenarios in the future?

In the summer, I ran a project that aimed at exploring some of these questions with the help of two brilliant students Davina Thandi and Tiberiu Toca. The goal was to engage in critical debate around who shapes our digital future and how can we regain control. We used a method known as speculative design which is used widely in future studies and design research as a means to think critically and creatively about uncertain, undesirable and desirable futures [5]. By using imagination, creative writing and an analysis of past controversies, technical innovations, and future claims, the goal was to develop fictional, yet plausible future scenarios that raise questions about potential harm on the metaverse. These scenarios are intended not to persuade or frighten publics, but to provoke conversations and help imagine what actions can be taken in the present to prevent negative future outcomes. This project is part of a wider effort to spark conversations about the future [6] and create more awareness about the impact of emerging technologies, so watch this space for upcoming speculations! Thanks to Tiberiu for excellent and thorough research and Davina for skilful creative writing. This work was generously supported by REPHRAIN and the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Bristol.

Below is a short story by Davina Thandi. I hope you enjoy the read as much as I did.

2041

Levi clutched the box and sunk into his old armchair with a sigh. A single sheet of paper affixed by a sliver of tape read “Welcome to the new world of work! Anderson & Co. Accounting has gone Meta – after an amazing 35 years since our physical office first opened, we are delighted to announce its closure and complete transition into the Metaverse. This headset is your portal to your new desk in our virtual office, your account must be set up and functional by next Monday (15/07/2041) to ensure you are able to attend our scheduled monthly meeting. Please contact Adam on MetaMail or MetaMobile for any troubleshooting issues.” Nestled inside between sheets of cobalt tissue paper was a pair of boxy goggles fitted with opaque eye panels, carefully glossed in pearlescent white with a silver etching of the word Meta.

“Twenty-five years I’ve worked for this company” he uttered, “that’s longer than we’ve been married”. “Are you grumbling on about how you miss the old days again?” Alissa replied as she waltzed into the living room in her purple haptic catsuit, her eyes briefly glancing over the note in Levi’s hands before darting elsewhere. “You knew this day was coming, all your colleagues have been working in the Metaverse for months” she continued, “it’s 2041 and everybody’s in the Metaverse now, you can’t keep living in the past forever”. A solemn look fell over Levi’s face as his finger traced the edges of the headset and he slid further into his seat. “I just don’t see why any of this is necessary, what happened to the freedom to choose? Who decided that virtual reality was better than focusing on the reality of the world around us?” he mumbled softly. Alissa exclaimed in relief as her gaze locked onto her headset peering out from behind the sofa on the other side of the room, scooping it up haphazardly before twirling around to face her husband again. “Well, I’ve got a virtual Zumba to attend, so why don’t you set that headset up and join me next week? It’ll be good for you to get moving, you haven’t exercised since the gyms closed ten years ago and it’s showing!” she remarked with austerity, and with a polite nod, she left the room.

He didn’t expect his wife to understand. She was a bubbly, optimistic woman who tried to see the best in everything, and who could blame her? The revolution of these pseudoplastic headsets promised to bring back the nostalgia of life before food shortages, mass animal extinction and climate crises in the convenience of your own home, all whilst bringing your wildest dreams to life – what was not to love? He glanced down again at the headset smiling back at him pristinely, before his eyes wandered to the splintered oak window on his left: a barren soil desert stretched infinitely into the hazy horizon, with occasional refuge provided by an industrial billboard shouting words of “Choose GoogleEnergy to power your home!” and “NueFood hydrogen-formed food provides ten times the nutrition of traditional food!”. He let out a lethargic exhale and returned his attention to the headset before him. “Well, what choice do I have left?” he remarked to himself, before gingerly adjusting the fabric straps and securing the device to his head with a single mechanical click.

Pitch black darkness. Then suddenly, a blue flash before his eyes and a joyful opening jingle cascaded into his ears. Yellow lettering filled the blue horizon before him prompting the user to enter their name, MetaMail address and postcode. Levi’s leg began to bounce nervously, maybe this was a bad idea, he thought to himself. “L-E-V-I” he announced slowly into the empty room around him. A monotonous female voice replied hastily “Your name is Levi. Is that correct?”. “Yes”. “Excellent, I will call you Levi from now on, my name is Eve. What is your MetaMail address?”. Levi paused, he had avoided making a MetaMail account for years in an effort to protect his data and privacy, he had not forgotten about the data disasters that this company had catalysed some twenty years prior. “I-I don’t have one” he stuttered. “That’s okay, how does LeviArmstrong at Metamail dot com sound to you?” Eve replied. Did I tell her my last name, he questioned himself. No, I definitely didn’t. But how did she know that? I’ve avoided Meta like the plague since 2018. He felt his palms begin to lace with sweat. “Hey Levi, I didn’t catch your reply. I’ll assume that was a yes, so let’s go ahead and enter your postcode now”. Why is she continuing without my response? This isn’t like the normal automated bots I’ve interacted with in the past. Maybe this isn’t a good idea after all. “I think I’d like to cancel actually, I don’t want to go any further with making my Metaverse account” he announced in a panicky tone. Eve did not respond this time and a silence ensued. “Eve?”.

A static noise began to play abruptly. “Levi Armstrong, how are you?” an authoritative male voice questioned. The blue horizon before Levi’s eyes was now occupied by a sharp, slender man standing before him decorated in a navy pinstripe suit. Gelled black hair curtained over his piercing brown eyes in a perfectly symmetric fashion, who was this man? He couldn’t have been over twenty-five years old. “Who are you?” Levi enquired, “and how do you know who I am?”. The man’s blank expression turned into a soft beam as the corners of his mouth lifted slightly. “It’s my job to keep an eye out for those who are yet to join the Metaverse. Think of me as your friend, here to answer any questions you may have and ease your mind of worry,” he explained, “so tell me Levi, what’s bothering you?”. Levi remained silent as his hand slowly manoeuvred to the metallic clasp on the back of his headset, before being interrupted with a “there’s no point in taking off your headset now, we know enough about you, let’s have a chat”. He froze on the spot, there’s no way out of this now, he panicked to himself.

“How do you know who I am?” Levi asked once again. The young man began pacing back and forth on the screen in his glossy black dress shoes, gazing around leisurely. “At Meta, we put our people first and think it’s important to know our customers well so we can make their experience as personal as possible. There’s nothing wrong with that now, is there?” the man insisted, though his tone appeared shiftier this time. A quick swipe of his sharp index finger through the air filled the void behind him with a wall of white text titled “responsible innovation principles”, Levi could just about make out a few words dotted throughout, privacy…consider everyone…no surprises… “What’s all this about?” Levi inquired further.

“Levi Armstrong, fifty-six years old, husband to Alissa Armstrong and father to six year old Luke, has not engaged with Meta related services in seven years, several search history entries regarding Meta controversies and court cases,” the man elaborated, still pacing around rhythmically “I understand you don’t trust Meta, but I can assure you we have grown and changed as a company, and the Metaverse is nothing for you to fear”. The background behind the man gently transitioned from blue to a familiar emerald green, and with a soft smile in Levi’s direction he whispered, “to match your favourite colour”.

Levi’s mind began to flicker through everyone he knew and loved, his wife, his son, how much did this company know about them all? The anger began to consume him. “What’s your goal?! What do you want from me?!” he shouted hoarsely into the headset microphone. The screen went black. Levi looked down at where his body told him his feet were, planted firmly into the ground, but his eyes continued to be met by a black nothingness. Almost instantaneously, he was looking at his feet again. Still in his old tartan house slippers, he was stood on what appeared to be a perfectly sunlit pile of parched soil and lifeless bundles of tree roots. “Take a look around you,” the familiar male voice echoed from above, the body of which it belonged to now absent from view. Levi’s neck slowly craned upwards until his eyes met the scene before him. The arid soil continued for hundreds of miles, collecting the lives of every skyscraping tree it housed until nothing but a forest of wooden relics remained. The sombre grey sky was breached through occasionally by a lone sunray; Levi’s eyes informed him he should have been sweating, but the breeze of his household air conditioning unit continued to softly lift the stray brown curls falling on his brow. A slight pivot of his body to the left revealed what appeared to be the remains of an extravagant river that once snaked proudly through this forest; today it was nothing but a thirsty concavity serving as a graveyard for the life that it once bore. There was an air of familiarity about this place, Levi was sure he had seen it before.

“Where am I?” Levi announced in a calmer tone than before, continuing to circle and examine his surroundings. “This is what was once the luscious Amazon rainforest, live in this very moment today,” the man replied from the sky. Levi’s heart sunk immediately, his arms felt heavy, how did everything get this bad, he thought to himself. “The world isn’t what it once was Levi,” the monotonous tone trailed on “it’s time to face that reality,” as the male figure appeared once again besides Levi and placed his pale hand precisely on his shoulder, though Levi could not feel a thing. “If everyone had begun working in the Metaverse earlier, perhaps the energy saved could have helped prevent this destruction,” the man stated in a depleted tone, before pausing momentarily and springing in front of Levi with a renewed smile on his face. “But the beauty of the Metaverse is little Luke can still experience the natural beauty of the world as it was before!” he exclaimed in delight, and with a snap of his fingers the trees around him bore pillows of luscious green leaves as they once had, the river was brimming with water and the sky returned to a nostalgic blue with a gentle cloud line. “Even better yet, we can add anything else your heart desires. Penguins?” he cheered as three stubby black birds appeared in a flash on Levi’s right, “A purple car? A rollercoaster? A buffet fit for a king” he continued as more items begun spawning frantically around them both. “Levi, what more could anyone want!”.

“Perhaps the Metaverse isn’t as bad as I thought,” Levi muttered under his breath to himself, “but what about my data? What if I don’t want to leave my data with Meta but still want to enter the Metaverse?” he interrogated further in a more strident tone. The pinstriped figure’s warm smile appeared to morph into a more sinister smirk as his brow hoisted slightly, revealing cold eyes that locked onto Levi’s. Through pursed lips the man gradually replied, “the thing is Levi, there’s not much we don’t already know about you,” and the rainforest scene encompassing the pair of them disappeared as the uniform green horizon was reinstated. This time however, a rectangular panel stood in Levi’s field of view and videos of a familiar brunette woman begun to play sequentially: it was his wife, Alissa. Crystal clear depictions of her petite frame poised perfectly around their home ensued: reading, painting, cooking, working, occasionally joined by a young boy beaming an amiable smile and soft flushed cheeks. Levi squinted slightly; in the background of each clip, a timid, tired-looking man was barely visible. In the first clip he was hunched over a laptop typing away hastily at 7:00pm on a Monday evening, the next reading an outdated newspaper periodically reaching for a mouthful of Jameson’s branded salt and vinegar crisps. Each clip that played added a new refinement to the painting of the man’s entire life – it was Levi’s life.

“In agreeing to our terms and conditions, your dear Alissa captured and shared enough about you through her headset too,” the male voice returned ominously as the video paused before his figure reappeared with his hands interlocked behind his navy suit jacket. Now circling Levi leisurely, he continued “as I said before, we are a company you can trust,” Levi’s heart began beating rapidly in response. The man looked down briefly at the rectangular watch face suspended to his slender wrist by two belts of pristine brown leather, before letting out a laboured sigh.  “Even if you don’t trust us, what choice do you have? We are the only way in, and the only way out, resisting is simply delaying the inevitable”. Levi knew the man was right, but his mouth refused to utter a response. There were no options remaining for him, or he would be left behind. From missing out on his son growing up in the Metaverse to losing his job at Anderson & Co that he had worked so diligently to maintain all these years, he could protest no longer. “Okay,” Levi spouted out despondently. The man stopped circling and his soft smile returned once again, “perfect, let’s get that postcode then shall we?”. “W1T1QB” Levi replied, as red letters and numbers gradually appeared on the green horizon displaying W1T1FB, “one last thing, what is your name?”. The man extended his arm towards Levi, before declaring “you can call me M.Z.”.

[1] https://www.theverge.com/22588022/mark-zuckerberg-facebook-ceo-metaverse-interview

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/dec/18/metaverse-new-venue-sexual-harassment-facebook

[3] https://about.facebook.com/metaverse/responsible-innovation/

[4] Elettra Bietti, “From Ethics Washing to Ethics Bashing: A Moral Philosophy View on Tech Ethics,” Journal of Social Computing 2, no. 3 (September 2021): 266–83, https://doi.org/10.23919/JSC.2021.0031.

[5] James Auger, “Speculative Design: Crafting the Speculation,” Digital Creativity 24, no. 1 (March 1, 2013): 11–35, https://doi.org/10.1080/14626268.2013.767276; Kirsten E Bray et al., “Radical Futures: Supporting Community-Led Design Engagements through an Afrofuturist Speculative Design Toolkit,” in CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, CHI ’22 (New York, NY, USA: Association for Computing Machinery, 2022), 1–13, https://doi.org/10.1145/3491102.3501945.

[6] https://futuresnight.co.uk/conversations-on/

Read our archived blog posts via the below links

Blogpost 1: Serious Games, Serious Aims: Privacy Education Through Play
Blogpost 2: Safer Internet – By the People, Of the People, For the People