Business and religion in the metaverse

The new reality that Facebook and other companies are building brings immense possibilities but also dangers. It is a business with religious overtones.

Meta symbol picture, 29 October 2021
Image by picture alliance / Geisler-Fotopress | Christoph Hardt/Geisler-Fotopres
©

Not satisfied with your life in this universe? Then invent, design, or let someone design another, partly physical, partly virtual, one, for you – in the metaverse. This is a revolutionary project, full of possibilities and dangers, which could partially replace the internet, and even some religions that offer life after death. This new reality will be in life – or, perhaps not actually – but a very different life in any case, one lived through avatars. Big tech companies, and smaller ones, are investing large sums because they see it as a major business opportunity for the not-too-distant future.

Immersive video games, virtual or real concerts containing very different viewpoints, or a blending of the physical and virtual worlds, the metaverse project is situated in a new coming-together – in a way much more powerful than anything seen until now – of the physical, virtual, and augmented worlds. This is all thanks to the development of artificial intelligence and new devices, of new hardware. As suggested by MetaGen (which provides an explanation of the genesis of the metaverse), virtual reality, which is already with us today, connects our senses and our actions directly to a computer. What you see, hear, feel, and what you do, say, and express are all being digitised. In the age of big data and machine learning, there is an opportunity to aspire to much more.

A new reality, or unreality, an alternative life, will thus be born. “You can think of the metaverse,” Mark Zuckerberg explained in a recent interview, “as an embodied internet, where, instead of just seeing content, you’re in it.” It is reminiscent of the girl in the television show Years and Years who gets an implant so she can be permanently connected through her body (her hand in this case).

This is a dangerous new Plato’s cave in the making, where we would live, not in reality, but in projected shadows of that reality. If the internet is already one such Platonic cavern, the metaverse will be so to a much greater degree, one that take on the capacity for manipulation and disinformation, and for echo chambers, or bubbles in which one locks oneself in with the like-minded, rejecting others.

This is a dangerous new Plato’s cave in the making, where we would live, not in reality, but in projected shadows of that reality.

Like everything human, it will eventually have its own priests, starting with Facebook founder and CEO Zuckerberg, who is investing heavily in it. He has announced he will hire 10,000 people for this project in Europe alone, putting the continent at the forefront of the metaverse. This is simultaneously a bid to improve his image, recently damaged by the latest revelations of what goes on inside his company, which grounds its business model in addictive social networks – so much so that it is changing its name to “META”, for reputational purposes and to broaden the scope of the business. He has invested $50m in funding not-for-profit groups to “create the metaverse in a responsible way”, to arrive at what Zuckerberg describes as a “Holy Grail of social interactions”, where interoperability will be essential. This will be not just for one company. He believes the metaverse will be a reality by 2025, although the real, full metaverse will take another decade, a decade that looks set to be very disruptive. A report by the consulting firm McKinsey predicts that we will experience more change or progress in technological advances in a decade than in the last 100 years. And it does not explicitly refer to the metaverse, but to the principal technologies to come.

Zuckerberg is not alone. More and more people are getting into the new metaverse business, such as Nvidia, which has created a project, called Omniverse, to allow developers to collaborate in the creation of this new environment.

Incredible things will be possible. At first this will be with our current screens (mobiles, tablets, computers, televisions) or immersive glasses, although the current virtual and augmented reality ones will give way to lighter and more versatile, more comfortable ones, or with gloves and clothes that increase our physical sensitivity towards this other virtual world. It will be necessary to multiply computing and connectivity capacity to be able to move from one place to another, so that everyone can create their own environment and generate their own customised experiences. And if the metaverse is a business, there will also be trade, and buying and selling of digital – as well as physical – goods, paid for with official digital money and cryptocurrencies. But this is already partly happening on the internet. There will be conflicts and even new-style meta-terrorism. And, of course, a basic question will remain: who will regulate it and how? There will be geopolitical wrangling over this, not only between states but also with companies.

The metaverse can change what humans and humanity are. It can transform, without drugs (although these will come along) our sense of perception. It will allow us to live a second, third, or fourth parallel life. (In fact, since 2003, there has been a programme called Second Life, where you play through avatars, and you can buy clothes and other items). You could even aspire to one of Silicon Valley’s obsessions: immortality. We will be able to devise avatars of ourselves that take on a life of their own in the metaverse and outlive us. New religions are in sight, or, at least, the transformation of old ones in the face of “digital” or virtual immortality. The US National Science Foundation has awarded a half-million-dollar grant to the universities of Central Florida and Illinois to explore how researchers could use artificial intelligence, archiving, and computer imaging to create convincing digital versions of real people. This would be a possible first step toward that virtual immortality, which will find a natural environment – putting it mildly – in the metaverse. It could be much more than a great global video game, and certainly more than entertainment. Will it be prevented or slowed down? It is to be feared that the answer is ‘no’.

Andrés Ortega Klein is a Council Member of ECFR, senior research fellow at the Real Instituto Elcano, and former director of policy planning in the office of the prime minister of Spain.

This article first appeared on 29 October in Spanish in El Diario.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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