The metaverse raises many big questions on trust and regulation, but perhaps the trickiest question of all, is simply: What is it? At its most basic definition, the metaverse is the internet gone three-dimensional.
The word itself was first created by sci-fi author Neal Stephenson in 1992 who, with alarming foresight, wrote about a dystopian future where people escaped into a virtual world, accessed with goggles.
The metaverse has been reimagined many times in the three decades since, but Stephenson gave me the best definition of what it is right now: “It’s a virtual environment where large numbers of people can get together and interact with each other, through avatars. Right now, it’s at that stage where people are pouring their hopes and dreams and ambitions into it.”
Second Life is the oldest metaverse platform, created in 1999. Its founder Philip Rosedale has been pondering the question of privacy since its inception, “The most dangerous thing that you could do in a metaverse is to enable surveillance and behavioral tracking and targeting and advertisement in the way that we’ve seen in social media. The virtual experience will be extremely dangerous and harmful to people, as we’ve already seen with social media.”
Instead of making money from advertisements and user data, Second Life generates revenue through the sale of virtual goods and services. Rosedale says that one of his biggest concerns is how future metaverse platforms generate money, “It has to be a business model that doesn’t include surveillance, targeting, and advertisement.”
It’s a shared concern for many, and a rational one given the biggest social media company in the world is staking its future on the metaverse, it’s even changed its name to Meta.
Andrew Bosworth is the CTO, he joined the company formerly known as Facebook in its infancy and is adamant that Meta can be trusted to forge this new generation of the internet, “We’ve talked about this a lot. Frankly, there’s no one who’s investing more, in privacy and data security. Nobody is more focused on this problem than Meta.”
He admits though, it’ll take time to convince people, “It’s going to take a long time for consumers to see that value, to understand that, to believe that, and that’s what you expect. Trust arrives on foot and leaves on horseback.”
How the vast volumes of user data generated by the metaverse are used is one concern. Another is protecting users from hate speech, cyberbullying, and sexual harassment.
If the companies buying the metaverse fail to self-regulate themselves, then governments may have to step in and write the rule book, but that won’t be easy.
According to Dr. Jane Thomason, a futurist, and author on digital ethics, regulators aren’t ready, “Typically, regulation has been done on a jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction basis, and yet, some of these metaverses will be multi-jurisdictional, or even virtual, with no particular geography.”
“It feels like the Wild West at the moment.”
By 2026 a quarter of us will spend at least one hour a day in the metaverse for work, shopping, education, or socializing, according to consulting company Gartner. The evidence suggests that’s possible, not least if you consider a game like Fortnite is effectively a metaverse using the broadest definition, and, following the pandemic years of video conferences and the confutation of WFH, a better virtual work meeting experience might be a logical next step.
Evangelists for the metaverse believe it will fundamentally change the way we do things, it’s just hard to pin down the how and the what. “This doesn’t just change individual lives, it changes society,” says Meta’s Andrew Bosworth.
“We have collective access to the entirety of human talent, not just human talent lucky to be born in certain places, which has been the reality. This technology starts with something trivial like virtual bowling, and ends with an entirely different outlook on society.”
The metaverse is still evolving, even the definition of the word is changing. What remains to be seen is exactly what part people in the real world will play in the future.
Anna Stewart is a CNN reporter and host of Decoded which airs on CNN International.