Monday, November 08, 2021

Downsides of the Metaverse


One important task of the discipline of engineering ethics is to take a look at new technologies and say in effect, "Wait a minute—what could go wrong here?"  Blogger Joe Allen at the website Salvo has done that with the Metaverse idea recently touted by Mark Zuckerberg, when Zuckerberg announced that Facebook will now be known (officially, anyway) as Meta.


Allen denies that Zuckerberg was merely trying to distract attention away from the recent bad publicity Facebook has been receiving, and claims that the Metaverse idea is something Zuckerberg and others have been dreaming of for years, especially proponents of the quasi-philosophy known as transhumanism.  What are these dreams?


In the Metaverse of the future, you will be able to put on virtual-reality equipment such as goggles or a helmet, and enter an alternate universe fabricated in the same way that the Facebook universe, or the many MMOG (massively multiplayer online games) systems try to do in a comparatively feeble way today.  But the goal of metaverse technology is to make the simulation better than ordinary reality, to the point that you'll really want to stay there. 


It's not hard to imagine downsides for this picture.  Allen quotes Israeli author Yuval Harari as saying that mankind's power to "create religions" combined with Metaverse technology will lead to "more powerful fictions and more totalitarian religions than in any previous era."  The Nazis could do no more than put on impressive light shows and hire people such as Leni Riefenstahl to produce propaganda films such as "Triumph of the Will."  Imagine what someone like Joseph Goebbels could have done if he had been put in charge of an entire metaverse, down to every last detail.


Impossible?  Facebook and other companies are investing billions to make it happen, and Allen points out that companies are also lobbying Washington to spend federal money on developing the infrastructure needed to support the massive bandwidth and processing power that it will take. 


COVID-19 pushed many of us a considerable distance toward the Metaverse when we had to begin meeting people on Zoom rather than in person.  Zoom is better than not meeting people at all, I suppose, but it already has contributed in a small way to a breakdown in what I'd call decorum.  For example, judges have had to reprimand lawyers for coming to hearings on Zoom while lying in bed with no clothes on. And I've talked on Zoom with students who wouldn't dream of showing up in class with what they were wearing in the privacy of their bedrooms, in which I found myself a reluctant virtual guest.


Of course, if we had the Metaverse, the lawyer could appear as an avatar in a top hat, tuxedo, and tails if that was what the judge wanted to see.  But the point is that there is a whole complex of social-interaction rules or guidelines that children take years to learn (if they ever do learn), and in a Metaverse, those rules would be set by whoever or whatever is running the system, not just by the individuals involved.


Zuckerberg insists, according to Allen, that his Metaverse will be "human-centered."  That may be true, but a maximum-security prison is human-centered too—designed to keep certain humans in the center of the prison.  While Facebook has its positive features—my wife just learned through it yesterday of the passing of an old family friend—the damage it has done to what was formerly called civil discourse, and the sheer amount of bile that social media sites have profited from, show us that even with the relatively low-tech means we currently have, the downsides of corporate-mediated social interactions reach very low points indeed.


Does this mean we should jump in with a bunch of government regulations before the genie gets out of the bottle?  Oddly, Zuckerberg is calling for some kind of regulation even now.  But as Allen points out, Zuckerberg may be thinking that eventually, even government power will take a back seat to the influence that the corporate-controlled Metaverse will have over things.


Those who see religions as creations of the human brain, and human reality as something to be created from scratch and sold at a profit—these are defective views of what humanity is, as Pope St. John Paul II pointed out with respect to the anthropology of Marxism.  Transhumanist fantasies about recreating the human universe in our image share with Marxism the belief that human beings are the summit of intelligent life, and there is nothing or no One else out there to be considered as we remake the virtual world to be whatever we want it to be.  Even if you grant the dubious premise that the Zuckerbergs of the world merely want to make life better for us all instead of just getting richer, you have to ask the question, "What does 'better' mean to you?"  And whether the machinery is Communist or capitalist, the bottom-line answer tends to be the satisfaction of personal desires. 


Any system, human or mechanical, that leaves God out of the picture leads people down a garden path that ends in slavery, as John Bunyan's Pilgrim discovered in Pilgrim's Progress.  Before we are compelled to join the Metaverse in order to earn a living, we should take a very hard look at what those who are planning it really want to do.  Once again, we have a chance to set a new technology on the right path before we let it go on to produce mega-disasters we then have to learn from.  It's the engineers who come up with this stuff, and in view of the lack of interest or even comprehension that government representatives have for such things, perhaps it's the engineers who need to ask the hard questions about what could go wrong with the Metaverse—before it does. 


Sources:  Joe Allen's article "The Metaverse:  Heaven for Soy Boys, Hell on Earth for Us" is on the Salvo website at  I also referred to an article on John Paul II's views on anthropology and Marxism at

No comments:

Post a Comment