The metaverse may eventually come to define how we work, learn, and socialize. This means that VR and AR will move beyond current niche applications and become everyday technologies that we will all depend on. We can guess about Facebook’s vision for the meta-verse by looking at Facebook’s existing approach to social media.
Facebook has shaped our online life to be a gigantic revenue stream based on the power, control and surveillance driven by our data. VR and AR headsets collect huge amounts of data about the user and their environment. It’s one of the most important ethical issues surrounding these new technologies and probably one of the biggest attractions for Facebook in terms of owning and developing them. But there is one parameter that is particularly worrying. The way you move your body is unique – so unique that VR data can be used to identify you, almost like a fingerprint. This means that everything you do in VR can potentially be traced back to your individual identity.
For Facebook – a digital advertising empire built on tracking our data – it’s a tempting prospect. In parallel with Project Aria, Facebook launched its Responsible Innovation Principles and recently pledged $ 50 million to ‘build the meta-verse responsibly’. But, as Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren Klein point out in their book ‘Data Feminism’, responsible innovation is often focused on individualized concepts of harm, rather than addressing structural power imbalances and imbalances built into technologies such as social media.
In our studies of Facebook’s Oculus Imaginary (Facebook’s vision for how it will use Oculus technology) and the ongoing changes to Oculus’ privacy and data policies, we propose that Facebook publicly formulate privacy in VR as a matter of individual privacy (as users have control over) versus monitoring and data collection (over which we have no control).
Critics have described Facebook’s announcements as spin and ‘privacy theatre’, where we all just pretend to make it look good.
The digital rights group, Access Now, participated in a Facebook AR privacy ‘design jam’ in 2020, calling on Facebook to prioritize warnings that passers-by might be preoccupied with Ray-Ban Stories (the smart glasses that were discussed earlier in the article, ed.). They now say the recommendation was ignored.
Is the internet a template for an open metaverse?
Appropriately, the meta-verse under Facebook is likely to resemble the literary origins of the term, invented in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash, which describes an exploitative, corporate, hierarchical virtual space. But that does not have to be the case. Tony Parisi, one of the early pioneers of VR, claims that we already have a plan for a non-dystopian metavers. He says we should look back at the Internet’s original, pre-corporate vision, which embodied ‘an open, collaborative and consensus-driven way of developing technologies and tools’.
Facebook’s rebranding and dominance of the VR market, their apparent desire to hire all VR and AR developers in Europe, and the media platform’s many acquisitions – all sound less like genuine collaboration and consensus and more like an attempt to control the computer world’s next frontier. We let Facebook control social media. We must not let them control the meta-verse.
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