Future Tense

What Mark Zuckerberg Really Means When He Talks About the Metaverse

The company is doubling down on user surveillance.

This illustration photo taken in Los Angeles on October 28, 2021, shows a person using Facebook on a smartphone in front of a computer screen showing the META logo. - Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg on Thursday announced the parent company's name is being changed to "Meta" to represent a future beyond just its troubled social network. The new handle comes as the social media giant tries to fend off one its worst crises yet and pivot to its ambitions for the "metaverse" virtual reality version of the internet that the tech giant sees as the future. (Photo by Chris DELMAS / AFP) (Photo by CHRIS DELMAS/AFP via Getty Images)
Don’t follow the thumb. CHRIS DELMAS/Getty Images

Mark Zuckerberg and team are rebranding Facebook the company as “Meta” and refocusing it delivering an envisioned “metaverse.” At one level, this move is likely exactly what it appears to be: an attempt to reclaim attention from the company’s manifold legal, regulatory, and political crises. At the same time, it’s important to remember that Facebook/Meta is, in its DNA, the company that moves fast and breaks things. Given Zuckerberg’s unprecedented personal control of the company, his continuing creative investment in product and engineering, and the recent elevation of hardware/Oculus lead Andrew Bosworth to chief technology officer, it’s worth taking a moment to cut through the marketing speak and wonder: What the hell is a metaverse? “You can think about the metaverse as an embodied internet,” Zuckerberg recently explained, “where instead of just viewing content—you are in it.” He might as well have said, “you are it.” What happens—to an open internet, to free expression, to privacy—in that context?

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The metaverse, as it is being marketed, is a broad concept that incorporates a lot of the virtual- and augmented-reality schtick of The Matrix and Minority Report. It’s a new world to explore and a new dimension overlaying the old one. Zuckerberg describes it as “a persistent, synchronous environment” that is “going to be accessible across all of our different computing platforms; VR and AR, but also PC, and also mobile devices and game consoles.” It’s clear that Zuckerberg the geek is excited. He sees the metaverse as the next great leap for the internet, analogous to the movement to smartphones and the mobile web. But what’s new here? Don’t we already have Gmail, Fitbit, and Second Life?

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One key difference is that this embodied internet entails new sensors monitoring us while we browse, interact, and move about the world—lots of new sensors. Each new generation of Facebook hardware has added more. The heart of all recent versions of the Oculus VR headset is “Oculus Insight,” an A.I. tracking system that uses three types of sensors: sensors tracking the orientation and movements of the headset and controllers, four built-in headset cameras mapping out your room, and LEDs in the controllers tracked by the headset, all of which feed Insight to help it “track your position and environment in real-time with sub-millimeter precision.” Oculus controllers now contain capacitive sensors which finely detect the movements of your fingers. Oculus also integrates with your phone and other devices for heart-rate and fitness tracking. Zuckerberg has hinted at and demoed face- and eye-tracking for future Quest/Cambria models, and recent leaks of the Quest Pro have suggested fingerprint sensors. In the parallel world of augmented reality, Facebook’s new Ray-Ban smart glasses contain cameras for taking photos/videos and a microphone for taking calls. The addition of more sensors and cameras increases the amount of egocentric data that Facebook can collect.

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The metaverse, it turns out, is less cryptographic origami and more high-tech medical exam. The metaverse inextricably links the user’s individual, corporeal body and the ideas and actions that person takes. It’s about ever more granularly tracking and defining the individual consumer, down to our subconscious and involuntary reactions. The shocking thing about this is how easily the wow-factor of VR helmets and tricked out Ray-Bans have distracted us from the core, inevitable problem. The more deeply these devices are connected to Facebook’s ecosystem of apps and identity, the more the same old Facebook problems will come straight back to the fore: systematic mass surveillance, development of biased and opaque algorithms, and a general disdain for transparency or accountability. If there were any doubt, Facebook has already begun integrating its core social media services with its VR hardware: It has thoroughly integrated Facebook sign-in for some time and rolled out Facebook Messenger integration into Oculus earlier this year.

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So your VR and AR headsets are just new ways to surveil users. What can Facebook do with all this new data? To quote Zuckerberg himself, “Senator, we run ads.” The metaverse, as an umbrella and a unified user interface across all of Facebook’s properties (and, aspirationally, the internet as a whole), would be the ultimate information intermediary: providing a carefully curated and wholly monetized stream of information and experience to its users based on our interests, interactions, and what (literally) makes our hearts skip a beat. It means a deepening of the surveillance/advertising feedback loop that is core to Facebook’s business model. When Zuckerberg says the metaverse will be “persistent, synchronous,” hear “all-remembering, always on.” When he says “open,” hear “linked to every one of your accounts and devices.”

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The metaverse, it turns out, might involve a lot of trust. It also means new kinds of exposure for those most vulnerable, globally. Even assuming good faith and sufficient investment in privacy and security on Facebook’s part, the lack of anonymity, bilateral data-sharing agreements implicit in this model are deeply troubling for anyone—journalists, activists, whistleblowers—contending with power.  Moreover, the unified (or federated) identity model that the metaverse seems to entail is not only risky but fundamentally untenable for a great number of us. Facebook directly addressed this concern during Thursday’s livestream announcing the “Meta” rebranding, claiming that open protocols will be used and that a Facebook login won’t be required for the metaverse. But Facebook has never been shy about collecting data from third parties and integrating their services with others. Interoperability means greater potential for surveillance, not less. The threats to free expression of such a system are both direct (the hesitation to be out online when you have to remain private about your orientation in real life, the risk of health information impacting your employability) and ambient (the chilling effect that comes with the fear of exposure). There is no anonymity in the metaverse; you do not contain multitudes. Please log in with your Facebook ID or one of our partners.

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None of this is to say that VR and AR don’t hold valid and at times profound cultural and humanitarian potential. VR, as it becomes more realistic and more supportive of differing kinds of hardware, holds huge promise for those with special physical and cognitive needs, enabling a broader spectrum of public participation that will enrich us all. It holds exciting possibilities for new kinds of self expression, art, and community building. But the metaverse is to virtual reality as AOL was to the World Wide Web. We can’t allow what is exciting and new and potentially liberating about a new technology to become conflated with any one company. And we can’t let Facebook use the novelty of its powerful VR and AR hardware to distract us while it sweeps its business model under the rug. The story of the last 15 years of Facebook under Zuckerberg’s leadership, as well documented by Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang in their book An Ugly Truth, and in the Facebook Papers leaks, is a double narrative: continuous crisis, combated with lobbying and PR, and a simultaneously relentless drive forward with product development, acquisition, and expansionism. It’s critical to assume that Facebook will drive forward with the development of its metaverse in total disregard of the public and regulatory pressure to the contrary. The Facebook rebrand is not a pivot—it’s acceleration, branded as a pivot.

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For those who care about social justice and free expression, getting caught up in the metaverse hype cycle would be a big mistake. But ignoring it would be, too. The problem is that Facebook is a trillion-dollar company that can afford to pay the attorneys and lobbyists and data scientists and product developers at the same time. Facebook’s “embodied internet” is not only a gross expansion of its ambition to total surveillance, it is an attempt to outpace the regulatory debate. As the whistleblower hearings and regulatory fracas continue, we can expect that Facebook will continue to delay, deny, and deflect.” But that’s in Washington. In Silicon Valley, D is for data.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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