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Donald Morrison: Once a sci-fi fantasy, the metaverse suddenly seems all too real

Deep in the pages of "Snow Crash," Neal Stephenson’s futuristic 1992 novel about social collapse following the privatization of government, there’s an intriguing, equally dystopian idea: the “metaverse,” a computer-generated realm where people go to escape the horrors of the new order.

Stephenson was mildly prophetic about the rise of corporate power, but he’s turning out to be spot on when it comes to the metaverse. It’s heading our way, and it’s going to be big. Also, quite likely, dangerous.

Facebook announced last week that it will spend $10 billion and hire 10,000 people to build a real version of Stephenson’s virtual world, which the company is calling — what else? — the metaverse. Other players are gathering — among them the sunglass-maker Ray-Ban, which will produce virtual reality glasses to access this brave new world.

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What will the metaverse be like? Nobody knows for sure, but it will probably combine existing technologies used in videoconferencing, virtual reality goggles, multi-player video games, alternative versions of yourself called avatars (ask your kids) and “haptics,” sensory gimmicks like the little vibrations from your smartwatch when it’s time to stand.

A more intriguing question: What will people do in the metaverse? The answer, says Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg, is whatever they now do on the internet: work play, shop — only more intensively.

Like videoconferencing, but with the very real sensation that you’re in the room where it happens. Or going to a football game where you’re the quarterback. Or to a showroom where you can try on clothes or test-drive a new car without leaving your bedroom. Or going to a concert at the Mahaiwe looking like your favorite rock star. This stuff could make reality seem obsolete, or at least boring.

That appears to be what Zuckerberg is counting on. He knows that users of his firm’s flagship social media platform are getting older, and that young folks prefer trendier sites like TikTok and YouTube. Oh, and Facebook is also under fire for promoting violence, hate speech and misinformation.

Consider the Facebook Papers, a trove of internal documents disclosed recently to the Securities and Exchange Commission by Frances Haugen, a former Facebook manager. They revealed that the company rolled back content-moderation measures that might have helped prevent the Jan. 6 insurrection. Also, Facebook has tweaked its algorithms to favor user engagement over safety, outrage over civility.

Such disclosures, plus regulatory rumbles from Congress and foreign governments, suggest that Facebook could use not only a new product, but also something to shift attention elsewhere.

That’s probably why Zuckerberg announced last week that he’s changing Facebook’s name to — what else? — Meta.

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Other troubled companies have pulled the name-change caper — Philip Morris (to Altria) over tobacco’s health dangers, BP (to, briefly, Beyond Petroleum) over climate change — without upending their product lines. But, Facebook desperately needs another winner. Also, an end to its reliance on advertising for almost all its revenue.

You’ll be hearing a lot about the metaverse in coming months, not just as a business story but also a potential social problem. Zuckerberg’s new playground sure does raise some troubling questions. Like, what exactly will be allowed there — sex, violence, bullying, racism, deception, demagoguery? Also, who’s going police this thing? Facebook hasn’t inspired confidence on that front.

In addition, will the metaverse worsen the division, dislocation, anxiety and destruction of privacy that social media have already caused? Will spending much of our lives in a virtual world weaken our involvement with the real one, which could use some help these days?

One thing is certain. The big meta-decisions about our virtual future will be made by tech guys like Zuckerberg, not by you and me, or — if recent history is any guide — by regulators.

The idea that we’re rushing toward a future borrowed from an admonitory 30-year-old science fiction saga seems to stretch the very concept of reality.

“It’s easy to laugh off now,” social media expert Taina Bucher told an interviewer. “But, it might actually become a reality because it’s Facebook who’s trying to realize it. And then it might not be funny anymore.”

Welcome to the metaverse. What could possibly go wrong?

Donald Morrison is an Eagle columnist and co-chairman of the advisory board. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.

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