We need to kick Big Tech out of the Metaverse

Technology monopolies have conquered the web. As we move to virtual world, we should strive for openness

Picture: Daniel Stolle

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The global pandemic has pushed us all indoors and further online. We work, learn, live and play in virtual spaces and digital communities. We spend time with friends via a screen and a Zoom filter and explore fictional and ancient worlds on gaming or e-learning platforms. Video game worlds have become so much more than play, with players hanging out in lobbies and splurging billions on the latest skins and avatar mods, or enjoying concerts in virtual reality. Cryptocurrency-backed digital artworks – such as BEEPLE’s record-breaking Everydays: the First 5000 Days – witnessed a sudden boom, and burst into the mainstream. We are marching toward what author Neal Stephenson called “the Metaverse”: a global, interconnected galaxy of virtual worlds, avatars, online communities, and mixed reality. Stephenson first conceived the Metaverse in 1992 in his novel Snow Crash, now widely considered a science fiction classic. More and more, this concept is leaving the realm of sci-fi, and entering our current reality.

But curb your enthusiasm. As things stand, this new reality is already shaping up along the familiar, proprietary, monopolistic lines that have characterised – and dogged – the most recent phase of the internet’s evolution. The platforms where the Metaverse is being created have become walled gardens, increasingly centralised and controlled by corporate interests. Facebook owns WhatsApp, Instagram and Oculus, giving them ownership of our friends, our behaviour, our gait, eye movement and emotional state. Google, Amazon and Apple all are vying to build the next dominant VR and gaming platforms, hoping to build upon their data dominance and entrenched market positions.

That is no small risk. Our past reluctance to challenge the dangers of black-box algorithms, opaque curation systems and predatory privacy practices has already brought the world a splurge of disinformation and manipulation, the rise of pernicious conspiracy theories and the triumph of surveillance capitalism. As we enter the age of the Metaverse we are sleepwalking into a future where continuing to ignore these red flags could be catastrophic – where the true danger is not just that we are known, but that we can be led.

Virtual reality developers will be familiar with the concept of “redirected walking” – a clever technique to cause a player to walk in circles while thinking they are walking in a straight line. It allows you to explore huge dungeons in the comfort of your living room without ever walking into the wall, as you are nudged in the directions the game developers want you to take. It’s classic misdirection, and surprisingly easy to do – a little visual nudge here, an audio cue there and before you know it, you’re facing the way you came without ever realising you’ve been turned around.


Ryan Gill is co-founder and CEO of Crucible. Toby Tremayne is co-founder and CTO of Crucible.

Source: W I R E D