The metaverse is a universally bad thing because it will tighten the grip of rule by social media tech giants, or “behavior modification empires,” and there’s kind of nothing we can do about it.
We’re taking note of this criticism of Silicon Valley and its grandiose metaverse plans because it comes from Jaron Lanier, one of the conceptual brains behind the dawn of the 3D internet.
He helped pioneer VR goggles and haptic gloves in the 1980s, and was optimistic about the future of virtual reality but not in the way you might think.
“What I saw in virtual reality was potentially something that would be wonderfully good for the world. And I still think it could be and maybe will be,” he says in conversation with Kara Swisher in an episode of The New York Times podcast, “The Metaverse: Expectations vs. Reality.”
“I saw a way to finally appreciate how wondrous our given reality is by having a point of comparison. We take what we have for granted so easily.”
VR for Lanier wasn’t an escape from the world, it was a gateway back into the real world.
“For me, it just was plainly obvious that what virtual reality was good for was noticing how magical conventional reality is. If you’ve spent some time in virtual reality and then you go into a real forest, I think you’re able to love that forest in a more visceral way than is readily apparent otherwise.”
That we’ll all be able to see the real wood for photoreal trees is the hope that Lanier holds out for our doomed metaverse future, because otherwise it’s all “meta hopelessness,” as he says.
“The world is held in a vice grip by the algorithms of a few companies that operate on this bizarre business model in which they make money from people who hope to manipulate other people using behavior modification techniques.”
What Lanier particularly objects to, he explains, is the training by social media of its users on a feedback loop, that is using what “somebody has done in the past to influence what they see in the present in order to change how they’ll behave in the future.”
This behavior modification has been famously studied by scientists (behaviorists) such as Ivan Pavlov and B.F. Skinner.
In social media’s feedback loop “rejection, humiliation, isolation, are the electric shocks. And then the occasional likes and rewards or hope that you’ll go viral or whatever — that stuff is the candy.”
This argument is pretty familiar and goes along the lines of people freely (or unwittingly) trading their own data for something they value, which is social media connectivity.
It’s a fallacy, says Lanier, who thinks we should be paid for social media to license our data.
“What’s going on today with a company like Google or Meta is that they’re getting all this data for free from people who don’t understand the meaning or the value of the data and then turning it into these algorithms that are mostly used to manipulate the same people.”
He himself has no social media accounts and thinks everyone would be just fine without them.
“A lot of people have bought into an illusion, and they’re racing on this hamster wheel for somebody else’s benefit. Where in fact, if they got off the wheel, their career would be similar.”
All of this pales in contrast to Lanier’s ire for the metaverse.
“Listening to Mark Zuckerberg talk, it sounds like some megalomaniac took my stuff and filtered it through some weird self-aggrandizement filter.”
He calls out the incoherence of Meta’s communications around the metaverse — as pointed out in this article from NAB Amplify.
“They show a lot of scenarios where there wouldn’t actually be any place to put the sensors to enable the scenario or the displays to enable it,” Lanier says. “It’s a weird disembodied vision of virtual reality. Any implementation of virtual reality has to have sensors and displays that create it. It’s just strange that they don’t feel a need to resolve basic issues of geometry and physics and engineering that really are not going to be avoidable.
“Now you could say, well, who cares? That’s all details. But the thing is, those details are where the experience will be.”
He believes Facebook’s meta-morphosis into Meta is all about owning more of our data — specifically via the headset.
“In the future, [Meta will] need to win the next device war so that [they’ll] be able to get the data. It would be nice if [they] owned smart speakers and doorknobs or whatever, but Amazon got those. So let’s go for headsets. I think that’s what it’s ultimately about. It’s about the fact that you have to own the edge device to have your own power of making your cloud good or evil. And he wants to make it evil apparently….”
Lanier catches himself here. He’s beginning to sound a little vindictive against Zuckerberg — particularly since Lanier is employed by Microsoft.
“I shouldn’t speak this way about another company. But there’s no other Silicon Valley company that’s had this parade of executives leaving with deep regrets.”
He adds, “I like the idea of Facebook doing well. I just want it to do well on a business plan that isn’t based on harming the — humanity. I mean, I think that’s reasonable.”
He’s not entirely convincing of the “do good” corporate strategy of his paymasters Microsoft. He implies, because Microsoft’s core business when it comes to VR and the metaverse is targeting the corporate enterprise rather than consumers, that Microsoft is on the side of the angels.
More generally, he views the metaverse as an amplification of the internet’s current evils.
“The dark side is very simple,” Lanier continues. “The economic incentives in the economy are to exert more and more behavior modification control over people. It makes everybody more and more vain, paranoid, irritable, xenophobic, stupid, fearful. And then we lose the ability to talk to each other. We lose the ability to perceive reality accurately. We lose the ability to be intelligent, fundamentally. And I’m viewing that as a very serious possibility now.
“Just to be clear, anything stupid you can see on the internet existed before the internet. There were always conspiracy theories. All of that has existed. It’s a question of degree and emphasis. And it’s a question of how much amplification of our stupid stuff we can survive, right?
“Some of the studies of the social contagion of paranoid and other negative reactions online — these things show a small ambient rise. But the thing is, it appears to be cumulative and like compound interest. And it’s so universal and so broad.”
The metaverse may be a wild frontier, but here at NAB Amplify we’ve got you covered! Hand-selected from our archives, here are some of the essential insights you’ll need to expand your knowledge base and confidently explore the new horizons ahead:
- What Is the Metaverse and Why Should You Care?
- Avatar to Web3: An A-Z Compendium of the Metaverse
- The Metaverse is Coming To Get You. Is That a Bad Thing?
- Don’t Expect the Metaverse to Happen Overnight
- A Framework for the Metaverse from Hardware to Hollywood and Everything in Between
So, should there be a Global Metaverse Authority, Swisher cheekily suggests?
Lanier offers that some sort of checks and balances will organically grow to keep the next-gen internet from descending into some sort of monopolistic horror show. It’s a bit vague.
“I like this idea of checks and balances, of having multiple institutions, each of which keep each other in check. And formally, we think of that as being the judiciary and the executive and Congress. But also, informally, we could say that capitalism and government keep each other in check. That they’re two different systems that interface awkwardly. And yet, they have a way, hopefully, of reducing the excesses of either.”
Listen to the full podcast episode in the audio player below: