Mark Zuckerberg can be accused of many things. But not of timid ideas. The founder of Facebook thinks big, and has managed to get nearly 3 billion people to connect monthly to his social platform, the biggest in a planet that has about 8 billion people.
Now Zuckerberg wants to dominate the future of virtual or augmented reality. But I don’t want to live in that metaverse.
The universe proposed by Meta – the new name of Facebook – means working, studying and exercising in imaginary worlds. The concept of the metaverse is dazzling: you put on a pair of glasses or a headset and you’re transported to virtual offices, gyms, schools and concerts. It would be that easy
“Imagine if you could be in the office without the commute,” Zuckerberg said in a recent video announcing the new name and goals of the company he founded 17 years ago. “Now imagine that you have the perfect work setting and you can actually do more than in your regular work set. And in top of all that you can keep wearing your favorite sweatpants.”
I did imagine that.
For example, I have to travel a lot for interviews and reporting. But if at some point I had an appointment at the White House or Mexico’s National Palace, my hologram or electronic profile could show up, and I would not have to board an airplane. What’s more, if I wanted to stay in my pajamas and not shave that day, I could improve my avatar – the other me in the virtual world – by rubbing off a few years and putting him in an Italian suit. When the interview aired, people would not know if I was physically in Washington or Mexico. Although it would look that way.
Instead of meeting on Zoom, Skype or Teams, office meetings would be virtual. And we could do almost as much as if we were there in person, except touch each other, smell the perfume and flowers and share some spicy tacos.
The same goes for exercising. The metaverse “allows you to work out in a completely new way,” Zuckerberg said. “You only have a VR headset and with it you can do anything from boxing to sword fighting to dancing. You’ll be able to work out in new
worlds, even against an AI” monster.
And it’s a new way of having fun. Coldplay played a historic concert in 2018 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. I get chills every time I watch the video. And although I already bought tickets for their concert in Los Angeles next year, I would love to have been in Brazil three years ago. The metaverse can help me. Or take me to the Beatles concerts during their first US tour, when I was barely a child.
To study history, the metaverse could recreate the first encounter between Montezuma and Hernán Cortés, on Nov. 8 1519. And it would allow us to virtually walk the streets of Tenochtitlan and navigate its canals. That history lesson, I promise, would never be forgotten.
Of course the metaverse has its charms. But I really worry that it will replace the drive for real human contact. The pandemic showed two things. First, our enormous need to see and touch other human beings. And second, our gigantic capacity to adapt and survive in isolation, if necessary.
A world dominated by the metaverse would be like locking ourselves in our homes, a permanent pandemic, avoiding personal contacts in the most important parts of our lives. We cannot turn our back on the future. But I refuse to believe that a virtual universe is the best we can hope for. Why replace reality with a digital experience? The real danger is that this technology, created to connect us, will wind up separating us even more.
I remember that as a child my great imaginary adventures were time travels to remote eras and unknown places. That future is about to arrive, digitally, and I don’t like it. There is also the threat that someone will meddle digitally with your life, steal your avatar or introduce himself as someone else. But no matter how many negatives the metaverse could bring, nothing can stop an idea. The metaverse is coming.
“It is time for all to adopt a new Company Brand that encompass everything that we do,” Zuckerberg said, “that reflects who we are and what we hope to build. Out mission remains the same: still connecting people. But now w have a new north star: to bring metaverse to life.”
The change in name and mission – from Facebook to Meta – came at a suspicious time, to distract attention from the political attacks hitting the company. It came after a former Facebook employee, Frances Haugen, alleged during hearings before the U.S. Congress and the British parliament that the company “chooses profit over safety” of its users. The audiences heard tough questions about the dangers that Facebook represents for democracy and young people.
New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes was among the harshest critics of the name change. “Meta as in ‘we are a cancer to democracy metastasizing into a global surveillance and propaganda machine for boosting authoritarian regimes and destroying civil society… for profit!’” she posted on Twitter.
Before Facebook can create its metaverse, it will have to invest enormous capital in new technologies and survive political efforts to regulate its operations, as well as breaking up the corporation, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, into smaller parts.
In the end, the future will not be stopped. The metaverse will become a reality. I don’t know if that will happen in my time or my children’s time. But I would not want to live in it. I suspect I would be missing the most important thing: life itself.