More than two months ago, US-based mega-corporation Meta Platforms Inc., formerly known as Facebook, announced its name change to Meta while announcing its intent to spearhead the creation of the “metaverse,” a network of virtual worlds seamlessly integrated with physical reality. Today, popular dialogue around the subject has all but died out, with updates to deals struck to expand this metaverse all but lost to the public consciousness. Critiques against Meta’s large wallet and noncommittal statements have largely centered around a stated concern over privacy issues and powerbrokers’ abilities to use the platform to assert authoritarian control. The metaverse’s future effect on foreign relations, on the qualities of life for people across the globe and in developing countries particularly, has been a topic largely avoided by US news outlets. Most likely, this is the case because that reality will be harsh.
Meta claims that the metaverse will provide opportunities to climb above their stations in ways previously impossible to billions of people in developing countries. It claims that education, job interviews, and access to information will become reachable to anyone, in any place, at any time.
It does not consider the vast disparity of data prices across the world, the exorbitant cost of iPhones in many countries, the entirely non-unilateral existence of “popular” online services and e-commerce sites—Amazon is, for now, not that popular. It coincidentally fails to mention that, as the metaverse will not be implemented in one fell swoop, those who are even willing to invest in such a product when it offers few to no tangible benefits in the short term will still sometimes live in places that lack infrastructure for lucrative job opportunities, education, and free and equal access to information. And, should the metaverse eventually become so popular locally, many of these places also lack the legal infrastructure to get this access where it needs to go fast enough, bloodlessly enough. It has no answer for how, in a world society globalized in ways never before, an employer could so easily drive down wages by pretending he had a prospective employee somewhere halfway across the world willing to work for half the pay—it is a narrative heard in a thousand iterations before, and it is coming again.
New technology is often hailed as a great disrupter, which, but for a moment, opens gilded staircases to those from many walks of life. However, market technology rarely is so disruptive. The sudden internet power vacuum that the metaverse may create will almost certainly contain fast-tracks to profit for Meta or for somebody else to exploit; these players will step in to suck in an even greater share of power than they possess before a majority of others even step one virtual foot into the metaverse. Altruistic and marketable technology exists only in the theoretical, not in the way Meta is hyping up the metaverse to exist. When altruistic technology is implemented—like penicillin and x-rays—it does not make the news; Meta, for all its recent hush-hush behavior, is doing everything it can to make the metaverse news. This is largely unsurprising; the US has always been docile to its own imperialism, which has always been predicated on the idea that “progress” originates in the US and is delivered to the world from the US’s good graces.
The metaverse’s attempts to distance itself from Meta’s identity, which it performs to project an all-inclusive image of starry-eyed futurism, hide the corporation—and the companies—that will be owning, policing, and personalizing the network. Vice News has reported that Facebook, the social media site, despite its over 90 percent non-American user base, spends only 10 percent of its security budget on that same user base. In a lawsuit filed against Meta on December 6 of last year, prosecutors cite this inability to properly moderate hate speech, disinformation, and plans to enact violence in these countries as a key catalyst for ethnic violence against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. The lawsuit further claims that Facebook’s algorithms amplified hate speech and allowed for hate groups to mobilize and gain followers. There has been, to date, no actionable guarantee from Meta that Meta’s interests in protecting only a few in North America will not carry on into the metaverse, a network so far-reaching and so difficult to moderate that, if anything, hate can spread only more easily.
Many of the wealthiest stakeholders in the early days of the metaverse will have little reason to maintain a vested interest in establishing the infrastructure suggested earlier, or what little infrastructure they implement will only extend as far as it aids the individual stakeholders’ bank accounts: education, in so far as that education keeps people complicit and keeps people making money; public infrastructure, unnecessary if everything useful that people can produce can be maintained with the barest of living necessities; privacy and protection for marginalized communities, unnecessary.
For all its fire taken after January 6 of last year, the metaverse’s implementation could spell disaster for billions of people, with the worst of its effects reaching far outside the US, if it even gets to billions of people. The metaverse claims to be a great equalizer, but, as I see it, for the foreseeable future it will, as always, remain a plaything for the privileged few.