The internet’s next leap forward?

Remember when virtual reality was supposed to be the next all-encompassing, technological paradigm? Or the Internet of Things? Well, hold on to your VR googles because the metaverse is coming! Mark says so.

Facebook wants us to live in the metaverseThe New Yorker
In a Facebook earnings call last week, Mark Zuckerberg outlined the future of his company. The vision he put forth wasn’t based on advertising, which provides the bulk of Facebook’s current profits, or on an increase in the over-all size of the social network, which already has nearly three billion monthly active users. Instead, Zuckerberg said that his goal is for Facebook to help build the “metaverse,” a Silicon Valley buzzword that has become an obsession for anyone trying to predict, and thus profit from, the next decade of technology.

Mark Zuckerberg wants to turn Facebook into a ‘metaverse company’ – what does that mean?The Conversation
In his quest to turn Facebook into a metaverse company, Zuckerberg is seeking to build a system where people move between virtual reality (VR), AR and even 2D devices, using realistic avatars of themselves where appropriate. Here they will work, socialise, share things and have other experiences, while still probably using the internet for some tasks such as searches which are similar to how we use it now. Owning not only the Facebook platform but also WhatsApp, Instagram and VR headset maker Oculus gives Zuckerberg a big head start in making this a reality.

Here’s how the man himself describes it, in an interview with The Verge.

Mark in the metaverse: Facebook’s CEO on why the social network is becoming ‘a metaverse company’The Verge
The metaverse is a vision that spans many companies — the whole industry. You can think about it as the successor to the mobile internet. And it’s certainly not something that any one company is going to build, but I think a big part of our next chapter is going to hopefully be contributing to building that, in partnership with a lot of other companies and creators and developers. But you can think about the metaverse as an embodied internet, where instead of just viewing content — you are in it. And you feel present with other people as if you were in other places, having different experiences that you couldn’t necessarily do on a 2D app or webpage, like dancing, for example, or different types of fitness.

For context, it would be helpful to read Neal Stephenson’s 1992 Snow Crash or Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One from 2011, recently made into a movie of the same name. Exciting, dynamic sci-fi thrillers, but not futures that I’d like as my present.

The metaverse has always been a dystopian ideaVICE
If it is coming, and if it is a big deal, then surprisingly few have paused to carefully consider the actual source of the metaverse, an undertaking which seems like a good idea, especially because that source is a deeply dystopian novel about a collapsed America that is overrun by violence and poverty. The metaverse was born in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 Snow Crash, where it serves as entertainment and an economic underbelly to a poor, desperate nation that is literally governed by corporate franchises. […]

Both books’ metaverses get at a common truism: there is something inherently dystopian in a future where humans abandon the real world in favor of an escapist and consumerist-oriented fully immersive digital one. To want to spend any serious amount of time in a metaverse, it must be made more appealing than reality, a feat which can be accomplished in one of two ways—either the world outside is already shitty enough to drive you into a glitch-prone, murder-filled alternative, or the fantasy of becoming someone else is compelling enough to consume you totally.

Is this all hype at the moment? Is there any real substance to these aspirations?

But as usual with such amorphous concepts and platform aspirations, there’s very little there. None of these luminaries, from Zuck to Nadella to Boz, seem capable of painting a coherent vision for what their particular metaverse will look or feel like, beyond gesturing at “presence” and a collection of apps, keywords, and old science fiction tropes. It is an odd vision built from a compendium of juvenile fantasies, perceived market opportunities, and overt dystopias.

Well, the author of that article might think so, but that’s not a view shared by venture capitalist Matthew Ball. He first wrote about the beginnings of the metaverse in 2018 …

Fortnite is the future, but probably not for the reasons you thinkMatthewBall.vc
The impending possibility (and broader inevitability) of the Metaverse is separate from whether Epic can, should or will pursue it. But it’s clear that Sweeney wants to build an open Metaverse before someone else builds a closed one. Many are trying.

… updated that in January 2020 …

The Metaverse: What it is, where to find it, who will build it, and FortniteMatthewBall.vc
This is why considering Fortnite as video game or interactive experience is to think too small and too immediately. Fortnite began as a game, but it quickly evolved into a social square. Its players aren’t logging in to “play”, per se, but to be with their virtual and real-world friends. Teenagers in the 1970s to 2010s would come home and spend three hours talking on the phone. Now they talk to their friends on Fortnite, but not about Fortnite. Instead, they talk about school, movies, sports, news, boys, girls and more. After all, Fortnite doesn’t have a story or IP – the plot is what happens on it and who is there.

… and then again in June 2021, with this extensive, nine-part essay, ‘The Metaverse Primer’.

A framework for the metaverseMatthewBall.vc
Since [the 2020 update], a lot has happened. COVID-19 forced hundreds of millions into Zoomschool and remote work. Roblox became one of the most popular entertainment experiences in history. Google Trends’ index on the phrase “The Metaverse” set a new “100” in March 2021. Against this baseline, use of the term never exceeded seven from January 2005 through to December 2020. With that in mind, I thought it was time to do an update – one that reflects how my thinking has changed over the past 18 months and addresses the questions I’ve received during this time, such as “Is the Metaverse here?”, “When will it arrive?”, and “What does it need to grow?”.

In this collection of essays, he dives into eight core categories; hardware, networking, computing power, virtual platforms, standards, payments, content and services, and user behaviour.

Each of these buckets is critical to the development of the Metaverse. In many cases, we have a good sense of how each one needs to develop, or at least where there’s a critical threshold (say, VR resolution and frame rates, or network latency). But recent history warns us not to be dogmatic about any specific path to, or idealized vision of, a fully functioning Metaverse. The internet was once envisioned as the ‘Information Superhighway’ and ‘World Wide Web’. Neither of these descriptions were particularly helpful in planning for 2010 or 2020, least of all in understanding how the world and almost every industry would be transformed by the internet.

Very extensive, and I can’t say I follow even half of it, but it all sounds very exciting. It’s nice to see Second Life getting a mention as a “proto-metaverse”, but I wish it was more involved.

Second Life 2021 review, documentary from inside the social metaverse – YouTube
Second Life is an open world 3D social virtual world, the precursor of the virtual reality or VR platforms we see today. But is it really on its way out of the Metaverse game as some believe? Or does it hold the keys to realizing the Metaverse as it is envisioned by many futurists and sci-fi authors? This short film seeks to answer those questions.

Hopefully this next social internet will result in a more positive future than the one envisaged in Keiichi Matsuda’s video, Hyper-reality, that I shared some time back.

Anyway, to round all this off, here are a couple of links from Dezeen on what real estate in this new digital universe might look like.

Artist Krista Kim sells “first NFT digital house in the world” for over $500,000Dezeen
Kim designed the home in 2020 to be a space that embodied her philosophy of meditative design and worked with an architect to render the house using Unreal Engine, software that is commonly used to create video games. She describes the house, which overlooks a moody mountain range and features an open-plan design and floor to ceiling glass walls, as a “light sculpture”.

Andrés Reisinger sells collection of “impossible” virtual furniture for $450,000 at auctionDezeen
Each of the virtual items can be placed in any shared 3D virtual space or “metaverse”, including open worlds such as Decentraland and Somnium Space and Minecraft. Alternatively, the 3D models can be used in virtual- and augmented-reality applications as well as development platforms such as Unity and Unreal Engine to create games, animations and CGI movies.

Timescales, though. The web’s already 30 years old, how long do we have to wait for all this? And how will we stop it going sour again?

Technologically grim tales

What a way to end 2019.

The most dangerous people on the internet this decadeWired
In some cases these figures represent dangers not so much to public safety, but to the status quo. We’ve also highlighted actual despots, terrorists, and saboteurs who pose a serious threat to lives around the world. As the decade comes to a close, here’s our list of the people we believe best characterize the dangers that emerged from the online world in the last 10 years—many of whom show no signs of becoming any less dangerous in the decade to come.

It’s not just the people that are alarming, it’s the technology too, and what can be done with it, like this investigation into the smartphone tracking industry. (I didn’t even realise there was such an industry.)

technologically-grim-tales

Twelve million phones, one dataset, zero privacyThe New York Times
Every minute of every day, everywhere on the planet, dozens of companies — largely unregulated, little scrutinized — are logging the movements of tens of millions of people with mobile phones and storing the information in gigantic data files. The Times Privacy Project obtained one such file, by far the largest and most sensitive ever to be reviewed by journalists. It holds more than 50 billion location pings from the phones of more than 12 million Americans as they moved through several major cities, including Washington, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Each piece of information in this file represents the precise location of a single smartphone over a period of several months in 2016 and 2017.

But perhaps there’s some room for optimism? Here’s the New York Times again, gazing into their crystal ball.

technologically-grim-tales-2

No more phones and other tech predictions for the next decadeThe New York Times
There has been a lot of gnashing and wailing about screen addiction, “sharenting” and the myriad other negative effects of all the devices we have come to rely on. (I am guilty as charged.) These gadgets have been designed to hook you, not unlike sugar or cigarettes or gambling or opiates. The well known techie Tristan Harris calls it “human downgrading” — and he’s right. But there is yet another opportunity here to push for design ethics, a movement that I think will gain traction as we all assess what our dives into digital have done to humanity. While our tech devices have, on the whole, been good for most people, there is a true business opportunity in making them work more efficiently and without a reliance on addiction. Whether we move toward more intuitively created tech that surrounds us or that incorporates into our bodies (yes, that’s coming), I am going to predict that carrying around a device in our hand and staring at it will be a thing of the past by 2030. And like the electrical grid we rely on daily, most tech will become invisible.

I love the sentiment, but remain very doubtful.

Socialschadenfreude

I’m enjoying reading about the mess Facebook is in, with the Cambridge Analytica scandal. We all like to see successful things in trouble, I guess.

Remember when the ‘fake news’ style of direct marketing first hit Facebook by storm, allowing Trump to win the presidency? This first article from 2016 explains how these highly personalised posts worked.

Cambridge Analytica and the secret agenda of a Facebook quiz
In this election, dark posts were used to try to suppress the African-American vote. According to Bloomberg, the Trump campaign sent ads reminding certain selected black voters of Hillary Clinton’s infamous “super predator” line. It targeted Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood with messages about the Clinton Foundation’s troubles in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Federal Election Commission rules are unclear when it comes to Facebook posts, but even if they do apply and the facts are skewed and the dog whistles loud, the already weakening power of social opprobrium is gone when no one else sees the ad you see — and no one else sees “I’m Donald Trump, and I approved this message.”

It turns out those staggeringly large datasets were obtained in a somewhat underhand way.

How Trump consultants exploited the Facebook data of millions
So the firm harvested private information from the Facebook profiles of more than 50 million users without their permission, according to former Cambridge employees, associates and documents, making it one of the largest data leaks in the social network’s history. The breach allowed the company to exploit the private social media activity of a huge swath of the American electorate, developing techniques that underpinned its work on President Trump’s campaign in 2016.

Surprise surprise, the company as a whole is far from ethical.

Trump’s election consultants filmed saying they use bribes and sex workers to entrap politicians
An undercover investigation by Channel 4 News reveals how Cambridge Analytica secretly campaigns in elections across the world. Bosses were filmed talking about using bribes, ex-spies, fake IDs and sex workers.

And so the powers that be are wanting answers.

Cambridge Analytica: Facebook boss summoned over data claims
In a letter to Mr Zuckerberg, Mr Collins accused Facebook of giving answers “misleading to the Committee” at a previous hearing which asked whether information had been taken without users’ consent.

He said it was “now time to hear from a senior Facebook executive with the sufficient authority to give an accurate account of this catastrophic failure of process”.

Requesting a response to the letter by 26 March, the MP added: “Given your commitment at the start of the New Year to “fixing” Facebook, I hope that this representative will be you.”

Here’s someone willing to help.

Facebook whistleblower gives evidence to MPs on Cambridge Analytica row
Sandy Parakilas, who has claimed covert harvesting was routine at the social network, told the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee Facebook did not do enough to prevent, identify – or act upon – data breaches

But so far nothing.

Where is Mark Zuckerberg?
That is the most prevalent question from people following Facebook’s data scandal involving Cambridge Analytica, the data firm Trump hired to help with his 2016 presidential campaign. Over the weekend, we learned that Cambridge Analytica collected data from some 50 million Facebook users without their consent back in 2015, a revelation that has led to a public outcry about Facebook’s data policies, a tanking stock price and fear of increased regulation.

What can we do? How should we respond to all this? #DeleteFacebook?

WhatsApp co-founder tells everyone to delete Facebook
The tweet came after a bruising five-day period for Facebook that has seen regulators swarm and its stock price plunge following concerns over data privacy in the wake of revelations about Cambridge Analytica’s misuse of user data.

Hating Facebook’s easy. Deleting everything, not so much.

You want to quit Facebook, but will you really click the button? These folks tried.
According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, 68 percent of U.S. adults use Facebook, three quarters of them checking the platform daily. When Facebook reaches a moment of crisis — and it has had a lot of them recently — there’s a wave of users who wonder why they are on the platform in the first place. With the news late last week that Facebook had suspended the data firm Cambridge Analytica for improperly collecting data from Facebook users, this viral discussion about quitting for good has started once again.

[…]

But the idea of quitting always seems to spread further than the follow-through. Even as we learn more about what Facebook does to us, that knowledge comes into conflict with what Facebook has grown to do for us. For many, that moment of hovering over the deactivate button feels a lot like trying to leave a store that’s giving away candy.

If only we all did this earlier.

Should I delete Facebook? The Cambridge Analytica files explained
To avoid this kind of data breach being used to target you, you need to be very careful about the data permissions you give to your connected apps – but even if you do that, you’re still at risk of your friends offering your data to third parties when they give their apps certain permissions. Highly personalised adverts are probably on your feed already.

So should you delete your Facebook account? Let’s hear from Theresa Hong again. “Without Facebook”, the Trump campaigner said last year, “we wouldn’t have won.”

You have your answer.

But perhaps there’s no need to worry, because we don’t really care about any of this, after all.

The only privacy policy that matters
Do you care? We’ve gone so far down the internet highway that we rarely ask that question anymore. But it’s still pertinent. Do you care that your privacy has been, and will be, repeatedly invaded — and that anything you share (willingly or otherwise) on the internet can and will be used against you?

I think I know the answer. I don’t have access to your information. I didn’t pose as an academic to download a treasure trove of social media data. I haven’t coded a programmatic advertising platform aimed at enabling a pair of machines to automatically decide which marketing messages you’ll be more receptive to at any given moment. And yet, just by sharing this medium with you, I feel I know you well enough to know your answer.

You don’t give a shit.