With the rebranding of Facebook as Meta and their move to create an all-encompassing digital world known as the metaverse, a host of moral concerns have arisen. Who will govern this new, borderless and bodiless world? In a world of shifting identities, who has rights? And who has responsibilities to protect vulnerable populations? For Buddhists in particular, is this new world a place of great opportunity or yet another modern distraction from our real-life practice, community, and world?
Let us begin with the rebranding to Meta. On 28 October, CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced Meta, an umbrella company covering all of the apps, including Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Oculus with the goal of integrating them into a, “hybrid of today’s online social experiences, sometimes expanded into three dimensions or projected into the physical world. It will let you share immersive experiences with other people even when you can’t be together—and do things together you couldn’t do in the physical world.” (Meta)
Jason Perlow, senior technology editor for ZD Net, noted that the change took place just as a whistleblower exposed thousands of pages of information detailing the ways that Facebook knew that it was harmful, particularly to the mental health of children, but did not act due to concerns over profits. Perlow offers a list of companies that conveniently changed their name and brand after bad press. It is unclear that Facebook could have known about the potential whistleblower in the months leading up to their name change. Nonetheless, Facebook’s use in the U.S. peaked in 2017 in terms of percentage of the population, and globally they have struggled to develop a fast pace of new users.
Beyond his skepticism about the name change, Perlow offers worries about the experience itself. That experience will rely on the Oculus (now branded as Meta) headset allowing a user to enter virtual reality. That reality will operate on a—yet to be completed—standardized language, much like the World Wide Web is. Yet on that groundwork, owned by Meta, any company could conceivably create a chunk of metaverse reality.
Nick Clegg, former lead of the United Kingdom’s Liberal Democrat party and current vice-president for global affairs and communications at Meta, spoke with the Financial Times in a metaverse room, complete with legless virtual avatars sitting together at a desk.
Richard Bartle, a professor of game design at the University of Essex, has been increasingly interested in what the metaverse might offer. He believes that at first it might be a disjointed set of offerings: a theater metaverse for watching movies, a games metaverse for meeting and playing games with people around the world, an a social metaverse where our Facebook feed could come to virtual life.
Bartle is optimistic about the opportunities the virtual worlds will afford some people, “In the virtual world, you don’t have to be yourself. You can discover who you really are. Society doesn’t push you. That’s what I want to be able to see in the future.” (Venturebeat)
However, can’t Buddhist practice over time also help us discover who we are? And isn’t the “us” found in practice more authentic? That is, at least in Buddhist theory, we discover that there is no true “us” to be found, and that all identities we have are products of culture and society and our own clinging. Can time spent in a virtual world show us this? Or would we instead project our fantasies into the new realm, creating a fake but better version of ourselves to present? Can we really escape the push of society in a virtual realm? Or are we just fleeing the constrictions of material reality?
As Cathy Hackl writes, the real opportunity in the metaverse comes from the companies launching on it. “The metaverse creates a world of infinite possibilities for brands to create experiences, be part of world-building, and engage with customers in entirely new relationship-building ways.” (Forbes) Now they not only have your attention on a screen, but instead in a fully immersive experience. Advertising can invite consumers to interact and can read biometric data as they do so. This, in turn, makes each user in the metaverse a product to be manipulated and sold to corporations.
With users as a commodity, metaverse companies might be slow to remove popular yet harmful individuals or communities. If there is no governance over a digital multiverse, who does one go to if they are harassed or threatened in one of the fully immersed worlds? According to Statista, 44 per cent of Americans have experienced some harassment online and 15 per cent have received physical threats while 12 per cent were stalked. In the metaverse, a stalker could presumably alter their appearance, name, and attributes infinitely, enabling them to track down and traumatize a victim over and over.
Two of our regular columnists, Ernest Ng and Satya Robyn, have pondered the ethics and emotional and spiritual toll of social media and advancing technology in past writings. Ng writes:
Technologies undoubtedly change the way we live, however it would be naive to believe that technologies bring forth only benefits without costs. A recurring theme in history is that the advent of new tools and technologies fundamentally shifts the ways we perceive ourselves and the world, as well as our roles within it. . .
The spiritual and religious exploration of what makes us happy and alleviates our suffering has become more and more challenging: if moral life is the foundation of happiness, as proclaimed by the Buddhist teachings, how can we appreciate moral causes and consequences when we may no longer be able to identify moral agency, as well as the necessary facts and data essential to make proper moral choices?*
This points to the heart of potential difficulties in the metaverse. As much as we may benefit in some ways from life in the metaverse—just as social media allows us to keep in touch with friends and relatives around the world and to follow news reports in real time—our real moral lives still lie in our embodied selves, in the flesh and bone that we are left with when we take off our headset.
Inside the metaverse, we have limited freedoms: to move about more than in real life, to encounter new and different people, and to alter our identity. And yet, these freedoms come with the cost of becoming a product of the metaverse, a dataset to be monitored, advertised to, and manipulated.
Satya Robyn writes of her choice to leave Facebook and Twitter:
Rather than it being a tool for me, I was a tool for it, spending more and more of my time in its grip. The effects of my social media use on the rest of my life were both obvious and insidious.
In obvious ways it sucked my time and energy as I found myself lost in endless scrolls, consuming the gossip of people I hardly knew. It also attacked my attention span—everything is so instant, and there are so many pictures and so much information, causing me to flit like a restless butterfly from post to post. I found myself less able to settle with a book or in meditation as my brain became accustomed to the drip-drip-drip of constant little bursts of dopamine.**
With this, she brings the self-awareness of a deeply practiced meditator to the world of social media. How much more addicting will the metaverse be for us?
One thing is certain: the metaverse isn’t going away. The tech companies behind it have billions of dollars to push into it and see enormous potential profits. Whether we join in or stay out, it is incumbent to continue developing awareness of our experience with the new technology and to continue asking questions about its effects on our lives and our society. Tiernan Ray, contributing writer at ZD Net, warns us, “If activity is going to take place in virtual worlds, it’s time for society to push back on commercial interests by asserting human autonomy in a way that protects it from the most predatory interests.” (ZD Net) Our human autonomy cannot come from a place where we are mere digital expressions, subject to the whims of corporations. It must, like so much of our moral life and Buddhist practice, come from a place of vulnerable but real embodiment.
* Cultivating True Friendship in the Age of Social Dilemma (Buddhistdoor Global)
** Would the Buddha Be on Facebook? (Buddhistdoor Global)
Introducing Meta: A Social Technology Company (Meta)
The ethics of the metaverse (Venture Beat)
Now Is The Time To Talk About Ethics And Privacy In The Metaverse (Forbes)
Share of adult internet users in the United States who have personally experienced online harassment as of January 2020 (Statista)
The Ethics of the Metaverse (Immersive Learning News)
The Metaverse is a human rights dilemma (ZD Net)
Facebook takes a step toward building the metaverse, opens virtual world app to everyone in U.S. (CNBC)