January 13, 2022
Ever since Meta’s 2021 re-branding campaign and new developmental direction, much of the tech world has been fixated on the glimmering, loosely-defined concept of The Metaverse. The word signifies a universal, wholly immersive virtual reality, the future of the internet and the human-technology interface. With the lines between physical and digital worlds blurring and redefining on a daily basis through advancing technological innovation, this future is becoming more and more tangible. However, the realities of life in immersive virtual realities bring up new questions regarding privacy and data security. Addressing these challenges is an important part of integrating disruptive new technologies, and it’s our duty to carefully consider the possibilities that the future holds.
A term originally borrowed from science fiction (the term was coined by author Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel Snow Crash), the word “Metaverse” is commonly used as an advertising buzzword and catch-all descriptor for projects involved with virtual reality, digital assets, or online games. However, overuse of a term doesn’t mean that the underlying concepts it signifies are trivial or unimportant.
We don’t need to look to science fiction for examples of digital immersive realities; most of the world spends the majority of their waking hours in some form of contact with digital devices. Even if we’re not directly interfacing with tools like screens and keyboards, the internet (and all the information it represents) is just a few movements away. Communication, in these digital worlds, is practically instant and can take place with no need for physical interaction. The Metaverse isn’t just a product of the imagination; it’s a realistic description of the virtual realities we’re inhabiting and their logical next steps.
Modern virtual worlds are becoming increasingly immersive and interconnected. The concept of the Metaverse isn’t simply a multiplayer game, a social media platform, or a digital storefront. These technologies are already available to us. The Metaverse is the future of the internet and technology, the outputs of a rapidly evolving culture adapted to new tools as we grow closer and closer to rapidly advancing technology. VR headsets are bulky, expensive, and impractical for constant use in their current form, but smartphones are cheap enough that a majority of the world’s population owns one. The virtual worlds we inhabit are becoming incredibly immersive; these devices act as extensions of our minds, cataloguing our every word and movement, building incredibly detailed profiles identifying our interests, relationships, and habits from the data we feed them.
In this prototype Metaverse we’re living in, privacy has come to take on new levels of importance and meaning. Everything that’s done in a digital world has the potential to be recorded, and each person leaves a unique digital footprint and signature. This data goes deeper than your browsing history and contacts on social media. Modern smartphones track location, patterns of daily use, frequently used words (in daily speech), and record biometric data such as sleep cycles. A modern consumer who owns a smartwatch, phone, and computer might only be casually aware of the amount of data that’s generated, but their devices are part of a global network working to create a uniquely personalized digital experience for all who take part in it.
Meta’s entire business model is built around building and maintaining these consumer data profiles. In 2022, Meta agreed to settle a class action lawsuit for $725 million. This was far from their first legal issue surrounding data privacy; in 2019 the company was struck with a historic $5 billion dollar fine from the FTC on data privacy charges. The technological world we’ve come to inhabit, whatever you choose to call it, will require new understandings and definitions of privacy and personal autonomy. Laws will be reinvented and reinterpreted alongside the development of new technologies, and we share a responsibility to be well informed, for the sake of our collective future in the Metaverses of tomorrow.