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While layoffs in November came as a surprise to many, but another round of job cuts has been widely anticipated by the Meta workforce. Representational pic

What is ‘metaverse’ and why does Mark Zuckerberg want us to live in it?

Basically, for Silicon Valley billionaire peddlers of tech utopia, metaverse refers to augmented and virtual reality products and services

Facebook recently announced a plan to bring all of its properties – including WhatsApp, Instagram and the headset brand Oculus VR – under a soon-to-be announced umbrella organisation. The rebrand is now a done thing and FB is now Meta. [Earlier, the company had announced that the rebranding would be made public at the annual Connect Conference on October 28].

For Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the rebrand isn’t just about a change in the company name, but a reflection of his obsession on an oftentimes derided new area: ‘metaverse’.

‘Metaverse’ (made up of the prefix ‘meta’, meaning ‘beyond’, and the stem ‘verse’, a back formation from ‘universe’), is where the real and virtual merge into science fiction and allow people to move between different devices and communicate in a virtual environment.

It may not only refer to virtual worlds, but the internet as a whole, including the entire spectrum of augmented reality.

Basically, for Silicon Valley billionaire peddlers of tech utopia, it refers to augmented and virtual reality products and services.

Also read: Here’s what to expect from Facebook’s Ray-Ban ‘smart glasses’

Zuckerberg has already announced plans to invest $50 million as part of its efforts to create a metaverse, as well as plans to create nearly 10,000 jobs in Europe as part of its ambitions.

It has invested heavily in VR and AR, acquiring hardware such as the Oculus VR headset and working on AR glasses and wristband technologies. It has also purchased several VR gaming studios, including BigBox VR, and has about 10,000 people working on VR.

“I believe the ‘metaverse’ will be the successor to the mobile internet, and creating this product group is the next step in our journey to help build it,” Zuckerberg said in July.

“If we do this well, I think over the next five years or so… we will effectively transition from people seeing us as primarily being a social media company to being a ‘metaverse’ company.”

Why Zuckerberg wants Us to build ‘Metaverse’

The term ‘metaverse’ was coined in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 science fiction novel Snow Crash. The novel is set mostly in a corporate-sponsored Los Angeles in the 21st century, when the city is no longer part of the US, the currency is in free fall and “human avatars rampage through a virtual reality simulation that’s far more like an unfun game than like life as we know it”, according to an op-ed in The Los Angeles Times.

For critics such as the philosopher Richard Rory, the novel represented a “rueful acquiescence in the end of American hope”; yet others have called it “sinister”.

In an influential essay, venture capitalist Matthew Ball identified the core attributes of metaverse thusly:

It will:

  • Be persistent – which is to say, it never “resets” or “pauses” or “ends”, it just continues indefinitely
  • Be synchronous and live – even though pre-scheduled and self-contained events will happen, just as they do in “real life”, the metaverse will be a living experience that exists consistently for everyone and in real-time
  • Be without any cap to concurrent users, while also providing each user with an individual sense of “presence” – everyone can be a part of the metaverse and participate in a specific event/place/activity together, at the same time and with individual agency
  • Be a fully functioning economy – individuals and businesses will be able to create, own, invest, sell, and be rewarded for an incredibly wide range of “work” that produces “value” that is recognised by others
  • Be an experience that spans both the digital and physical worlds, private and public networks/experiences, and open and closed platforms
  • Offer unprecedented interoperability of data, digital items/assets, content, and so on across each of these experiences – your Counter-Strike gun skin, for example, could also be used to decorate a gun in Fortnite, or be gifted to a friend on/through Facebook. Similarly, a car designed for Rocket League (or even for Porsche’s website) could be brought over to work in Roblox. Today, the digital world basically acts as though it were a mall where every store used its own currency, required proprietary ID cards, had proprietary units of measurement for things like shoes or calories, and different dress codes, etc.
  • Be populated by “content” and “experiences” created and operated by an incredibly wide range of contributors, some of whom are independent individuals, while others might be informally organised groups or commercially-focused enterprises

Critical pivot

For Zuckerberg, who has been under fire for Facebook’s role – real or perceived – in the spread of fake news, hate, divisions and ethnic violence (in India) and even genocide (in Myanmar), and who is facing regulatory pressure in many parts of the world, including the US, the pivot to metaverse is critical.

Also read: Zuckerberg denies ex-employee’s charge of profit-over-safety

Regulators in America are currently attempting to break his company up. A package of bills making its way through Congress would potentially force the company to spin out Instagram and WhatsApp, and limit Facebook’s ability to make future acquisitions — or offer services connected to its hardware products.

Per tech website The Verge: 

“Even if tech regulation stalls in the United States — historically not a bad bet — a thriving metaverse would raise questions… about how the virtual space is governed, how its contents would be moderated, and what its existence would do to our shared sense of reality. We’re still getting our arms wrapped around the two-dimensional version of social platforms; wrangling the 3D version could be exponentially harder.”

For years now Facebook has been gearing up to face an antitrust campaign to break it up into its constituent parts. Zuckerberg has said such a possibility represents an  “existential” threat to the company and he has promised to “go to the mat” and fight any such measures. The company has already taken steps to more closely integrate its subsidiaries into its main product, the Facebook platform. Bringing all of his properties under a single organisation and moving into ‘metaverse’ will make it even more complicated for regulators to disentangle the many limbs of Zuckerberg’s companies.

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