Facebook has announced that it will now operate its social networking sites under the Meta brand: this implies more than just a name change, it also foreshadows the creation of a metaverse by combining augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technologies.
The idea of an evolving metaverse may raise familiar, but still intriguing questions. How much can we trust it? Will it really reshape society? What will matter more in the future: technology or people? How will distancing ourselves from physical space affect our sense of reality? How far are we from the script of a science fiction film? We spoke to Árpád Rab, futurologist and trend researcher, about the relationship between digital space and people, the future of the internet, and more specifically, the meta-universe of Facebook. Part one!
What exactly does a futurologist or trend researcher do?
I’ve been researching digital culture for twenty years: that’s when computers came along and we could see the social impact they would have. I’ve always been interested in what the internet, artificial intelligence, automation or virtual space does to people. Why are they being developed by mankind in the first place, what can they solve, why are they good or bad? I am working on getting as much good out of them as possible.
Besides my research activities, I advise several IT companies, banks, international organizations, and I have been involved in many projects and developments of a specific service or component. I am constantly working on the relationship between computers and people: I also teach the theoretical background of this, and on the practical side, I try to improve people’s quality of life.
We hear a lot about the negative effects of digital life, or more specifically, social media, including digital loneliness. In contrast, Facebook’s motto promises to connect people, and the company’s new name, Meta, promises an evolution of social interaction. What do you think about the impact of digital interactions, and indeed, what are the positive contributions?
In fact, more positive than negative factors can be highlighted. It is a very complex situation, but it is worth starting from the main trend that humanity is using culture as a survival strategy: in other words, technological evolution is a tool for us to live better.
Digitalization, especially in the last hundred years, has brought us a lot of success: we have tripled our lifespans, making us many but also rich. We use technology to solve the challenges of the moment. We are currently facing two significant challenges: one is that we have achieved this great wealth by wasting resources; the other is that, although we have become wealthy, everyone wants to live at the same standard of living as those who have achieved it. Information and communication technologies, the internet, computers, automated services all serve the purpose of making humanity manage its resources more intelligently: strangers can interact with each other or we can share information and knowledge quickly. It solves challenges such as being able to rent a parking space in an instant, or a doctor being able to operate from a thousand kilometers away, or, for example, we could introduce distance learning from one moment to the next—not least, the ease with which you and I can talk online.
Digital culture has created them, and without them, humanity would be basically extinct: in that sense, whether these technologies are needed is not the question. How wisely can we use it? This is indeed a difficult question. What we now know as the Internet is actually all business: it is owned by companies that do not necessarily have social objectives. This is the case with Facebook: it is in the interest of the platform that we use it as often as possible, for as long as possible, so that we give them more information about us and based on that they can serve us targeted advertising. There is nothing wrong with this, it is a clear business model, but because the system wants us to use it as much as possible, it displays opinions that are close to our own. Very slowly, very gently, in a way that people cannot perceive, it traps us in bubbles where we are less and less aware of other people’s attitudes, less and less open to social problems and more and more tensions and hatreds develop. In this sense, Facebook is one of the greatest enemies of democracy. To use it wisely, we need a change in users’ awareness.
What you also mentioned, the increasing loneliness, the bubbles, the superficiality, the change of values, these are all existing problems, which are also the result of the fact that we are still learning this technology. I would prefer to say that eighty percent of it is good and twenty percent is bad, and we like to talk more about the latter. This is not a criticism of your question; we have to address the problem to solve it, but we attribute many phenomena to digital culture, and yet they are not the reason for it. The phenomenon of growing loneliness is as much about our workaholic view of society as it is about the growing number of fragmented families and fragmented lives, with the latter in the sense that we work in one place for a while and then live in another, so we don’t belong to communities as much.
It is very difficult to judge which of the many bad feelings we are feeling now, such as climate panic, is caused by digital culture. I could overtone our negative attitudes towards social media by saying that the technologies themselves are undoubtedly good, but we also need to use them more wisely.
Our negative thoughts are also fueled by the scandals surrounding Facebook. Do you think Facebook Meta is really just a forced move by the company, or is it really the result of organic innovation? As a futurist, what do you think? Was this move predictable?
There were already similar ideas back in the early 2000s, but the internet at that time, speed, server capacity and data volume did not allow it. For Facebook to plan to create a metaverse was utterly predictable. The company’s business model is based on gathering plenty of people—mainly from Anglo-Saxon and European countries—so it is much more convenient for different companies to reach out through this platform, for example.
The fact that life is taking off in the digital space is something we know and expect. If, for example, a company develops a virtual shop where I can go in with my avatar and try on clothes, and then another and a third do the same, that means a lot of money, time and effort. It is much easier if Facebook gets ahead of everyone and gives you server capacity and a platform: the meta-universe. That way, different companies will be able to buy the components to build their own store, which will look like in the real world.
Facebook is not making the metaverse primarily for the people, but to be one step ahead and enable companies to offer their services through it. People’s utopian, science-fiction-like idea of experiencing the same metaspace as the real world is not the goal, but rather to create an alternative experience center.
However, the fact that humanity is having more and more experiences in the digital space is already a trend, due to the fact that many of us on Earth are maltreating our environment. Because of this, one’s desire to do something is increasingly being pushed into the digital space, even though we know that it is not exactly the same as reality. It is not that only this or that particular thing will exist, but that this additional service will emerge as a platform for entertainment. So, for example, I can go shopping with my friends physically in the morning and then alone in the metaverse at night.
We also need to see that this phenomenon will intensify in the next ten to fifteen years, and digital values will become increasingly important for us. For example, in the past, it would have been unthinkable to buy digital clothes—something we couldn’t even touch—but now it’s a cliché. That doesn’t mean I don’t have physical clothes anymore, just that it’s also a market. If you think about it, we have a growing number of these digital assets already: our films, our books, for example, that we don’t own, we just bought them digitally.
For now, the metaverse is built on the logic of a business platform, a move that was absolutely expected: instead, we should imagine that, on top of the many entertainment and experience options that we have so far, there will be a further, but not inevitable, option.
We also know that Generation X, but especially Generation Z, are moving to alternative social networking sites or even going on a digital detox for a short period. For this young but disillusioned generation, what will make Facebook’s transformation into a metaverse attractive? Who will be the users at all?
If it’s easy to get in, easy to use, and worth the investment, then your users will be the same people who are facebookers now. For example, when I want to talk to someone, all I have to do is send a quick chat message, whereas getting into the metaverse will be a struggle for a while: where it can really add something extra, it’s still a long way from us, it’s still evolving. For now, the ergonomic challenges are the problem. Right now, the key is to create a metaspace before everybody else and then improve it: the Facebook we have now was not the same, it didn’t have a like button ten years ago and it wasn’t used on mobile phones, so it has changed over time.
The transformation of the digital culture was very fast: it swept us away in ten years, so it’s true for everyone, younger and older generations alike, that we are just learning to use it: when to switch it off, when not to—it is up to us to decide. Facebook puts pressure on us: it shows us how many notifications we have in little red rings and we feel an irresistible urge to press it, but we do it to ourselves. Of course, there is a psychological background to this, but even so, some people ignore it: we are much more aware of our use of the platform today than we were years ago.
The metaverse is not expected to have the mass effects or bubbles of Facebook in the next ten years, simply because that would require us to be in it day and night.
Now we are always present on Facebook because of our smartphone and various notifications—in the case of the metaverse, this is much further away, not only because of the more difficult access to digital devices and accessories but also because of the lack of server capacity itself.
You say that the virtual universe of Facebook Meta won’t be an unavoidable option, but could there still be a downside for someone who doesn’t sign up for such a platform?
I don’t think so: it’s a commercial service. The kind of meta-universe which is a real pain to live without—we are still a long way from that. We will have many more problems to deal with before then. In fact, these fine nets, the fact that it’s bad to be left out of something, or that we’re being manipulated digitally, these are all already working very, very well, and people feel it less than they think they do for now. Everyone thinks we know this, but we don’t: people’s behavior can be predicted very well.
We don’t have to be in a metaverse to suffer social or even individual psychological damage caused by the internet.
In fact, it might even be more straightforward if you felt that you were entering a digital space bound by time and place. In reality, for example, when we enter a church, we know it is a sacred space and we behave accordingly. Our use of the internet was much more conscious as long as we were tied to a place: we sat down in front of the computer and mentally immersed ourselves. The smartphone has broken that up, so now social media is always around us. For a metaverse to be socially transformative, it is challenging in many other ways because it can only succeed if our environment is in a very, very degraded state.
The rest of the conversation will be coming soon!
Illustration by László Bárdos