Facebook is now Meta. What this represents, other than a clever bit of corporate rebranding for a company whose flagship app is waning in popularity and whose public image is writhing in crisis, is an all-encompassing vision for the future of the Internet. But do we really want Mark Zuckerberg to write tomorrow’s rules?
The chief executive’s announcement last week that his firm would focus its energy on crafting the so-called metaverse was probably perplexing to even seasoned Internet inhabitants who are beyond their high school and college years. The idea is to blend virtual reality with plain old reality, enabling individuals to choose photorealistic avatars that can travel throughout a continuous digital world, attending exercise classes, work meetings and family functions as easily as clicking a link. All these spaces, at least at first, would likely be Facebook-created. But the longer-term ambition shared by most believers involves an interlinked, or interoperable, experience where people can move seamlessly from “place” to “place” — and bring any goods bought, sold and possessed in this environment with them.
Whether this comes to pass at all is far from certain, and whether the way in which it evolves will match Facebook’s vision is even less so. Game-makers and other companies have been developing their own metaverse-like schemes for years. What is certain, however, is that the Web will change to something other than what it is today. We know because we’ve seen it happen before: The earliest era of the modern Internet featured shared protocols that individuals and communities could build. Before long, however, the status quo gave way to today’s centralized platforms and advertisement-based business strategies — what the academic Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism.” This is the society Facebook helped to create; now it wants to create another. The difference, Zuckerberg said in his presentation, is that this time he will be focused on acting responsibly from the beginning.
Pardon the world if it doesn’t want to leave this to him or any single company. The proper course for the Internet to take, obviously, is up for debate; while Facebook preoccupies itself with the metaverse, crypto industry lobbyists are cajoling lawmakers to grease the gears for an economy built on the blockchain. Academics and activists are pushing for other forms of decentralization. Previously, the government lifted its hands from the Web after participating in its funding and development. This time, the public sector would do well to involve itself by investing in the future it wants to see. That calls for rules around privacy, transparency, interoperability and more, but it also means research and development into designing systems that embody civic values such as openness, participation and education instead of systems that encourage exploitation.
This is the opposite of an easy project. But the Facebook CEO’s announcement has given everyone else a chance to think about their own visions rather than merely accept his.