Augmented Reality and Visions of a Dystopian Metaverse

Flying across the country tonight, I’ll be at the Augmented World Expo in Santa Clara, CA, which returns to both an in-person and virtual conference on November 9-11. With a packed schedule of AR tech demos and talks this week and fresh off of October’s Connect event from the company formerly known as Facebook (now Meta), it’s hard not to be thinking about the social/cultural implications of the rapidly accelerating developments in augmented reality and a parallel virtual world in our lives. So it was time, midflight, to look at a recent article in Big Think from Louis Rosenberg, an early AR developer who lays out the possibilities of a dystopian metaverse in our future. 

We try not to get caught up in dystopian views of our significant digital developments. Technology always incorporates the best and worst of our human impulses. As Stanford’s Jeremey Bailenson said of virtual reality, it’s is like nuclear power. We can heat our homes with it, or we can blow up the world.

But the dangers of VR pale in comparison to the potential challenges raised by an all-encompassing metaverse. At some point, our AR glasses will be as much a part of our lives as our smartphones are today. How will human experience be reshaped by devices that augment every human interaction? What will be the role of corporations in this virtual environment? What about the impact of human beings pushing divisive agendas? What will happen when social media is no longer media but virtual experiences intertwined with our everyday lives?

The Vision of a Dystopian Metaverse

These implications and others were laid out in the Big Think essay on a dystopian metaverse. The short article is worth reading in full, but here is one way our human interactions could evolve:

Let’s face it: We find ourselves in a society where countless layers of technology exist between each of us and our daily lives, moderating our access to news and information, mediating our relationships with friends and family, filtering our impressions of products and services, and even influencing our acceptance of basic facts. We now live mediated lives, all of us depending more and more on the corporations that provide and maintain the intervening layers. And when those layers are used to manipulate us, the industry does not view it as misuse but as “marketing.” And this is not just being used to peddle products but to disseminate untruths and promote social division. The fact is, we now live in dangerous times, and AR has the potential to amplify the dangers to levels we have never seen.

Imagine walking down the street in your hometown, casually glancing at people you pass on the sidewalk. It is much like today, except floating over the heads of every person you see are big glowing bubbles of information. Maybe the intention is innocent, allowing people to share their hobbies and interests with everyone around them. Now imagine that third parties can inject their own content, possibly as a paid filter layer that only certain people can see. And they use that layer to tag individuals with bold flashing words like “Alcoholic” or “Immigrant” or “Atheist” or “Racist” or even less charged words like “Democrat” or “Republican.” Those who are tagged may not even know that others can see them that way. The virtual overlays could easily be designed to amplify political division, ostracize certain groups, even drive hatred and mistrust. Will this really make the world a better place? Or will it take the polarized and confrontational culture that has emerged online and spray it across the real world?

Now imagine you work behind a retail counter. AR will change how you size up your customers. That is because personal data will float all around them, showing you their tastes and interests, their spending habits, the type of car they drive, the size of their house, even their gross annual income. It would have been unthinkable decades ago to imagine corporations having access to such information, but these days, we accept it as the price of being consumers in a digital world. With AR, personal information will follow us everywhere, exposing our behaviors and reducing our privacy. Will this make the world a better place? I don’t think so, and yet this is where we are headed.

A Dystopian Idea from the Beginning

Earlier this summer, Brian Merchant argued in Vice that the metaverse has always been a dystopian idea. From its first appearance, it was more of a necessary escape from the world than anything positive. Even the updated version in Ready Player One keeps the sense of the virtual world as a respite from the real world.

The metaverse was born in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 Snow Crash, where it serves as entertainment and an economic underbelly to a poor, desperate nation that is literally governed by corporate franchises.

The dystopian vision in Keiichi Matsuda's short video.

But this pessimistic vision of the metaverse as a needed oasis becomes something different in London designer and filmmaker Keiichi Matsuda’s short video, Hyper-Reality. Here, it’s a kaleidoscopic environment where the digital and physical worlds have merged. There is no real world to escape from as the metaverse is no longer a distinct, separate realm. It’s become our human reality. 

A Corporate Future or a Human Future?

If Keiichi Matsuda’s video focuses on the commercialization of human life, Louis Rosenberg’s article in the Big Think focuses on corporate control of our personal data and virtual space. And it reflects our current concerns over the disruptive role of agenda-driven individuals in social media. Yet as powerful as these developments are, data is only collected from what we view, click, and share on our flat screens. And while agenda-driven individuals have created havoc in the political process and the current health crisis, their impact is still limited.

But what happens when the metaverse arrives? When we are no longer glued to our smartphones? When the world itself has become our screen? AR is not simply another technology development but a shift in our relationship to technology. The virtual world will be the lens through which we engage with the world and each other. That holds the profound potential to transform the way we learn, work, and entertainment ourselves.

And it puts us at an inflection point. Will the metaverse be inclusive, accentuating the common bonds of our humanity? Or will it be divisive, further polarizing human interaction and socioeconomic stratification? As the metaverse takes shape, decisions will be made about virtual property, the design of algorithms, and the use of AI that will profoundly impact how we interact with each other. The current crisis over the role of social media is a glimpse of what happens when those decisions are made only by those in Silicon Valley.

A dystopian metaverse isn’t inevitable, but it will require that all voices be heard. With augmented reality and a ubiquitous virtual world, the digital revolution is giving us the opportunity to shape our future – perhaps more powerfully since the early days of the Internet. How we use this moment will say much about who we are and the world we want to have in the future.

More to come this week from a fascinating conference that brings us one step closer to the metaverse.