The metaverse of 2040 must encode democratic values, or it will enable an authoritarian nightmare

Image Credit: Online Abuse in the Metaverse Untangled, Web Foundation

In many ways, one future is already here: the metaverse Meta imagines is just not evenly distributed yet. But, as with the Internet that the nascent virtual worlds Facebook founder is building has in many senses been built upon, what the metaverse (or metaverses!) will be has yet to be written – much less the ways humanity will use it.

In 2022, the Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center surveyed hundreds of technology experts about what the metaverse will look like in 2040.

Two key themes emerged from that non-scientific canvasing:

  1. A “notable share of these experts argued that the embrace of extended reality in people’s daily lives by 2040 will be centered around augmented-reality and mixed-reality tools, not in the more-fully-immersive virtual reality worlds many people define today as being ‘the metaverse.’
  2. Experts “warned that these new worlds could dramatically magnify every human trait and tendency – both the bad and the good. They especially focused their concerns on the ability of those in control of these systems to redirect, restrain or thwart human agency and stifle people’s ability to self-actualize through exercise of free will, and they worried over the future freedom of humans to expand their native capacities.”

This following is our full answer to Pew’s questions, with two summaries distilled from the survey results. (You can read the rest in this PDF or Pew’s website.)

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What we imagine about the future has always shaped by great authors and filmmakers whose vision inspires humans to invent the future. It can take decades or centuries or even millennia for many technology to catch up with someone’s imagination, though the future we experience may differ from the one we expected because of an accelerant like a global pandemic or a war. It may take years for the relevance or full impact of a new technology upon society to become apparent, like the Internet, smartphone, social media, bulk surveillance, drones, artificial intelligence, or mRNA vaccines.

The metaverse will be no different.

We may think of of it as conceived by Neal Stephenson in “Snow Crash,” the iconic cyberpunk novel from the 1990s that described a virtual world that could be accessed using personal terminals with goggles, public terminals and booths, or portable rigs operated by “gargoyles” who were always online. In many ways, such a space has existed and endures Second Life for the past two decades, but – unlike text and video-based social media platforms – never reached planetary scale. Around two hundred thousand people log onto Second Life daily in 2022, but the other 7 billion of us do not.

By 2040, we should expect the personal and public terminals that Stephenson once envisaged to exist in many forms around the globe, from public kiosks to university pods to private homes to library booths to commercial gear operated corporations to police and military interfaces. If the world is anything like today, each will have its own affordances, stigma, power, and privileges that will be reflected in capacity and appearance.

We should also expect that the smartglasses, VR goggles, and AR browsers in our smartphones today will be akin to the personal computers of the 1980s and cellphones of the 1990s in two decades time. The emerging panoply of computing devices that augment what we see and enable us to explore virtual worlds using avatars project images onto lenses or our eyeballs are still in their relative infancy today, as are the smartwatches, health bands, and fitness trackers of today.

In 2040, we should expect spoken and gestural interfaces like the ones we saw in “Minority Report” that enable us to interact in augmented reality layers in a given physical location, viewing the annotations and glyphs others have left, with background systems pulling up information about the people, places, and objects we observe. This will have some implications for how we live, work, play, govern, conduct business, pursue romance, as these new civic, corporate, and private spaces become commercialized or co-opted by the same societal forces and institutions that shaped the development and extension of Internet technologies in the 20th century.

When combined, all of these devices, our activity on them, the sensors in them, and the urban environments around us and above us will make up an “embodied Internet” on which we leave digital exhaust with each action or movement.

As with smartphones and the data collection practices of 2022, people won’t need to be wearing goggles, smartglasses or other wearable computers to be affected by adding more Internet-connected cameras, sensors, and autonomous devices to public and private spaces. This will put a premium on nations and states enacting data protection laws that protect children, consumers, citizens, and seniors as they move through these sensorized spaces.

While dystopian outcomes aren’t assured, there is gathering risk that failures in collective action will allow today’s ransomware and speak phishing to persist and become even more pernicious as more and more human activity is tracked as we navigate a planet overlaid with a metaverse. As with rapidly emerging systems that currently are being used in concentration camps by authoritarians in modern surveillance states, such a metaverse could empower authoritarians to track, control, and coerce billions of humans in silicon prisons ringed by invisible barbed wire, governed by opaque algorithmic regulation and vast artificial intelligences.

By 2040, we should expect to see positive applications of augmented reality in education, the sciences, entertainment, manufacturing, governance, and more, combined with virtual experiences that mix up holographic avatars with humans in ways that recall Star Trek’s holodeck.

In the most optimistic timeline, we will see the best of the generative aspects of today’s crude virtual worlds on Roblox or Minecraft evolve into global marketplaces in which people can buy synthetic goods and services with digital assets. If nation states can shape democratic norms into globally respected laws, billions of humans will be able to work, learn, play, and share in new civic spaces in which privacy and security by default protect human rights and civil liberties across platforms and media. Human nature itself will not change, but the nature of being human will be informed by this shift, as will our capacity to push for collective action to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.

If nations do not enact data protection laws that center human rights online, however, and insist upon open standards and democratic norms for the emergent civic spaces of today, then the metaverses of 2040 will be pervasive closed platforms of coercion & control driven by surveillance capitalism, not open platforms for expression, connection, & generativity.