By Evan SelingerJuly 19, 2022
The Metaverse: And How It Will Revolutionize Everything by Matthew Ball
Discussions of the metaverse contain hype and confusion, and Ball wants to cut through both. In The Metaverse: And How It Will Revolutionize Everything, he aims to provide “a clear, comprehensive, and authoritative definition of this still inchoate idea.” That’s an admirable goal, and Ball did enough research to meet it and clarify the most fundamental technological and business issues. I learned a lot from his probing analysis, and you probably will, too.
Unfortunately, Ball only presents a tiny glimpse into the societal challenges that will arise if the metaverse matures in the way that he describes. Ball regards his reticence as a virtue, claiming he has to be “cautious” and “modest” when discussing ethical, political, and legal matters because others are more qualified “to speak to them.” While authors shouldn’t arrogantly express strong opinions on issues that they don’t know much about, this delegatory impulse and tentativeness are in themselves problematic.
Ball waits until the end of the book to address what he concedes are the most terrifying issues at stake: privacy, content moderation, and conduct moderation. Their placement and brevity mean that readers experience minimal unease about the metaverse, making it far too easy for them to be optimistic about the future. And, really, what are metaverse optimists good for? Could it be investing in the tech companies now bringing it to life? If so, the logical next step is for readers of The Metaverse to invest in the exchange-traded fund “Roundhill Ball Metaverse ETF.” Indeed, Ball is working hard to provide us with an opportunity to capitalize on his “proprietary methodology” — a system which, he claims, allows his “Ball Metaverse Index” to provide “the definitive listing and ranking” of the companies that are building the metaverse.
Another problem with minimizing profound ethical, political, and legal issues is that Ball fails to emphasize what’s most important: how to construct the metaverse responsibly. Responsible innovation requires confronting head-on the challenging arenas where fundamental values collide, like liberty and safety, and not treating them as afterthoughts. After all, as investment intensifies and more infrastructure gets created, technical standards will solidify, and then it will become harder to introduce changes to design and policy that significantly alter power dynamics. The current set of internet governance concerns demonstrates that the model of making things first and dealing with their societal consequences later is seriously flawed and harms vulnerable and dependent people.
Ball believes the coming metaverse is so important that it will “forever alter our daily lives” and “redefine the nature of work and labor markets.” He also predicts that “[future] generations will eventually move to and live inside it” and “the collective value of these changes will be in the tens of trillions of dollars.” Given these high stakes, Ball should constantly be questioning whether the powerful companies manufacturing the metaverse are up for the challenge of responsible stewardship. Their track record doesn’t inspire confidence. Yes, the metaverse might involve massive decentralization that shifts today’s overarching power dynamics. But Ball doesn’t rule out a grave and likely possibility: companies like Meta could have an oversized influence on governance. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Meta ranks high in the Roundhill Ball Metaverse investor’s deck.
Taking the Measure of the Metaverse
The Metaverse has three sections. The first one attempts to clear up confusion. Ball clarifies what the metaverse means and revisits the origin of crucial ideas shaping it. He also reviews leading attempts over the past few decades to build parts of the metaverse, and he unpacks why video game companies play a significant role in innovation. The second section identifies the primary technical issues that need to get resolved to build the metaverse, such as software and hardware challenges. Finally, the third section addresses the future. Ball makes a case for how the metaverse has the potential to “revolutionize everything,” including education, work, dating, and entertainment. He also offers insight into some of the complex governance challenges that lie ahead. I’ll come back to this last issue in the next section.
“Metaverse” isn’t a new word. Neal Stephenson coined it 30 years ago in his novel Snow Crash when imagining a dystopian, corporation-dominated version of life in the 21st century. Philosopher Richard Rorty characterized this period as marking “the end of American hope.” Today, companies are working hard to infuse the word “metaverse” with positive connotations and associate it with desirable real-world projects. Consider Facebook, one of the world’s most financially valuable and scandal-ridden companies. It’s so hot on the metaverse that it rebranded itself as Meta Platforms Inc. and ran a Metaverse ad during the Super Bowl. Applebee’s Bar and Grill promotes “Metaverse Mondays,” and fast-food chain Wendy’s advertises the “Wendyverse”!
One of Ball’s crowning achievements is providing a clear definition of the metaverse. It’s long, but he persuasively argues that it can’t be any shorter:
A massively scaled and interoperable network of real-time rendered 3D virtual worlds that can be experienced synchronously and persistently by an effectively unlimited number of users with an individual sense of presence, and with continuity of data, such as identity, history, entitlements, objects, communications, and payments.
Since Ball spends most of the book unpacking these complex and nuanced ideas, going deep into topics that people too quickly gloss over — like why interoperable assets can only exist along a spectrum of possibilities — I can only address some of the basics and touch upon a few of the surprising insights.
Let’s begin with the question of timing. Ball disagrees with those who claim the metaverse has already arrived, like Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. In this spirit, Microsoft framed its intent to buy Activision Blizzard for nearly $70 billion as a metaverse acquisition rather than merely an extension of its gaming business.
Ball also rejects the premise that there will be a precise moment “when a switch flips,” marking the official arrival of the metaverse era. Instead, he states it will advance through a disruptive and recursive process that doesn’t follow a predictable linear course. Despite the uncertainty ahead, Ball confidently declares: “By the end of the decade, we’ll agree the Metaverse has arrived.” (By then, Ball concedes, we might ditch “metaverse” and use another term to characterize the next generation of online experience.)
For all his enthusiasm about the metaverse, Ball warns about a “hype cycle.” In this phase, companies will overestimate how quickly they’ll overcome technical, social, and economic barriers. If we’re in the “hype cycle” now, we should be skeptical of Mark Zuckerberg’s vision. Zuckerberg, who discussed his views on the metaverse with Ball before announcing his vision publicly, predicts that with companies like Meta spending billions a year on metaverse projects, it should take only a decade to mature.
When painting his rosy picture of the metaverse, Zuckerberg invariably waxes poetic about augmented reality glasses and the benefits of spending lots of time in highly immersive and richly embodied virtual reality environments. But for many of us, it’s hard to imagine games like Roblox, Fortnite, and Minecraft and specialized simulations becoming the entry points for virtual reality spreading to the widely used enterprise and consumer services that mediate how we socialize, learn, work, and shop. For example, I recently participated in a metaverse and human rights event in Microsoft’s AltspaceVR. I was so disappointed that I’m not inclined to re-enter virtual reality for conferences or workshops any time soon. For starters, I had to borrow a friend’s headset. After getting the gear, I had trouble logging on, got a headache from participating, and found the setup (a virtual stage for our legless avatars to convene) less effective than Zoom, fatiguing as that service can be.
I found Ball’s take on this situation refreshingly sober. He acknowledges that although virtual reality technology is rapidly getting better and becoming increasingly affordable, people like me are in the majority. “Fewer than one in fourteen people today routinely engage in the virtual world,” Ball writes, “and these virtual worlds are almost exclusively games […] with only marginal influence of society at large.” Ball further states that virtual reality headsets and augmented reality smartglasses “face […] significant technical, financial, and experiential obstacles” and won’t soon replace “most of the devices we use today.” From this perspective, we shouldn’t discount smartphones and tablets as soon-to-be relics. Instead, Ball emphasizes these devices, which we’ve grown accustomed to and depend upon, are “rapidly improving.” He speculates that, for a while at least, they will continue to be our primary mobile means of accessing the internet and will function as a “common interface” for interacting with the metaverse.
Crucially, Ball does not include the terms “decentralization,” “Web3,” and “blockchain” in his definition of the metaverse. These words are “entangled” with popular conceptions of the metaverse due to two widespread and highly speculative assumptions: that the next phase of the internet (Web3) will involve less centralized corporate control, and that blockchain technology will necessarily have to be used for a variety of functions, including securing claims to our digital assets, diversifying and expanding investment pools, and expanding possibilities for collaboration, including over matters of governance through decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs). Ball concedes these speculations might be correct and explains why. But he doesn’t see any manifest destiny in how the metaverse must unfold. Contrary to the decentralized dogma, which envisions a people-centric internet (and seems to be in denial about how much power established tech companies will wield through metaverse landgrabs), Ball is open to the possibility that powerful technology companies could have a significant influence on how many people experience the metaverse. In fact, he contends that “the growth of the metaverse benefits from both decentralization and centralization.”
Refreshingly, Ball is willing to entertain rational skepticism about how much value blockchain technology offers. For example, he notes it “remains expensive and slow.” And, going back to the “hype cycle” thesis, he calls out speculation rooted in mystification. “Many NFTs and blockchain-based games,” Ball writes, “are propped up by user confusion around what exactly is being bought, how it can be used, and how it might be in the future (many don’t care as long as the prices go up.)”
Additionally, Ball doesn’t envision the metaverse conforming to universal standards. He says we should expect rules to differ in different virtual worlds, just like today’s websites can vary considerably. For example, some are paywalled, while others aren’t. Furthermore, Ball foresees that the present trend of “nation-specific” regulations providing users with different internet experiences in different countries will likely persist. For example, “[F]ollowing the trends visible in the Chinese internet today,” Ball writes, “it’s a good bet that China’s ‘Metaverse’ will be even more different from (and centrally controlled compared to) that of Western nations.”
Ultimately, Ball claims we don’t know enough to provide a detailed description of “what society will look like, overall, after the Metaverse arrives.” But even with this knowledge gap, he’s not worried “about a future in which no one goes outside and spends their existence strapped to a VR headset.” That anxiety, Ball insists, lacks “context.” It glosses over today’s problems, like “[t]he average senior in the United States” having a life so confined they spend “seven and a half hours per day watching TV.”
A Predictably Terrifying Future
As mentioned earlier, at the end of the book, Ball devotes a little bit of space to flagging some of the immensely challenging ethical, social, political, and legal issues. Unfortunately, Ball presents this parting acknowledgment as obvious — as if everyone who isn’t living under a rock should expect that the more society moves online, the more problems it will have. In reality, the more companies brand the “metaverse” with positive associations, the less noticeable the point seems. For example, Meta’s Super Bowl ad pulls out all the stops and portrays Horizon Worlds, its social virtual reality platform, as a religiously transcendent place to visit.
If the metaverse develops in the manner Ball describes, we are on a crash course with problems that society is unprepared to address. For example, as I’ve argued elsewhere, advancing the metaverse might mean further eroding privacy by subjecting users to pervasive eye-tracking in augmented and virtual reality. Since privacy protections need to be greatly improved to address current threats, we can’t afford to fall even further behind.
Again, Ball does acknowledge that frightening possibilities lie ahead. Beyond privacy problems, he claims that, as the metaverse matures, “[m]isinformation and election tampering will likely increase, making our current day complications of out-of-context sound bites, trolling tweets, and faculty scientific claims feel quaint.” He also states that “[w]e are right to be terrified by what ‘revenge porn’ might look like […] powered by high-fidelity avatars, deepfakes, synthetic voice construction, motion capture, and other emergent virtual and physical technologies.” And he predicts that decentralization “will also make moderation more difficult, malcontents harder to stop, and illicit fundraising far less difficult.”
Let’s focus on moderation, and, more specifically, on content moderation, which involves regulating what people should be allowed to say, with conduct moderation involving the regulation of how avatars should be allowed to behave. Here’s what Ball has to say about how Facebook currently handles content moderation problems: “Facebook has tens of thousands of content moderators; if hiring more moderators would solve for harassment, misinformation, and other ills on the platform, no one would be more motivated to do so than Mark Zuckerberg.”
Ball’s statement suggests that Zuckerberg is spending an appropriate amount of money on content moderators and isn’t allocating more because he believes doing so would be ineffective. I beg to differ. Zuckerberg isn’t paying content moderators enough for these workers to keep online environments safe. As recent reporting, past reporting, and academic scholarship demonstrate, the workers who are moderating content on Facebook are subjected to psychologically traumatizing conditions and, in some cases, paid as little as $1.50 an hour. Surely, this is not what responsible investment looks like. Arguably, Zuckerberg is also underinvesting in the software that proactively detects prohibited content, at least relative to its spending on software used to grow its business. Given Zuckerberg’s track record, if Meta has a powerful influence on the metaverse, it will continue investing too little in content moderation (even in the context of ever more dangerous deepfakes). And it won’t do any better with conduct moderation. Case in point: Meta recently rejected a proposal at a shareholder’s meeting to commission a third party to evaluate “potential psychological and civil and human rights harms to users that may be caused by the use and abuse of the platform” and to determine “whether harms can be mitigated or avoided, or are unavoidable risks inherent in the technology.”
A big part of the problem is scale. Facebook is so big that content moderators probably can’t handle the monumental task one piecemeal interaction at a time. This limitation doesn’t bode well for the future because, as you may recall, Ball defines the metaverse as so “massively scaled” that, in principle, it can be accessed by “an effectively unlimited number of users.” Zuckerberg is well aware of this danger, and Ball should be shouting it from the rooftops rather than glossing over it. Indeed, according to Financial Times reporter Hannah Murphy, Andrew Bosworth — “the executive in charge of Facebook’s push into virtual reality” who wants “virtual worlds to have ‘almost Disney levels of safety’” — wrote a memo that admits moderation “at any meaningful scale is practically impossible.”
A year ago, Facebook released a safety video that broadcasts “you’re always in control” when using its virtual reality products. But this reassuring message hasn’t turned out to be true. A beta tester for Meta’s Horizon Worlds reported being groped there. Since then, additional accusations of sexual assault and harassment have emerged. This isn’t surprising. When tech companies tout user control, they overestimate how much actionable freedom users have and underplay how much of their own responsibility they’re offloading to others. Highlighting user control also obscures a crucial dimension of context. The early stages of the metaverse are heavily gamer-oriented, and, unfortunately, as Gamergate demonstrated, a non-trivial amount of game culture is infused with toxicity.
If, as intended, the metaverse creates a more profound sense of presence and opens up new possibilities for interacting socially, conduct moderation will be immensely challenging. Among other things, it’s unclear what norms should be deemed appropriate. As tech writer Aaron Mak notes:
[M]oderation is complicated by trying to map the social conventions of the physical world onto virtual reality. If you covered yourself in purple body paint and showed up at an in-person medical conference, you’d probably be asked to leave. At a metaverse medical conference, the other attendees wouldn’t even bat an eye. This relaxing of certain social norms leads people to test the bounds of acceptable behavior, and moderators in some cases have to decide what crosses the line.
The profound and unresolved questions about appropriate norms should make us wary of Ball’s following two techno-fix strategies: “[U]sers may need to give other users explicit levels of permission to interact in a given spaces […] and platforms will also automatically block certain capabilities (‘no touch zones’).” Permissions might sound fine in the abstract. But in practice, they are far from a panacea. They’re subject to misunderstanding, especially when the familiar and the fantastical collide in virtual worlds. Likewise, policing what virtual bodies can do by blocking undesirable movements and gestures might sound okay on paper, but in practice gestures often have contextual meanings, and evolving context creates a cat-and-mouse game for identifying what’s offensive and harmful. Crucially, surveilling to find all possible infractions at scale is a problem because, again, scale is inherently an issue — and, given the implications for privacy and power, so is surveillance!
Indeed, since Ball believes it’s prudent for us to start thinking about the long-term implications of the metaverse, it’s fair game to bring up a point raised by Victoria Baines, who spent several years working as a trust and safety manager at Facebook. In her recent talk “The Metaverse and Criminal Justice,” she argued we need to seriously consider the possibility that, in the future, metaverse assaults might be so intense they deserve to be prosecuted like comparable crimes committed in the analog world. She further raised the possibility that when judges and juries view virtual reality recordings of assaults, the experience could be horrific enough to trigger vicarious trauma. While these are not foregone conclusions, people like Ball should prioritize addressing them.
Again, Ball does a fantastic job of clarifying what it takes to build the metaverse, but he doesn’t do nearly enough to reckon with the dangers ahead and the importance of proactively addressing them. Readers might put down the book excited to invest financially in the metaverse, but Ball doesn’t prepare them to think about whether the metaverse is a good investment in the future.
Note: Since Ball capitalizes “Metaverse” in his book, I’ve adopted the convention when quoting him.
Evan Selinger (@evanselinger) is a professor of philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology.
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