In a lengthy post on Medium, ex-UK politician Nick Clegg, Meta’s president of global affairs, has spilled his thoughts on the future ownership of, and responsibilities involved in all things metaverse, saying that “no single company can or should control the metaverse” and that it “mustn’t be shaped by tech companies like Meta on their own” but “developed openly with a spirit of cooperation between the private sector, lawmakers, civil society, academia, and the people who will use these technologies.” An open invitation for magnanimous collaboration from one of the world’s biggest online enterprises? Or setting the scene for future buck-passing as Meta’s immaculate creation slides towards a Facebook-like wild west?
In the piece – entitled Making the metaverse: What it is, how it will be built, and why it matters – Clegg goes a great distance to allay fears of Meta’s plans and heap praise on both their concept and their leader Mark Zuckerberg. “Skepticism is a natural reaction to something that sounds like it’s straight out of a science fiction novel — in a way, it is — especially when there are wider societal concerns about how tech operates in the two-dimensional world,” he writes.
Stating that the metaverse “is a logical evolution”, he defines it as “the next generation of the internet — a more immersive, 3D experience. Its defining quality will be a feeling of presence, like you are right there with another person or in another place.”
Another day in metaverse paradise
Of course, the piece is shot through with descriptions of the metaverse pleasures to come such as “wear[ing] glasses that give you virtual directions in your line of sight, or immediate translations of street signs in foreign languages. Or even make it possible for you to have a conversation with someone who is thousands of miles away as a three-dimensional hologram in your living room instead of a head and shoulders on a flat screen.” And even “motivating runners by having them chased by virtual zombies.”
Clegg also explains how much he enjoys meetings in Horizon Workrooms: “We can exchange glances and private asides with the person next to us, get someone’s attention with a gesture, even read each other’s body language. I can be in my home in northern California talking to a colleague an ocean away in his garage in Milton Keynes, England, and yet it feels like he’s sat three feet to my left. If he gesticulates too wildly while disagreeing with me, I get a genuine urge to lean away.”
It’s all familiar, upbeat rhetoric, but perhaps most promisingly – and surprisingly – Clegg promises that “all of us have a stake in the metaverse. There won’t be a Meta-run metaverse, just as there isn’t a ‘Microsoft internet’ or ‘Google internet’ today.”
“For this to become a reality, no single company can or should control the metaverse — but different experiences will need to be compatible if, for example, you want to be able to bring a photo you took in one space into another, or to use the same avatar to represent your virtual identity in different places.
“But without a significant degree of interoperability baked into each floor, the metaverse will become fragmented and broken into silos, each impenetrable from the other,” he warns.
One big happy metaverse?
It all sounds fantastic… But are these big companies really going to work out standards and – get this – work together for a common good? Clegg thinks so.
“Many will understandably be skeptical about the idea that erstwhile competitors like Meta, Google, Microsoft and other tech firms, big and small, will really be prepared to work together in this way. But it is happening already. One forum for cross-industry co-operation is the XR Association, which brings together companies working across the whole spectrum of metaverse technologies — from headset manufacturers and technology platforms, to companies that build components, internet infrastructure, enterprise solutions and more.
“Like today’s internet, the metaverse will be a constellation of technologies, platforms, and products. It won’t be built, operated or governed by any one company or institution. It will take a range of companies large and small, civil society, the public sector, and millions of individual creators. It isn’t a single piece of cloth, but a patchwork quilt.”
Keeping the metaverse safe
So if this is a huge patchwork of different systems, who – ultimately – is in charge of looking after the people using it?
While Clegg goes some way to explaining the safeguards that will be in place and the further work required, “Formal rules and built-in functions will only ever get us so far,’ Clegg admits. “In the physical world, as well as the internet, people shout and swear and do all kinds of unpleasant things that aren’t prohibited by law, and they harass and attack people in ways that are. The metaverse will be no different. People who want to misuse technologies will always find ways to do it.”
Here’s hoping that the “richer experiences”, “new opportunities” and “new ideas” that Clegg hopes that the metaverse will gush forth, will be worth the problems that he admits will be inevitable.