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Utopia or dystopia: A closer look at the idea of a meta-universe

No more science fiction: if tech giants like Mark Zuckerberg have their way, our everyday lives will soon shift to a new, digital universe. First the renaming of the Facebook group to “Meta” and then the announcement to invest 50 million dollars, a new division and new jobs in the foundation of a Meta universe – Zuckerberg is serious. Many experts criticize the project and particularly whether such an endeavour should be tackled under the leadership of Meta. Prof. Jens Förderer, who conducts research on innovation and digitalization for the TUM School of Management at the TUM Campus Heilbronn, is a platform expert. What opportunities and risks do the projects entail and what significance do the developments have for society?

Prof. Jens Förderer, Professor of Innovation and Digitalization at the Center for Digital Transformation

What is a meta-universe?

A meta-universe is a virtual replica of our reality: With the help of VR glasses, you can immerse yourself in the digital world and leave your old life with all its problems behind. While staying home, it is thus possible to travel to different places, maintain social contacts and pursue new hobbies – in other words, to create a new identity. According to Prof. Förderer, the virtual and real worlds will merge. Even if the metaverse is “not a revolutionary invention” by Zuckerberg, but builds on existing technologies (initial attempts were already made in the early 2000s, with the Second Life platform), the conditions for successful implementation are much better today, explains Förderer. That’s because, in addition to the huge technological progress, digitalization offers new opportunities for a project like the metaverse: virtual goods and currencies are now much more widespread than 20 years ago. “The many digital natives who are open to new technologies also offer a good basis for the broad adaptation of such a project,” analyzes Prof. Förderer.

 

Opportunities and risks – as always, a matter of consideration

According to Prof. Förderer, it is currently impossible to make a general prediction about the opportunities and risks that a metaverse holds. One potentially positive effect is the possibility of meeting people in person – although virtually – despite the physical distance. During the global lockdowns at the time of the Corona pandemic, a metaverse would have been the ideal place to get together – without the risk of infection. In addition, a metaverse could enable “completely new business models”, such as the creation of virtual buildings or objects, but also for the advertising industry. And let’s not forget: the perennial topic of sustainability. Virtual travel could be a building block for CO2 savings and thus contribute to climate protection.

On the other hand, risks also exist – and there are quite a few of them. Prof. Förderer points out that a further digitized society with increased virtual social interactions runs the risk of “social impoverishment”. What content and values would apply in a metaverse is not clear. Issues such as data protection and privacy would have to play an even greater part in a future digital world than they already do. “Who controls data access and how is user data protected?” are questions that are still open for Prof. Förderer and urgently need to be clarified. It is particularly important to critically examine these issues at various levels – socially, scientifically and politically.

 

A look into the future

Does that mean we will now soon only meet digitally? “Of course not,” clarifies Prof. Förderer. “A metaverse is still a vision and the time horizon […] cannot be estimated.” Whether it will take 10 or 50 years for Zuckerberg (or someone else) to realize the vision of a digital world cannot yet be predicted. However, one thing is certain: the Internet will continue to evolve in order to offer a more immersive experience.

Experts are concerned about one fundamental question: Who should be the creator and administrator of the metaverse? At least ever since the revelations of former senior product manager Frances Haugen, Meta has been criticized for disregarding the well-being of its users. Allowing a single company to control the new digital world would copy the problems of the Internet, notes Prof. Förderer. Already today, tech giants control our virtual interactions, he says: They define what content is allowed and not allowed. They define who gets access, gets preferential treatment, or gets locked out. To avoid such dependency, he says, it is essential that governments and institutions do not allow themselves to be surprised by new technological possibilities, but to help determine and shape them from the start. “To create a metaverse, we need the cooperation of players from politics, industry and education to establish uniform regulations,” concludes Prof. Förderer.

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