Just minutes before we sent this newsletter out, Meta’s COO Sheryl Sandberg announced via — what else — a Facebook post that she’s stepping down after nearly a decade and a half with the tech giant.
In Sandberg’s time with the company it went from a social media company to one intent on driving the digital future this newsletter covers, and from a tech up-and-comer to a global corporate power. When Meta makes internal policy it does so not only with profits or its monthly active users in mind, but China, social cohesion, even American democracy itself — making Sandberg one of the most important behind-the-scenes players in American life for the 14 years she’s helped run the company.
The impact Meta, née Facebook has had over that span of time is, of course, a subject of intense debate and scrutiny, not least around Sandberg herself — who will remain on Meta’s board of directors as the company continues its pivot towards a new dimension of public life.
It’s really, really hard to build a world.
The metaverse is still constructed more of questions than answers. If the internet becomes more immersive and virtualized, who will create the spaces where we spend our time? Who will profit from them? Who’s watching out for us?
And who’s even thinking seriously about these questions?
There’s an answer to that last one: Philip Rosedale.
Rosedale is the founder of Linden Labs, creators of the massive, ahead-of-its-time virtual world “Second Life.” Since he started working in digital media and virtual reality in the 1990s, Rosedale has seen what can go right, what can go very wrong, and what can even go to court as virtual worlds grow to incorporate not-inconsiderate portions of the real one.
In a spate of recent public appearances that included two separate metaverse-focused panels at Davos last week, he has a warning for its architects: Don’t screw it up as badly as we did the current version of the internet.
“We’ve got enough problems with humanity right now, without adding a physically identified version of reality on the internet,” Rosedale said. “We have to tactically look at the internet as it currently exists and ask, who owns the spaces where people are hanging out, what are the rules of engagement, what’s the moderation strategy, and learn how to do this right.”
I spoke with Rosedale today via Zoom — which, he repeatedly pointed out, is still both technically smoother and capable of more nuance and expression than any kind of VR interaction.
He worries about using existing tech-world business models for the next version of the internet, given the widespread harassment and discord those business models have fostered on 2D social media platforms. As Rosedale sees it, the metaverse as currently conceived runs the risk of amplifying all those harms and more, potentially driving us to “lose ourselves as a species.”
“These are all ideas that are really futuristic, and they’re fraught with peril,” Rosedale said. “And opportunity, but probably even a little more peril.”
With the onrushing hype around Meta’s vision for the metaverse — not to mention blockchain-powered, headline-grabbing spaces like Decentraland — the closed-circuit, idealistic sandbox that is Second Life feels like a vision of an alternate future that never quite took hold. But in fact, although statistics aren’t public and are hard to track, the platform still maintains a robust user base of hundreds of thousands each day, some of whom have been visiting Second Life for nearly 20 years.
And there are plenty of ways in which Second Life predated not just the idea of a totally immersive virtual world, but aspects of crypto and Web3 as well — the in-game “Linden dollar” has a real-life dollar peg to which it can be cashed out; the virtual world’s most fundamental building blocks are functionally equivalent to NFTs.
But it’s the ways in which Second Life is different from the modern conception of a metaverse of real-world shopping, immersive gaming, and total interoperability that reveal the barriers to making that world real. In a world with one central authority, like Second Life, it’s very clear who sets the rules and settles the disputes (even when they occasionally spill into real-life courts, as has happened on several occasions).
I asked Rosedale what he thought of Meta’s recent proposal for metaverse shared governance. His answer was straightforward: as long as Facebook retains its ad-based business model it can make whatever rules it likes — but those rules will be ultimately tied by the perverse incentives for behavior with which social media users are now all too familiar.
“Any centralized company such as Facebook that’s trying to maximize shareholder value is going to create an environment of rules that allows people to do too much harm to each other,” Rosedale said. “The ideas that maximize profits for a company are not contained in the social contract that humans need to behave civilly.”
If people do transfer their current internet activity to the metaverse in large numbers, as companies like Meta hope, it’ll be because both technological advances have made the experience seamless enough and said companies have created a world appealing enough to persistently distract from the real one.
Rosedale says that will be much easier said than done.
“Second Life is important in this discussion because it’s the best example of what might happen once we’re there,” Rosedale said. “But it’s still hard, and there’s still no evidence that we’re going there.”
“As I pushed my foot to the pedal, I was driving much too fast”… to hear the regulator-mandated sound of the electric vehicle revolution.
Damon Krukowski, the indie rock veteran, poet, and blogger wrote this week about his discovery of — and annoyance by — the ambient noise emitted by the current model of the hybrid Honda Accord, which turns out to have been composed by fellow musicians and futurists Holly Herndon and Mat Dryhurst (featured in last week’s DFD).
When Herndon and Dryhurst were commissioned to produce the vehicle’s substitute for traditional engine noise, they set out to make something that wasn’t “skeuomorphic” — that is, duplicative of an older object, like, say, an old Ford Galaxie. So instead of the low rumble of a traditional fuel-injection engine, the vehicle emits an eerie, angelic hum that recalls the work of the recently deceased composer Vangelis.
There’s a decidedly skeuomorphic catch to all of this, however. As it happens, the creative challenge is the result of a federal regulation that requires electric vehicles to emit noise at speeds lower than 18.6 miles per hour (or a more even 30 kilometers per hour) in order to avoid catching pedestrians or the blind by surprise.
So Krukowski might be unlikely to get his desired peace and quiet anytime soon, even in an EV-heavy Boston neighborhood. But at the very least the regulatory landscape around the new technology allows for some creative wiggle room, and sparks some unexpected creativity — compared to skeuomorphic old Europe, where regulators have mandated that electric vehicles replicate the sound of a gas engine.
Stay in touch with the whole team: Ben Schreckinger ([email protected]); Derek Robertson ([email protected]); Konstantin Kakaes ([email protected]); and Heidi Vogt ([email protected]).
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h/t – Politico