The Artist Formerly Known as Facebook

Image credit: iStockphoto/Nagaiets

It's fashionable to blame Facebook and its chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg for all that is wrong with our universe. And certainly some of the firm's recent scandals — from Cambridge Analytica to the latest revelations from a whistleblower and former FB employee Frances Haugen — are off-putting.

Perhaps the Facebook brass are tired of having their firm's name dragged across concrete. Whatever the motivation, they've rebranded as “Meta.” The company issued a statement titled “Introducing Meta: A Social Technology Company” in late October 2021.

“The metaverse will feel like a hybrid of today’s online social experiences, sometimes expanded into three dimensions or projected into the physical world,” promised the statement. “It’s the next evolution in a long line of social technologies, and it’s ushering in a new chapter for our company.”

To no one's surprise, tech writers and journalists took the opportunity to put the boot in.

An abundance of scorn

“Facebook is desperately trying to army crawl itself out of a swamp of bad press revealing years of systemic failures to combat hate speech and misinformation,” wrote Allison Morrow on CNN. Morrow goes on to describe the putative metaverse as a “dystopian hellscape.”

The Register's Iain Thomson and Chris Williams described the new scheme as “the Power Rangers of Absurdity — Magic Leap, Theranos, Google Glass, Black Mirror, and HyperLoop — combined into one disappointment.”

“Suppose the metaverse also enables a vastly larger, yet more personal version of the harassment and hate that Facebook has been slow to deal with on today’s internet?” asked Matt O'Brien and Barbara Ortutay in AP. “Or ends up with the same big tech companies that have tried to control the current internet serving as gatekeepers to its virtual-reality edition? Or evolves into a vast collection of virtual gated communities where every visitor is constantly monitored, analyzed, and barraged with advertisements?”

Meta-what?

The Facebook statement above sounds much like virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) which have been staple subjects for years now.

Neal Stephenson's 1992 novel “Snow Crash” features a protagonist who recreates in a computer-gen simulacrum called the Metaverse. "So Hiro's not actually here at all,” wrote Stephenson. “He's in a computer-generated universe that his computer is drawing onto his goggles and pumping into his earphones.”

The empire of data that is this particular social network represents by its nature homogenous hegemony

We call this VR or virtual reality, defined by Wikipedia as “a simulated experience that can be similar to or completely different from the real world.” It's an immersive experience that typically uses goggles to shield the VR participant from real-world visual experiences.

Augmented reality (AR) is a different beast. AR provides a computer-generated overlay that complements a real-world experience.

One example: a datacenter tour that provides a display overlay that highlights the salient points of the facility. A vendor promotes their neat cabling. A security expert's AR overlay points out potential trouble areas. And another overlay provides thermal mapping to highlight hot spots and cooling solutions. AR holds great potential for chief digital officers (CDOs) of any discipline.

Do I have to...?

AR and VR are part of the metaverse, and the company formerly known as Facebook has plunked their digits in those parts of the pie — having acquired Oculus in 2014, and rolled out Spark AR Studio.

“Starting this week, everyone creating an account for their Oculus device for the first time will log in with a Facebook account,” said an October 2020 blog post on oculus.com. “If you’re logging into your Quest 2 and already have an Oculus account, you’ll be prompted to merge it with your Facebook account. Once merged, you will continue to use your Facebook account to log into your device(s).”

The “you will” imperative seems a feature of Meta-owned XR properties. An entry on the FAQ for Facebook's Spark AR Studio contains this Q&A:

• Do I have to use my Facebook account to sign in?

• Yes - you'll need to sign in with your Facebook account to use Spark AR Studio.

From a user's perspective, login gateways may not matter much. For firms developing products, it's a different story. Perhaps when it comes to XR, it's Meta's way or the highway?

Heterogeneity is key

The bottom line for CDOs: dependency on any platform or vendor is bad practice. System architects must strive for heterogeneous design. This maxim does not square with single-platform sign-on by an external party.

“The metaverse that Mark Zuckerberg and his company want is created by everybody but owned by them”

Whether Facebook or Meta, the empire of data that is this particular social network represents by its nature homogenous hegemony (that's not everyday language, but it's descriptive here). While we hear saber-rattling about “Big Tech,” the breakup of AT&T in the 1980s holds many parallels.

Government sanctions against tech monoliths may or may not be in the offing, but heterogeneity is key to secure systems design.

“The open metaverse is created and owned by all of us,” Ryan Gill, founder and chief executive officer of metaverse-focused startup Crucible Networks, told the AP. “The metaverse that Mark Zuckerberg and his company want is created by everybody but owned by them.”

Stefan Hammond is a contributing editor to CDOTrends. Best practices, the IoT, payment gateways, robotics, and the ongoing battle against cyberpirates pique his interest. You can reach him at [email protected].

Image credit: iStockphoto/Nagaiets