Everyone’s talking about Meta, Facebook’s new name, and the thrilling future world of virtual and augmented reality, in which we will communicate, shop, play and even work. Are we entering a new chapter of the Internet’s history, in which we will merge with events and don’t just watch them on screen? Mark Zuckerberg thinks so, as he wrote: “The defining quality of the metaverse is presence, which is this feeling that you’re really there with another person or in another place.”
The criticism was not long in coming. We are only too familiar with the addiction and emotional impact that Facebook and Instagram’s algorithms have had on us and on our adolescent children. Why add our whole body as well? The dissonance between our online image and the real us will be even sharper. What will happen with all the bad behavior that some of us indulge in as a result of online disinhibition? With the anxieties, the envy, and the FOMO – fear of missing out?
What is more, Facebook rightly acquired its terrible reputation because of its failure to protect our private data and abusing it for the purpose of targeting. Handing our entire life over to it sounds like the worst nightmare imaginable. Some have even said that we are on our way to becoming the product whose sole goal is to prove that Facebook did not throw two billion dollars down the drain on the Oculus virtual reality headset.
Interestingly enough, the first metaverse app that Zuckerberg introduced, back in August, is Horizon Workrooms, a VR version of a conference room. The focus on work meetings and conference rooms makes sense: When there are problems that require creative solutions or decisions, there is no substitute for groups of people who get together, argue, review the data, think about alternatives and sometimes even choose one of them.
There is still no magical technological device that can do this for us. Employers understand that remote and hybrid work is the new normal; but they also recognize the problems of video conferencing platforms like Zoom, which have proven to be especially fatiguing and full of bugs and which make it hard to notice nonverbal communication and body language. Workrooms wants to replace these with a VR work environment and smiling avatars. This is Zuckerberg’s vision of the “infinite office.”
Using Workrooms is an impressive experience, just as any experience that has had infinite sums of money thrown at it can be. In addition to the unique three-dimensional impression provided by augmented reality glasses, there are variable voice levels as a function of users’ distance from the other person “sitting” at the table. Head movements are copied one for one, and a thumbs up or down gesture comes across perfectly. You can “write” on a whiteboard or transmit pictures from your own computer.
But just as with infinity pools, so it is with infinite offices – sooner or later you bump into a real wall. To start with, you have to buy the headset, which costs several hundred dollars, and charge it. Then you have to create an avatar to represent you, to get used to having two joysticks in your hands, and to practice drawing with them. Suddenly all the complications of “can you see the screen I shared?” and cries of “you’re on mute” seem so very simple. Even the possibility of a 360-degree field of vision through the glasses makes “Zoom fatigue ” seem pleasant. Third, it’s very hard to talk to nonhuman faces. Millions of years of evolution have taught us to decode nonverbal hints and create interpersonal contexts from what was and what wasn’t said, and why. Just how can we do this with automatons with comic-strip eyes from which you can’t tell who agrees with you and who doesn’t?
Zuckerberg rightly understands that the shift to virtual work meetings creates new possibilities, but the direction he is taking is problematic. Yes, switching to video could lead to a profound revolution in how we conduct discussions, in ways that aren’t possible in physical conference rooms. Some of the technological tools already exist, and others will have to be developed; they will provide moderators with real-time assistance to make the best use of time, to promote diverse opinions and sharing, to enhance creativity, to blend ideas and identify alternatives and to make appropriate use of the data in order to corroborate or refute them. Responsible collection of data and information can make a significant contribution to understanding what improves the interaction at various types of meetings of various sorts, to creating a “meeting science” that expands the anecdotal knowledge on which organizational consultants rely today.
But admitting a group of avatars to the room doesn’t guarantee that the discussion will be open and creative and marked by the dynamic that gives all the participants a sense of confidence; a discussion based on data and information, focused on the problem and leading to a clear and rational decision. As it stands, in Zuckerberg’s current format, the avatar society will soon collide with all the problems that participants in conferences and discussions in physical rooms have faced for years – and which have led many to define meetings as a total waste of time.
Above all, we mustn’t let Facebook into the conference room because its digital heritage, as shown by the leaks of recent months, is that for the sake of profit you are allowed to measure human behavior on a scale of emotions and engagement. It is due to this original sin that the social networks are flooded with neo-Nazis and COVID deniers; this is what created the social threat of the inability to agree about the real world and about the facts that compose it, and to arrive at decisions based on them.
When Zuckerberg says that he is moving over to the metaverse and the sense of presence in space, we must never forget that he, more than anyone else, is the one who has undermined the complex process of examining and understanding the real world. In Workrooms, this will affect the ability to make decisions in the business world, and not only in politics.
Meetings and conference rooms are a complex human endeavor that combines intelligence and emotion, group dynamics and bias. To shake them up with technology, as ought to be done, requires study and understanding in order to learn from every interaction with customers. To just drop augmented reality on the conference room is a surefire recipe for failure and disaster.
Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler is a senior fellow and head of the Democracy in the Information Age program at the Israel Democracy Institute. Brigadier General (res.) Itai Brun is the deputy director for research and analysis at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS).