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On The ‘Metaverse’: Letters To Mark Zuckerberg, Founder, META – OpEd

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Staring deep into that childhood photo

I see memories on the wall

in each of the different rooms

in that palace in each room

songs of yesteryear some joyous some poignant

some merely words without music hummed as lullabies

beautiful as the sirens of paradise

a mother’s voice.

technology and consciousness

early childhood, early technologies

How much technology has shaped consciousness, and the ‘artifacts of Future Shock’, as the futurist Alvin Toffler would say, have always fascinated me as topics of study.

— Excerpt from my memoir Grandma’s Gangsta Chicken Curry and Stories of My Hippie Sixties ( Penguin Books, May 2021)

Yes, my obsession with analyzing the anatomy, chemistry, ideology, and political-economy continues [Metaverse? And A Zuckerbergian Elegy? – OpEd]. The mind-map I created in my plan to write this essay suggests the inextricable-linkages of the fields of Human Geography, Cognitive Psychology, Modern World History, Cultural Studies, and Sociology of the Future — fields I teach and have taught, over the years. Paradigms of sociological research are what I have applied alternatively, to understand the meaning of this “new world” that is being created by those who own the means of production and who will change the nature of the social relations of production.

Here’s my thought on some data collection work: I’d like to know what the post-Millennial generation, those teenagers of today think of the “metaverse.” — of NFTs, cryptocurrency, “digital sneakers”, augmented and virtual worlds, robots, post-Covid-quarantine syndrome, and entry into the “metaverse,”, and a host of other considerations as we speak of the sociology of the future re: metaverse. After all, these teens are the direct and dedicated consumers of digital products and are part of the generation of beings that got happily sucked and vacuumed and hyper-looped into the world of augmented reality this and that.

Will the teens of today resist this “meta-world” after experiencing the pains of Covid-isolation and extreme Zoom fatigue? Aren’t they already fed-up of Facebook, Snapchat, WhatsApp, virtual chats, avatars and memes, and emojis, and Al.

Would they now embrace the “metaverse”? Or gasp for fresh air? Real air. Real sunshine. Real smell of friends and family.

If they were asked to write a letter to Mark Zuckerberg on this matter, how would the letters sound? 

Below are a few as I gather more for extensive research.

LETTER #1

(a view from a 17-year-old American high school student from New Jersey, USA)

” … As a 17-year-old girl, the majority of my life has been spent online. I have watched my parents use Facebook and as I grew older, I used apps like Instagram, which you now own. With the internet being a large part of my life, I know how consuming the virtual world can be. Mindless scrolling and hours of gameplay on simulation games run rampant among my generation. I am concerned that if these games become even more immersive, no one will appreciate what is around them. We know that your apps are designed to keep us coming back, so how would you ensure that this new technology will not overtake our lives? As if my generation is not distracted enough in this reality, an entire metaverse with endless possibilities will simply take whatever is left of our brain capacity. With that being said, this endless possibility also intrigues me. If this technology is handled properly, we could have a beautiful balance of this metaverse and our reality.

From a psychological point of view, I have some concerns about the metaverse. We must ensure that we study the effects of virtual reality on our brains before we dive into an entirely new reality. There must be extensive research and studies done to ensure that
… ” 

LETTER #2

(a view from a 17-year-old American high school student from New Jersey, USA)

” … As a teenager, I’m writing this letter to express my hopes and concerns about the metaverse, which is the idea of a virtual 3D environment consisting of avatars of real people and spaces. This metaverse will transform our lives by changing the way we learn and interact with each other.

For example, before the invention of the internet, people had a hard time communicating with each other because they used telegrams and letters. Today, we don’t have that issue any more thanks to the invention of the internet. The internet makes our lives easier by allowing us to better access education, stay in touch with people all over the world, and raise awareness about human rights. However, it also has negative consequences. It causes mental health problems by putting us in a non-real virtual environment and leading to cyberbullying, laziness, privacy issues, and internet addiction. I believe that like all technologies, the metaverse will also have both positive and negative consequences. … ” 

LETTER #3

(from a 16-year-old student in China, studying via Zoom in the United States. Letter is unedited)

” … As technology develops quickly and the pace of life accelerates quickly, people become more and more unacquainted with something traditional and classic and become more and more familiar with new technologies like phones and computers so I am concerned if something traditional or classic will gradually be replaced by new technologies and will be lost finally. I firmly believe that some traditional wisdom shouldn’t be lost in the ocean of technologies and should be well kept forever because some of these traditions are very important in many aspects.

There are a couple of examples that technologies replace traditions and I have a hypothesis for each of the examples. First, the calculator was invented in 1642 but now in high school students scarcely adopt traditional ways for slightly complicated calculations, and to solve them they usually resort to their graphing calculators. Though we can see it as progress in technology, it also can be regarded as a gradual loss of traditional wisdom because skipping procedures of calculations can result in the loss and unimportance of rules of calculations. I think understanding traditional processes of calculations is really important for students to intensify their math abilities.

 If calculators are used more and more excessively, unexaggeratedly I think in the future students are going to do all their calculations by calculators instead of by their understanding of the rules in the calculations. Second, there are countless traditional crafts from different cultures in the world, such as making Chinese dumplings. The generation of my grandparents is adept at doing it and they often make dumplings themselves and share them with their children- the generation of my parents. However, the generation of my parents is less adept at doing it and, because some of their generations don’t know how to make dumplings or they don’t have time to do it, they usually buy dumplings made by machines. However, for my generation, there are only a few people who know how to make dumplings so far. Thus, the craft is gradually being substituted by machines because of the presence of machine-made dumplings, busyness of people, and less attention to the craft. As a result, I am thinking if the people of my country will lose the craft of making dumplings several generations later.

Finally, nowadays many people love to read electronic books and gradually dislike reading paper books; similarly, students study through more online resources than resources on paper. Reading something online and reading something on paper actually can have different effects on people. According to researches, online resources are summary, superficial, and quick, while resources on paper are long but profound so reading summary information or “fast-food” texts for a long time can make people like to view summary information and dislike to get relatively long information like paper books. Indeed, it is acknowledged that we need the Internet to store resources because it is impossible to record all the information through pieces of paper. Therefore, as the technology develops so quickly, I am worrying if the following generations are going to read more “fast-food” information than voluminous but abstruse information and thus to like quick and summary information like online resources more than voluminous but deep information like paper books.

All in all, I am worrying if something traditional will finally be lost in the well-developed era and if the new technology will take its place. I sincerely hope that, while we are keeping progressing, we can remain something traditional like calculating with a pen instead of a calculator, making Chinese dumplings with hands instead of machines, and reading a paper book instead of an e-book because I think some traditional wisdom is very significant in lots of aspects.
… ” 

LETTER #4

(from a 16-year-old Turkish student studying in the USA)

” … I have some concerns regarding the world being created. Technology has been changing and improving throughout the years and it has been affecting people in a good and bad way. People have become so addicted to phones that they don’t care about the outside world. People who are using the internet are learning and seeing bad things they shouldn’t learn and see. My concern is that the more technology improves the more addicted people become and the more careless they are towards nature. People should go out, hang out with friends, explore new places and things, and they should take care of their psychology. The more people are inside and always looking at their phones the more they become lonelier or psychologically affected. Phone addiction increases loneliness and depression. There was a survey done on how cell phones affect our behavior and the survey showed that there were negative psychological effects of smartphone usage on the young generation. They felt depressed and anxious while using cell phones. The people who made the survey concluded that high cell phone usage was associated with sleep deprivation and symptoms of depression for both men and women. So you see technology isn’t affecting the people in a good way. I hope that people become less addicted to technology and spend more time outside and improve their psychology.

In the future technology will improve more and more. There might be flying cars, teleportation, space vacation, virtual reality, etc. This might affect people in a good or bad way. This might also affect nature itself in a bad or good way. I think the consequences of technology on people might not be as good as it seems. If teleportation, they will not walk anymore. If self-driving cars are invented people might start losing their concentration because they are no more concentrating on the road. The internet nowadays is also affecting the students because people don’t concentrate on their homework or try doing theirs. They search for the answers from the internet or when they are taking tests they cheat from the internet.

Reflection

I had the opportunity to live in a world wherein modern technology, electric and electronic-based, used in everyday life was still in its infancy.  I grew up in the early seventies in post-colonial Malaya, in a village where, as my grandfather said, tigers still roam the area, and snakes and wild boars were in the plenty, gracing the newly government-gazetted area for a new Malay settlement. It was called Kampong Melayu Majidee, in the town of Johor Bahru, Malaysia in a southern state that bordered the city of Singapore.

Snapshots of life back then are narrated in my recently-published memoir. My experience with technology especially with the precursor of the digital world, and the metaverse, is told below:

EXCERPT from MY MEMOIR

“The Other Metaverse”

” … That first computer ‘. . . then and now, neo-Frankensteins aren’t we all?

In an early morning lecture one day I spoke of globalization and realism, telling my students that I saw my first computer sometime in 1974; an IBM 286 or 186, shared by about twenty students in a school in Kuantan, which you had to ‘boot’ using a floppy disk, and how, within forty years, on the brink of 2014, technology, culture, materialism, consciousness and of course, the projects by the US Defense Department (ARPA-NET, DARPA-NET, and the INTER-NET) have made it possible for the world to be in the palm of your hands, somewhat like looking at a ‘crystal ball’ to google your past, to navigate through the present, and to see what the future holds.

I told my students that I was not that old, but that such advancement in technological innovation showed that one could live through rapid changes—a testament to the ‘death of distance, the compression of time, the expansion of consciousness, etc.’, but not necessarily the triumph of leisure and the advancement of wisdom. Although a seven-year-old kid can order Barbie dolls or Bieber dolls online, may not be a signifier of wisdom if the world of cyberspace he or she enters is also a world of pedophiles lurking.

When I was a kid, my space was the kampong space, ‘logging on’ meant playing with ‘floating logs of kayu bakau’ in the river at the edge of the village, twitters were the sound of birds chirping, and “Facebook” signified my passion for reading, my face always buried in a book, at times in the warmth of a kerosene-powered lamp; reading and reading till I fell asleep dreaming of dreams not yet cybernetic.

Back then under the palm trees, we told the world what we wished to be. Today, the world is in the palm of our hands, it defines us—at the wish and fancy of invisible and distant powers that be . . . neo-Frankensteins have we all not become?

Questions as conclusion

To conclude this brief piece on how some teenagers perceive the metaverse, and how my own experience with technology over more than half a century is translated into a “life-long observation and conscious moment of data collection,” I could say this with a sense of scientific-ethnographic tentatively:

Should we celebrate the welcoming of the metaverse and sing the choir of the litany of the happy technologist? Or, as most of the teens said in the letters above, worry about its threat to society and the sense of further alienation and the destruction of humanity, this metaverse will bring ultimately?

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Dr. Azly Rahman

Dr. Azly Rahman is an academician, educator, international columnist, and author of nine books He holds a Columbia University (New York City) doctorate in international education development and Master's degrees in six areas: education, international affairs, peace studies, communication, fiction, and non-fiction writing. He is a member of the Columbia University chapter of the Kappa Delta Pi International Honor Society in Education. Twitter @azlyrahman. More writings here. His latest book, a memoir, is published by Penguin Books is available here.

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