Meta and Microsoft’s new virtual reality projects have been met with suspicion by many, but history has shown that people are often right to be wary of technological change, says James Ball
HARDLY a day goes by without some new claim promising to bring us closer to the metaverse in the not-too-distant future. Meta (the company formerly known as Facebook) and Microsoft are both enthusiastically pushing virtual reality worlds and staking the future of their multibillion-dollar businesses on our receptiveness to the idea. Vodafone is predicting that smart devices could monitor our health and even our brains by 2030. And Elon Musk has claimed his Neuralink technology may be able to help people with paralysis walk and enable everyone to upload their memories to the cloud within the decade.
On hearing about this, some of us will feel sheer excitement – but others will feel unsure, uneasy or downright opposed. Our habit in recent history has been to shun or scorn those with misgivings on technological progress. It may be time to re-examine that.
There has been a backlash to technology since historical records began. Every new form of communication – from telegram to telephone and beyond – has attracted criticism for increasing the pace of life. Novels were condemned for ruining attention spans, and people once feared that cars travelling at 20 to 30 miles per hour might deprive their passengers of oxygen, perhaps fatally.
With the benefit of hindsight, contemporary resistance to technological advancement can look like utter folly – but often it isn’t. The Luddites, for example – the smashers of mill machinery in the early industrial revolution – are generally referred to as a historical punchline. But if we look at their real grievances, it wasn’t some naive anti-progress movement; it was about economics. Cotton mills replaced skilled, home-based, independent work with lower-skilled or even unskilled work, in unsafe conditions in a factory, accompanied by much less autonomy and much less pay.
The mill might have been more efficient and thus more profitable, but it would take decades of campaigning to distribute those gains even approximately fairly – with the birth of the trade union movement, health and safety laws, the welfare state and more. Seen through that prism, was resistance really so irrational?
When we look at the latest hype cycle, while cryptocurrency and metaverse advocates would like to paint sceptics as simply rooted in the past, at least some doubts are well founded.
The reasons to be wary of the next wave of technology are manifold. One is simply whether the technologies in question are where they are claimed to be. Musk, in particular, has a habit of overpromising, whether on travel to Mars, ultra-high-speed trains or self-driving cars. Few in the know take his claims for Neuralink seriously.
Other more imminent metaverse technologies rely on virtual reality, which still largely consists of clunky headsets and odd arm controls – all just to be able to manoeuvre an avatar through an awkward online world. VR has been “the next big thing” for decades and the public has consistently felt otherwise: there isn’t much to do once you are there, the technology gives many people motion sickness and, perhaps most problematically of all, the whole thing just seems irredeemably naff.
Beyond a relatively small group of enthusiasts, health tracking hasn’t caught the wider public by storm, not least because many consumers worry about what will happen to their data. More broadly, while some of us love the idea of uploading our minds one day, others feel an innate horror at blurring such lines.
There is much to anticipate as we bring online and offline worlds together. But we should learn not to dismiss concerns or wariness about this, either. There are many rational reasons for people to take part in the techlash.
James Ball is the global editor of The Bureau of Investigative Journalism