When Facebook first toppled Myspace to become ruler of the social media kingdom in the late noughties, the concept of social media was still relatively fresh and exciting. The idea that we could connect with people from the other side of the world, catch up with friends we hadn’t seen in years, and stay connected with our current ones – around the clock – was thrilling.

For me, a chubby eleven-year-old lying about his age to sign up to Facebook in 2009, the website was my safe space. Here, in the vacuum of my news feed, I could present my raw and unfiltered self to the world. Being a child, I really did think my Facebook friends would hang on my every word – though I quickly deleted my mum as a friend when I realised she could read everything I said.

But over the course of Facebook’s decade-long-and-counting cultural dominance, something changed. Social media went from an innocent foray into advancing technology to something much more expansive, permeating every facet of our lives. In 2009, the only fears surrounding social media came straight from the technophobe’s charter: children spending too much time looking at screens, people lying about their identity online and so on. In 2018, the same technology has become more powerful and influential than we could ever have imagined, evolving from a simple tool for communication into something that shapes our very identity and way of life.

2.23 billion people login to Facebook every month (Facebook, 2018)

An average Facebook user clicks on 8 ads per month (Facebook, 2018)

Computers and Blues

The problem, as we all now know, is that social media was allowed to grow and flourish without adequate checks and balances against those who held the keys. For years, we handed our personal information over the internet to anyone who asked nicely, neglecting to consider the risks until it was too late.

Yet even as we continue to come to terms with the fact that our personal data has been used against us to target us with advertising and even sway democratic elections, it seems we are set to push forward once again into the technological unknown. Before we have even begun to effectively safeguard the internet as we currently know it, society is being pushed into the arms of virtual reality – a world of limitless possibility that could reshape our already complicated relationship with the world wide web.

Virtue and Reality

Virtual reality has been on the cusp of entering the mainstream for what feels like forever. The technology, heavily researched in the 1990s, appeared to have something of a second wind when Facebook bought out the burgeoning VR developers Oculus VR in 2014 for $2 billion. Despite the enormous amounts of money invested into the technology, VR has yet to develop significantly beyond a mixed bag of video games. All that is set to change, however, as Facebook continue to tinker with Oculus’ tech with the aim of pioneering the future of social networking.

Of course VR has the potential to do good in our lives. The changes it will bring to the healthcare industry, for example, will be revolutionary. All the same, should we not be more concerned about the ramifications of throwing ourselves into VR before considering the logistics of safeguarding it?

Anthony Karydis, CEO of VR platform Mativision, recently wrote that ‘VR and AR will creep into the mainstream slowly, bit-by-bit and step-by-step’ rather than arriving in a sudden, transformative moment. The incremental arrival of this technology over a long period of time gives us a better chance of preparing and adapting but also makes it even more essential that we remain alert to new changes. The danger of making an imperceptibly slow transition into the world of virtual reality is that we might not realise when we are being exploited until it’s too late.

Over the next five years, cyber attacks are expected to become one of the biggest threats to our way of life. In the UK, the National Cyber Security Centre has predicted that a major and life-threatening attack on the country is almost inevitable in the near future. But even as we struggle to protect ourselves from increasingly skilled hackers, smart technology continues to flood the market despite most of it being vulnerable to attacks.

By 2026, Facebook intends to become fully VR-compatible, making it yet easier to connect with people around the world without leaving the comfort of your home. But when you consider the problems faced by the organisation already in battling the spread of fake news and the compromising of people’s personal data, does the idea of handing your entire consciousness over to Facebook seem like a great idea?

The reliance of social media platforms on algorithms make it possible for anyone with the right set of skills to dictate what content you see. Being fed a steady stream of fake news on your news feed is bad enough – now imagine the same process affecting a pair of smart glasses, where the use of augmented reality means someone could affect the things you actually see. To an extent, VR and AR require you to submit parts of your senses to the will of an algorithm. In the wrong hands, that kind of power could be dangerous.

“It is infinitely easier to mine data in a completely simulated reality – Facebook will know where you’re looking, what you’re doing, and how long you do it.”

– Peter Berkman, Anamanaguchi

Following Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus VR, video game musician, Peter Berkman, warned of ‘the creation of an information monopoly’ caused by the company’s stranglehold on emerging tech. “Between head and iris tracking, in-game data, and Facebook’s incredible systems- there will be a plethora of information to mine along with the ability and intent to do it,” wrote Berkman.

Unknown Unknowns

Facebook’s goal as a business is to generate profit. The company purchased Oculus so they could get a head start on this potential new age of tech, putting them in pole position to gain the most from it. Though they may claim otherwise, their commitment to ensuring the best user experience possible only stretches as far as the profitability of their product. Nobody is suggesting that Zuckerberg and company are on some rampant quest for world domination – well, actually, some people are – but it still wouldn’t hurt to treat them with caution.

The problem with speculating on the future of VR is that, apart from the people working on the technology, most of us don’t know much about it. It has the potential to change our lives, or it could become the next 3D television: an idea that intrigues on paper but fails to ever really take off. Zuckerberg’s appearance before Congress earlier this year regarding Facebook’s misuse of data failed to hold the CEO to account for his company’s misdeeds but it did reveal the alarming lack of technological knowledge possessed by the very officials entrusted with taking the corporation to task. The monopoly of power and information possessed by today’s main tech firms gives the likes of Facebook too much control – it is important we question them every step of the way in order to keep them in check.

In this increasingly tech-savvy age, social media will be used in abundance by children and adults alike. This means that forays into virtual reality by companies such as Facebook will affect most of us whether we like it or not, either directly or through somebody close to us. The best thing we can do is remain diligent and curious, always prepared to ask the difficult questions and receive the difficult answers. The age of VR could be right around the corner – it’s time to make sure we’re doing everything we can to be ready for it.