Working in the metaverse: The Ethical Considerations
Will your employer monitor your eye-movements?
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Guess what day it is? Well, hopefully, you already know that it’s Tuesday. Today we’re talking about the metaverse again. The more I explore the metaverse, the more I think about it, and the more eager I am to continue to explore the subject. Today’s article could probably apply to most technology shifts we’ve been through. I have this (perhaps naive) hope that we will lean in harder in this technology shift than ever before and shape the future we want to see. But now I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s jump into the article.
It's easy to write hyperbolic statements about the future of work, the metaverse, and whatnot.
Focusing on all the cool stuff, the brilliant use cases, and all the fantastic advancements around VR/AR — it's easy to forget that emerging technologies also have profound ethical implications that we should all be thinking about.
Ethics, in general, is easily forgotten, and I get it; it's perhaps not the funniest of conversations. Who likes to think about all the implications technology advancements could bring? It's way more amusing to feel and look at all the new shiny bright stuff instead. We've seen it happen in the past. (Yes, I’m looking at you, Facebook, and Cambridge Analytica.)
When companies build new technologies, they often take an "if we build it, they will come" approach and plow ahead with their vision without considering how consumers will use the product and the unintended consequences. This has had disastrous effects on several technology companies, looking at Facebook and others again.
Technology can and will be used for both good and bad. And the stuff I usually talk about here will be no exception. Hence, we need to talk about it.
We need to talk about how we want to shape the future of work and its ethics rather than assuming that “It will be solved later” or “Someone else will probably solve it.”
Ethics in the metaverse.
If the vision of the metaverse becomes true, there will be a whole other layer of ethical decisions to make.
Today, we mostly think about privacy, data security, and authentication issues in the digital world, but these will be even more important in virtual worlds. We can already monitor employees today, and the "employee monitoring" industry is growing like crazy; one of three medium to large-sized companies in the US has tools to monitor their employees’ digital activities. It’s highly debatable, but companies do this. Goth on an aggregated level and on an individual level. This is used for good and evil; most companies aggregate the data so they can't spot individuals. But will it remain like that?
Most of us, both employees and managers, are blissfully unaware of these technologies, but what happens if we see an even sharper downturn in the economy and the CEO starts pushing the IT department and us to hand over the info about who's spending their time in a Google Doc and who's shopping for new shoes? Will we give the CEO the information or not?
And this is now. Even if most of us spend our days on our devices, there are still some limits to what we can monitor. In the metaverse, that will most likely change. Facebook's new headset Meta Quest Pro has eye tracking, so we can finally track what employees are looking at. We have all wondered if Bob is looking at the presentation or gazing at the far horizon. Finally, we can track it.
And we can finally mandate workouts to happen and track them! Combine the VR experience with a health tracker, and we can eliminate the health allowance and ensure our employees are getting the exercise they need. We can now use all this data to increase performance and reduce expenses over time.
If we flip the perspective to the employees, you could have someone else work for you. Lend your avatar to someone else who does the job for a fraction of the price, and use deepfake to mimic your voice. No one will know.
I'm, of course, exaggerating and being a bit silly, but you get the point. We need to discuss ethics; it should have happened already. Our employees are generating more data points than ever and will do this even more in the future. We will have more and more opportunities to monitor what they are doing with their time. But should we? What happens if we build workplaces that monitor employees' every movement, even while being remote? Is that the trade-off we will have to live with, or will there be resistance from employees?
My somewhat dystopian view is that we won't discuss technology and ethics more in the future than in the past. That we will end up monitoring employees even more considerably than today. The abilities will blindfold us, and suddenly we'll live in a reality where our employers behave like the Police song, watching every step we take.
But there's still hope. If we start talking about this now and build a culture of ethics and openness, we will at least have the chance to shape a future where work is more enjoyable and valuable for everyone involved. And use the technology for good and take deliberate steps to shape the technology to work for us and not the other way around.
Who should discuss this? We, as employers, the unions (hello unions, where are you in these discussions?), and the employees. We have the opportunity to shape the future together; let's grasp it and create a sustainable one.