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Do We Have the Ethical Guardrails for What's Next in Tech?

As technologists continue to introduce bleeding-edge ideas like the metaverse that could change how we work, live and play online, is government prepared to regulate those new spaces?

man wearing VR headset working in metaverse
Historian Robert Hughes coined the elegant phrase “the shock of the new” to describe the influence of technology on imagination. Hughes’ original formulation was around the artist, but the shock extends to policymakers, technologists and practitioners of all sorts both in and out of government. The shocks can and do emanate from catalysts as diverse as mobility and artificial intelligence to VR, AR and other building blocks of the metaverse to climate change and nuclear energy.

Nuclear power illustrates just how deep and pervasive the shock can be. J. Robert Oppenheimer, widely regarded as the father of the atomic bomb, a technology that forever changed world affairs, is reported to have said, “The optimist thinks this is the best of all possible worlds. The pessimist fears it is true.” After witnessing the detonation of a nuclear weapon on July 16, 1945, he responded by uttering a bit of Hindu scripture: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” His words reflect a quest for redemption after the U.S. government used his invention to end World War II, killing 105,000 Japanese citizens in the process and injuring 94,000 more. His ethical concerns came to a head in an exchange with then-President Truman, who called Oppenheimer a “cry-baby scientist.”

Some 77 years later, we still do not have sufficient ethics for the nuclear age. That matters because nuclear energy is enjoying a renaissance as a sustainable low-CO2 power source, but it still hasn’t overcome the reputational damage from rare but highly visible accidents over the years.

The Internet lives with a similar tension. The Internet still changes everything — much of it for good, but an undertow of toxicity has done its share of reputational damage, particularly in the arena of social media.

Enter Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder and CEO of Facebook and its re-christened parent company, Meta. That is Meta as in “metaverse,” a term that first showed up in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 sci-fi novel Snow Crash. As first envisioned, the metaverse was a virtual world in which people could interact through their avatars, complete with rules and social norms that differed from the real world. In a 77-minute video, Zuckerberg and a cast of carbon-based and avatar characters detailed a so-called embodied Internet where you’re not just viewing it — you’re in it.

Do we have the ethics for the metaverse? What have we learned from the development of today’s Internet experience that can help us figure out what comes next?

It isn’t hard to imagine the rebranded Meta boss saying, “Now I am become Virtual, the distorter of worlds,” but last year’s leaked research and whistleblower reports about Facebook’s widescale manipulation of its own users suggest Zuckerberg is no Oppenheimer.

A fully realized metaverse may still be a long way off, but its adoption in government is likely to be through a combination of internal experimentation and the acquisition of commercial software that bundles expanded metaverse-like convenience functionality with the solutions.

In the meantime, the technology will advance and competing business models will fight it out — including in the $120 billion state and local government market. A growing list of companies that includes stalwarts Apple, Microsoft, and Adobe plus professional services firms such as EY, PwC and Deloitte have all made significant investments in virtual reality, a core piece of infrastructure en route to the metaverse.

What is less clear is where government is to find the guardrails to the future. That would have been an important assignment for the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment that was created to take on such complex, multilayered and messy scenarios. Congress killed OTA in 1995, just as the Internet was coming of age.

In the absence of an OTA, it will take existing organizations — from GSMCON and ELGL to NASCIO, NACo and NLC, among others — plus open source advocates, artists, and even a shaman or two in an “it takes a village” collaboration to navigate government’s intersection with the shock of this new world.
Paul W. Taylor is the Senior Editor of e.Republic Editorial and of its flagship titles - Government Technology and Governing.