The term ‘metaverse’ has been gaining traction in recent years and tech powerhouses are currently racing to build the biggest and the best. Depending on who you ask, it’s either a utopian goal with revolutionary impacts or a dystopian hellscape. Regardless of opinion, it is the focal point of a tonne of investment and whether you like it or not, building is already underway and pretty soon, it’s going to be inescapable.
It sounds kind of like a buzzword billionaires throw around when they want to make waves, like Tesla CEO Elon Musk making bold statements about pizza joints on Mars. While the term ‘metaverse’ itself isn’t new, it has recently surged in prominence amidst speculation about what it may mean in action. If we really dissect the term, the prefix ‘meta’ means beyond and ‘verse’; but are we ready to go beyond the universe?
The metaverse presents a different experience from the virtual reality we know today, where gawky headsets are required as buy-in for siloed experiences and limited options for collaborative play. Instead, the metaverse will be an expansive cyber hub, integrating virtual and augmented reality therefore allowing avatars to slide effortlessly from one activity to the next.
Denise White, who founded immersive tech companies Blank XR and SPATIALx, really puts it best in saying, “once you’re able to put down your new AR glasses and you suddenly see these holograms walking around the world, then you’ll know, you’re now inside the metaverse.”.
Recently, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg recently announced that they will be shifting away from being a social media company and towards becoming a “meteverse company” functioning within an ‘embodied internet’ where the physical and virtual worlds will overlap in ways they never have before.
The metaverse creates a singular source for Facebook’s major investments including augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), commerce, gaming, and of course, social networking. Zuckerberg describes it as “an embodied internet that you’re inside of, rather than just looking at” and conceptually it will facilitate everything and anything from entertainment, socialising, eCommerce, work, and even dancing. According to Zuckerberg, the metaverse will not only be “the next chapter for [them] as a company”, but also the next generation of the internet.
The pandemic has also had a role to play, according to Ian Hambleton, CEO of Maze Theory, as it has accelerated both investment and interest in the metaverse. Given that those in lockdown or following stay at home orders have more time for activities such as virtual gaming, and there has also been an increased need to stay connected with others as well as working from home, it’s no surprise that the metaverse has been rising in prominence.
However, it’s clear that not everyone is drinking the Facebook metaverse kool-aid. John Hanke, CEO and founder of Niantic (best known for developing the AR phenomenon, Pokémon Go) recently penned an article equating such a blurred physical-virtual world to a “dystopian nightmare”. He went on to say that the media which has inspired the metaverse concept, primarily Neal Stephenson’s 1992 science-fiction novel Snow Crash where the term itself was first coined, actually “served as warnings about a dystopian future of technology gone wrong.”.
With the rate that technology monoliths such as Apple, Samsung, Google and Amazon are evolving, innovating, and pumping out new concepts, it can be pretty easy to get swept up and bewitched by the shiny new tech toys. However, once the rose-tinted glasses come off it’s tough not to then consider how exactly these new technologies will impact our society, culture, and politics, and how we might fit into that future.
This concept is called ‘technological determinism’, a term coined by American sociologist and economist, Thorstein Veblen, which depicts the notion of advancements in technology shaping our social relations, power relations, and culture, with society as a whole lacking the autonomy to direct the change. However, technological determinism does not take into account the fact that in democratic societies, we do in fact get to voice our opinion on how this all unfolds.
So it would seem that for Facebook and other tech giants that are always hungry to jump on the next shiny thing before their competitors, the metaverse is essentially a holy grail as it presents the opportunity for new kinds of social networking, new markets to engage with, new consumers, and of course, new streams of revenue.
While all of this is clearly very exciting for tech companies, what isn’t so clear is why you, me, or the average consumer should be interested.
In the modern world, most of us are dealing with things like the current pandemic, social justice issues, and even just mundane concerns associated with day to day life. We are already struggling to make sense of the world with the technology that we already have, so why would we be enthusiastic about tech giants investing billions of dollars into new ways of distracting us from the real world?
There is potential that elements of the metaverse could be applied to the real world to enable us to organise our societies more effectively. By putting shared protocols and standards into place we could bring fragmented virtual worlds and augmented realities into a singular open metaverse which could in turn help people to work together in more efficient and productive ways.
This concept is currently in effect in South Korea, where a “metaverse alliance” has been formed between prominent tech companies and the South Korean government to develop and create a national VR platform. A significant part of this project is creating coalescence between 5G networks, artificial intelligence, smartphones and devices, virtual currencies, augmented reality, and social networks to find answers to societal problems (and, cynically it must be pointed out, make money).
Funnily enough, in the early days of the internet similar sweeping claims of collaboration and kumbaya were made. But as we know these were quickly swept to the wayside by surveillance capitalism and large platform dominance. Yet, the internet has also allowed us to connect to people in ways that we were never able to before it’s inception and is also an enormous and easily accessible data source. While there are pros, there are of course cons, the internet has significantly increased the privatisation of spaces, bound us to tech giants with more power than some countries, and left the back door open for advertising to invade all facets of our lives.
If you really take a minute to think about the metaverse, it’s hard not to consider the deeper issues with the type of worldview it presents.
From one perspective, we can view ourselves as participants in the sole reality which is our lives and livelihood. This can be demonstrated through what we see and experience on things like Facebook or Instagram; the platform exists independently of its users and would still continue to exist even if you didn’t have an account.
In alternative perspectives, such as in Māori or other indigenous cultures, the view on self determinism is that we each create our own reality of the world we live in and autonomously decide how we move through it. Such views encompass how we connect to others, life, land, and spirituality, which all come together to establish reality.
The issue that arises with the former view is that it leads to the semblance of a ‘one-world world’, essentially a reality which does not allow for the existence of other realities which is debunked by the existence of digital and virtual reality platforms.
You may find that Facebook in its current form allows you to connect to other people in an increased way, due to being able to interact with others despite distance and time zones. However, the platform does limit exactly how you go about connecting; elements such as six pre-programmed ‘reactions’ to posts and contents selected by inconspicuous and hidden algorithms define the entire experience. Similar to Epic Games’ Fortnite (with over 350 million active users) allows for almost endless possibilities for how the game could pan out – yet all within the predetermined confines of how the game can be played.
The concept of the metaverse and migrating even more of our lives onto a singular platform really extrapolates this problem to a deeper level. While it does offer us endless possibilities to overcome the limitations of the physical world, it simply replaces those limitations with those created by the metaverse.
Ultimately, the metaverse is a fascinating topic and will likely be floating around for some time. It’s a concept worth getting your head around, even if you are critical of the future its advocates endorse.