What’s the matter with the Metaverse?

Nov 1, 2021 | attention economy, tech ethics

If you were only dimly aware of the concept of the Metaverse before last week, Mark Zuckberg has just made sure you’re going to hear a lot more about it.

So, what is the ‘metaverse’?

It’s a tricky question because the Metaverse doesn’t really exist (yet, says Mark Zuckberg) so there’s no universally accepted definition. But it has been described so far as:

  1. A set of virtual spaces where you can create and explore with other people who aren’t in the same physical space as you.
  2. An upgraded version of the internet where people can have “different experiences that you couldn’t necessarily do on a 2D app or webpage.”
  3. A future digital world, tangibly connected to our real lives and bodies, where we each have a personal avatar interacting as ‘us’ across multiple ‘worlds’ and scenarios.
  4. An overlap with the concept of Web3, the idea of a decentralised internet where users retain more personal control over the data they put online.
  5. “An expansive, digitised communal space where users can mingle freely with brands.”
  6. “A magical Zoom meeting that has all the playful release of Animal Crossing.”

Is the Metaverse just a political strategy?

With its woes mounting over the last few weeks the timing of last week’s re-branding of Facebook’s parent company as Meta and the concurrent high-energy ‘launch’ into the Metaverse last week, probably wasn’t a coincidence. To many critics it looked like a desperate attempt to rehabilitate Facebook (Meta)’s reputation with regulators and, crucially, a play to get in early to shape the regulation of these next-wave of Internet technologies.

The Metaverse’s roots are in sci-fi dystopia

Several observers have noted that the Metaverse as a concept has its roots in the kind of sci-fi dystopian world that many believe Facebook and the other Big Tech giants have now helped to create. The term “metaverse” itself was coined by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel Snow Crash, referring to a 3D virtual world inhabited by avatars of real people. Both Jeff Bezos and the designer of Google Earth have admitted to being inspired by the book. A 3D virtual world, or metaverse, is also the premise of Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One.

Is the Metaverse just another way to escape the real world?

It is striking that all the architects of Big Tech seem bent on escaping the real world just now. Whether it’s Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk’s race to space or Mark Zuckerberg’s bid for us all to escape into a virtual space where we can play, work and “organise surprise birthday parties”. As Sam Wolfson says in The Guardian “Zuckerberg wants us to all turn our attention to a land of make-believe to distract from his PR disaster while Bezos and Musk are obsessed with leaving the planet.”

And with COP26, the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, taking place now in Glasgow, others have remarked that we could really do with the huge resources of Big Tech being assigned to our mounting real-world problems, rather than focusing on how to escape this sphere of reality.

“We need some of the world’s greatest brains and minds fixed on trying to repair this planet, not trying to find the next place to go and live.”

Prince William, Duke of Cambridge

Big Tech is ploughing billions of dollars into the Metaverse and the next wave of AI and augmented realities, perhaps in a bid to create a brave new world where they are not the villains. But the rest of us are, for now, stuck with this one.

My Brain Has Too Many Tabs Open by Tanya Goodin

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