The race is on to capitalize on the excitement surrounding the metaverse. Last week, Microsoft described its $68.7 billion acquisition of gaming studio Activision Blizzard—a move that would normally be interpreted as the Xbox maker simply expanding in the gaming sector—as a way to create the “building blocks for the metaverse.” Meta—which was rebranded from Facebook to be named after the metaverse—is currently working on the world’s most powerful supercomputer to power the metaverse. Now, Meta is rumored to be aiming to add NFT functionality to its Facebook and Instagram platforms; Twitter has already let users convert their NFTs into hexagonal profile photographs, and YouTube may follow suit shortly. NFTs, according to the ever-expanding legions of Metaverse experts and chin-strokers, a type of cryptocurrency tokens regarded as digital title deeds, will be core components of the Metaverse.
That is, of course, if and when such a thing exists. The Metaverse is a hazy notion that first appeared in dictionaries in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 dystopian sci-fi novel Snow Crash, where the Metaverse is a virtual haven from an anarchy-ridden world governed by the Mafia and was revived by VC Matthew Ball in a series of blog posts. The Metaverse, according to Ball’s concept, is an always-online virtual environment that smoothly mixes with the actual, flesh-and-blood world, courtesy of augmented reality, virtual reality, and mixed reality. Crypto and tokens will play significant roles as the Metaverse’s currencies and assets, given that individuals will really work and produce money in it.
The Metaverse, we’ve been informed, is on its way.
What is most noticeable about the Metaverse hype is that everyone claims to be working on it, but no one understands what it will be or how it should look—or if people would ever want to use it. As WIRED’s editor in chief Gideon Lichfield put it, we’re witnessing “a terminological land grab”: companies and entrepreneurs have sensed a change in the air and are scrambling to call it the next big thing, brand it (in some cases going to Meta-rebranding-level extremes), and find ways to monetize it. The question is whether we, the intended users, will accept it.
The trend that Big Tech has seen is obvious: individuals have begun to spend significantly more time online in recent years. That was enhanced dramatically by the Covid-19 epidemic. The office shrank to the size of a screen for white-collar professionals who were asked to work from home. For similar reasons, free time was also compelled to seek digital alternatives. Bored individuals spent an unusual amount of time playing video games, indulging in gamified activities such as flipping meme stocks, and dabbling in crypto or crypto-adjacent businesses with movies, clubs, and parties closed (unless you worked for the UK Government) (like NFT pictures).
In some situations, the two blended into weird chimeras of games and crypto finance, allowing underprivileged Filipinos to earn money through online pay-for-play worlds like Axie Infinity, the NFT-based video game. The Metaverse, or the next internet, is Meta et al’s wager that this state of affairs would endure and eventually evolve—via faster internet, better VR, and a more effective online economy—into the Metaverse.
It’s a suicidal bet. To truly function, we must be bored at home for the foreseeable future. Except in severe instances, one would seek out their Metaverse analogs only when clubs are closed, concerts are canceled, and in-person gatherings are prohibited. It may be a sensible play—a new variety, the climate catastrophe, or a nuclear Armageddon could push us all back indoors—but it is, to put it bluntly, a wager against humanity. It’s not always a terrible thing for technology firms to borrow a page from sci-fi, but if you must, choose the utopian stuff, like Amazon’s Echo, which is plainly modeled by Star Trek’s chirpy talking computer, over the disturbing dog-eat-dog hellscape of Snow Crash. (Xanax)
Even yet, the Metaverse project’s morality is the least of its issues. Unlike Google Glass, the gold standard of tech blunders, it is pure hype, with no product—except for some hypothetical “building blocks.” Benedict Evans, a venture partner at London-based firm Entrepreneur First, has drawn an apt parallel between the Metaverse and the “information superhighway”—a very fashionable early-1990s term announcing the advent of some kind of US-wide digital communication network encompassing.
The forecast was not entirely incorrect—after all, we did get the internet—but many of the staples of the impending information superhighway vision, such as the role of interactive television, never materialized. Once again, tech corporations are reading the tea leaves to predict the future of technology. Typically, and predictably, it is a prosperous future for them.
However, one has the impression that Meta, Microsoft, and the others should have read the room more carefully. Last month, gamers, the one population you’d expect to jump on the Metaverse bandwagon with delight, responded with near-universal disdain to the unveiling of French game maker Ubisoft’s NFTs—as unique items in shooting game Ghost Recon Breakpoint. Many gamers perceived the introduction of in-game economies and cryptocurrencies as a method to take advantage of them by making spending money on NFTs mandatory in order to play or to do so on an equal level with other players. A letter from the CEO of Japanese gaming maker Square Enix, in which the executive expressed his interest in NFTs and made a strange difference between individuals who “play for enjoyment” and those who “play to give,” was also met with disapproval. The assumption that everyone wants to make money—and spend money—while playing a video game seems appealing to those who create those games and offer digital tchotchkes, but some gamers disagree.
Likewise, no one wants to work in a Metaverse, do they? Not only because the pandemic progresses and people are gradually able to return to their offices (ask Zoom’s stock), but also because, if a remote/digitally nomadic/global workforce future is truly on the horizon, few people want to spend it staring at avatars of their colleagues awkwardly bobbing up their heads because Meta’s Oculus cannot capture or render coffee mugs. Some individuals, like myself, would say that the nicest part of working from home is not having to attend meetings all of the time. But, if one must, why go through the trouble of donning heavy VR gear and interacting with cartoon characters?
However, Big Tech’s pursuit of the Metaverse is wrong in more deep ways. According to Google Trends, the term “Metaverse” was scarcely registered online before Facebook’s Meta rebranding in October 2021. However, the few people who were actively discussing it were all moving toward a certain galaxy of crypto, blockchain, and privacy technology. (Call it “Web3” if you want—an equally ambiguous phrase.) Those people were turning to the Metaverse as a means of bringing the internet as we know it to an end—not only in terms of the interface but also, and most significantly, in terms of power.
The “open Metaverse” is the Promised Land, where tech monopolies would be brought to heel, everyone would be in control of their data and digital assets, and users would be able to influence the network’s overall direction. It’s a speculative, hypothetical enterprise, but one thing is certain: Big Tech should not be in charge. A Metaverse created by them would be a non-existent Metaverse.