For social media giants and crypto enthusiasts around the world, the most stubborn and annoying impediment to growth is usually reality itself.
The real world has pesky laws and is defined by a very specific – and immutable - set of limitations.
But what if they could create a new world…an entirely new and separate reality. One built to their specifications, with near-infinite possibilities for growth?
They have. It’s called the Metaverse.
Mark Zuckerberg has describes it as “the successor to the mobile internet”.
Think of a role-playing game that exists all around you and can be interacted with, much as you would with the real world, except with vastly more possibilities for how you can look, what you can do, what you can experience – and what you can create.
On a technical level, the metaverse is a digital universe that exists parallel to our own - and is accessed via a range of technologies, including Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR). In the current vision of the social media giants, the metaverse will be a virtual space in which we can play, socialize and even work. If this sounds familiar, it’s because you’ve probably seen it in movies like Ready Player One.
Importantly, there is no ‘the’ metaverse.
Instead, there are lots of metaverses. Some will be owned by companies like Meta Inc., or TenCent. Others, such as Decentraland and Sandbox, are powered by blockchain technology and owned by their participants. A diverse ecosystem of metaverses is now quickly taking shape.
Well, we don’t.
In all likelihood, nobody does, or ever will.
And yet, here we are…
How successful it will be remains to be seen, since making the most of the metaverse experience would require you to wear a special headset, or glasses (with AR/VR capability). This requirement alone was the killer of 3D TV technology. Direct neural interface technologies could change all that, but that’s a way off yet.
To participate in the metaverse to any significant extent also requires us to place a greater amount of trust in its architects. Facebook is fine while it’s living on a laptop, or mobile device that you can move away from, but do you really want it living in every corner of your life? Do you want a Mark Zuckerberg creation strapped to your face?
I’m forced to wonder if this might not be an unforeseen barrier to the current imaginings of the metaverse…
While blockchain technology is not required in order to for there to be a metaverse, the two ideas are strongly linked. They’re philosophically linked by the idea that ‘assets’ with no real-world presence, backing, or substance can have utility and value.
Decentraland for example, consists of a little over 90,000 parcels of virtual real estate. These can be bought and sold as NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens) on the Ethereum blockchain. Decentraland’s metaverse is powered by a proprietary crypto called MANA, the value of which has followed a familiar trajectory of emergent cryptos…it has absolutely exploded.
Nobody owns it, although it’s likely that one metaverse will end up becoming dominant.
Much like the reality you’re familiar with, the usual suspects are already slugging it out for dominance. The boldest steps so far has been taken by Facebook Inc., which recently renamed itself Meta Inc. in honor of this new direction. The newly named company seems particularly well-placed to dominate in this space, with it’s nearly 1.8 billion active Facebook users.
Not far behind them is Chinese corporate monolith, TenCent, who will likely become the dominant player on their home turf. China is already a tech-savvy and digitally hyperconnected place, where it seems the metaverse will likely have a strong government presence. The Chinese Communist Party seems to be supportive of the metaverse and the opportunities to delve deeper into people’s lives that it represents.
Most likely, a diverse ecosystem of metaverses will continue to evolve within it’s own niche – and it is unlikely that these will be able to interact with one another. For example, it’s difficult to imagine the Chinese Communist Party allowing it’s citizens to play around in Meta Inc.’s metaverse. Likewise, it’s difficult to imagine the average American wanting to ‘live’ in TenCent’s.
My guess it will mostly be a fad.
There’s just no use case for it that has any depth.
Besides, there’s a lot that’s dystopian about how the internet works now. Is a much more immersive version of it really we need? Probably not. Will the various for-profit architects of the metaverse have our best interests at heart? Of course not.
Online games like Second Life have been here before. It never reached mass adoption, despite being a fully-functioning metaverse in its own right. It’s popular with a very specific niche (admittedly one with 900,000 people in it), but a relatively limited number of people outside that niche are even aware that it exists, let alone need it for anything.
I have my doubts that a proprietary version of the metaverse (ie. one belonging to a single company) will really take off. There will be too many trust issues to overcome. For example, you probably don’t trust Facebook as it is…do you really want to strap it to your face?
In my humble opinion, for the metaverse to reach it’s potential, it would need to be just like the internet itself. It would need to be basically unlimited and largely open source.
To begin from a place of engineered scarcity (like in Decentraland) is to completely miss the point of what the metaverse can be. Why impose limits on something which is inherently unlimited? To make it just another proprietary cash cow for a global megacorp also feels like a misstep.
I’m reluctant to wade too deeply into the waters of identity politics, but this is really important…
One of the most interesting features of the metaverse – and one which has received surprisingly little attention – is that of diversity and inclusivity. In the metaverse, you aren’t ‘you’. You’re an avatar - and that avatar can look however you want it to. Your avatar can be male, female, or other. It can be any ethnicity. It doesn’t even need to be human. You can be a giant toaster, if that’s how you most comfortably self-identify.
To me, this spells opportunity for self-expression.
For the hardcore adopters of the metaverse and all it has to offer, I suspect ‘real’ reality will be left as far behind as possible, since the metaverse not only represents a new ‘place’ in which to live one’s life, but a new economy to work in too.
For everyone else…it will probably remain as irrelevant as Second Life.
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