You may have heard that we’re all going to be abandoning the physical world and living in something called the metaverse, where Mark Zuckerberg is god-emperor and if you break the terms and conditions an algorithm will evaporate you.
Or something like that.
Metaverses hit the mainstream consciousness when Zuckerberg announced that Facebook was rebranding as Meta, and then Microsoft dived in too, announcing that they also would be constructing some kind of alternative reality, but probably a grindingly tedious office-like environment that occasionally freezes and collapses around you.
The problem with metaverses is that no-one is quite sure what they are, and even among those who are familiar with the concept, there’s disagreement about what exactly a metaverse (or metaverses) would look like in (virtual) reality.
The word metaverse was coined by science-fiction writer Neal Stephenson in his 1992 cyberpunk novel Snow Crash. Stephenson’s metaverse is an immersive dystopia, experienced by strapping on a VR headset and becoming an avatar. It’s built as a ruthless urban environment, corporate-owned and plagued by technical glitches.
It’s worth being aware of this, because it isn’t just a curious literary footnote. Snow Crash is a massively influential novel, particularly in Silicon Valley and among developers and tech enthusiasts, and Stephenson himself worked as a futurist at Blue Origin and Magic Leap.
Art can influence reality, and in this case the boundary between the two is as blurred as the lines on a low-res monitor.
How it Might Look
Arguably the most important characteristics of a metaverse are that it’s shared and persistent. So when you check-in, there are other (real) people there, and everyone is checking in to the same place and seeing the same things. And it’s persistent in that after you check out, it continues to operate and other people continue to use it. And–critical to the idea of persistence–any digital assets you own in the metaverse remain intact and in your ownership, regardless of whether you’re there or not. Blockchain technology is integral to this, ensuring that digital property can be acquired and then held on to or traded.
Whether you experience the metaverse through a VR headset, making it fully immersive, or simply through a screen, is–to my mind, at least–less fundamental, and open to change as the tech develops. It might simply come down to personal preference, although a fully immersive simulation is closer to the sci-fi vision, and developers are already striving to create these kinds of experiences.
Utility and Benefits
If you’re a gamer, then the metaverse is a thrilling prospect, taking gameplay to new levels, and creating gaming worlds that are constant, open-ended, and user-driven. It’s likely to be gamers and the gaming industry that, initially at least, drive development of the metaverse.
From a business perspective, the metaverse further enables remote work and the prospect of entirely virtual workspaces, in which colleagues can interact naturally, and resources can be accessed as easily as they would in a physical office.
You’ll sometimes hear metaverse enthusiasts talk of ‘immersive experiences’, but it’s not entirely clear what that means. Presumably, just the act of putting on a VR headset (or perhaps, at some point, a full bodysuit), and entering an alternate reality, is seen as an upside in itself.
Then there is the possibility of new forms of work and value creation. Already, through NFTs, digital artists are monetizing their work and making direct connections with buyers, as are musicians, who are utilizing NFT-based platforms to explore new models of funding, ownership, and distribution.
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And these are still early, proto-metaversal days. For creators, investors, and early adopters, there is obvious potential in a still-forming but an as-yet unbuilt realm that is full of unknown unknowns.
In a centralized metaverse such as, let’s say, one administered by Facebook, you’d have all the problems centralized social media already has, but ramped up. To name the main ones: surveillance and data collection, censorship, behaviour modification, addiction, and the normalization of weird, aggressive behaviour.
What would be infinitely preferable is a decentralized metaverse, which is in keeping with the Web 3.0 ethos, which is itself in keeping with the original ethos of the web in its earliest, most pioneering and optimistically libertarian days.
Just to spread a little FUD, what you might need to be wary of either way is contrived, artificial scarcity mixed with gamification to create an ultra-competitive, scam-filled no-man’s-land, in which everyone is on the make and you’re only ever one step away from being rug-pulled into oblivion.
Although admittedly, that could be exciting to navigate and who knows, if it’s gamified, perhaps you’d win.
Ultimately, whatever it eventually looks like, the metaverse is coming. The key challenge is to ensure that it’s a decentralized arena, and doesn’t wind up like current social media: overreaching, gifted with too much authority and influence, and increasingly illiberal. And if you’re sold on the idea of the metaverse (or even if you’re not) then it’s worth making some relatively early investments.
Something that can’t be ignored is the tremendous innovation that comes from the gaming industry, which consistently generates enormous demand and profits to match. Gaming will power the metaverse’s early growth, and bring people on board.
Additionally, the metaverse will utilize NFTs, which permit true ownership of digital assets, and the NFT world itself links up closely with DeFi related projects, which look set to expand.
As an investor or a user, what you can purchase includes digital land, native tokens in metaverse projects and games, DeFi tokens, and crypto related to blockchains on which metaverse and gaming projects are being built.
The metaverse can, potentially, become the super-structure that holds everything else together, while the things being held together power that super-structure, in a symbiotic, mutually supportive relationship. Essentially, it would be the web in its next iteration.
It’s thirty years or so since Neal Stephenson released Snow Crash, and the ideas he put a name to and seeded in curious, tech-obsessed minds around the world, might finally have become viable, virtually, and for real.