The Metaworse

Let's take a look beyond the marketing hype.

The Metaworse
Photo by Julien Tromeur / Unsplash

I've been creating digital avatars for the better part of my life. It was probably not the first one, but the one I clearly remember: my alter ego in the MMO Guild Wars around 2005. Later for Star Wars Galaxies and Star Citizen.

Being fascinated by the immersive nature of games, I fully understand the notion of re-creating oneself in a digital world, joining people from around the world and going on adventures.

For me, born in 1990, the internet and digital spaces have been a welcome escape from Switzerland's conservative and boring countryside. And some of my oldest friendships trace back to those intense gaming times, although they trickled into "real life" now.

I also strolled around in Second Life for those who can remember the first actual attempt to re-create the world in the digital realm. However, when I tried the simulation, the initial hype had already passed, and the concept didn't capture my mind. The main problem: Second Life was like real life. Everything cost "Linden dollars", which could be purchased for actual dollars, diluting my escapist desire.

In 2015, I first put on a VR headset. It was an Oculus Rift Development Kit II, even before the company formerly known as Facebook bought the enterprise.

Since then, VR technology has come far. First, the resolution and general experience improved to make virtual reality access consumer-ready. Combined with the astonishing progress in video game graphics, a second attempt at creating a metaverse seems inevitable.

Given my previous gaming experience and general affinity for technology, I should be excited about the current efforts around the metaverse. But I'm not.

What Is The Idea Behind The Metaverse?

"The metaverse is defined as a unified 3D virtual world where users can conglomerate via their digital selves (i.e., avatars) and perform complex interactions," writes XR Today. It's pretty vague, to say the least.

But the hype is real. Billions are invested in creating the technological foundation for the metaverse. Most famously, Facebook announced its move with a silly rebrand into Meta. But also Epic Games (the makers of Fortnite and the Unreal Engine), Chinese tech giant Tencent, Microsoft, and even Apple are working on it.

Despite its vague definition, I have little doubt that the companies involved in building the metaverse have the financial resources and technological capabilities to create an excellent experience.

Fragmented Domains

Meta's CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, stated in his manifesto: "When you buy something or create something, your items will be useful in a lot of contexts, and you're not going to be locked into one world or platform."

Public perception of the metaverse is precisely that: People and companies pouring metric tons of marketing money into the idea are expecting a single platform. And Meta repeatedly said that no single company would own the metaverse.

I call bullshit.

I'm hardly the first to point out the problem. "If current tech industry trends are any indication, the future will instead be a multitude of fragmented digital domains, each its own separate shard of the metaverse experience," writes Stephen Shankland for CNET.

Even more vocal gets Luke Lafreniere in Linus Tech Tips' The WAN Show in a hilarious rant:

Oh man, it's driving me nuts. There's no centralized service, and no one is ever going to be cool with [Meta being the main platform]. You think Microsoft is just going to be chill that Facebook owns the entire metaverse? No! That's not gonna happen.

The reality of capitalism once again shatters an intriguing idea. Whoever owns the platform makes money because ownership means having access to all the data. And data is the real currency here.

So is anyone actually convinced that for-profit companies like Meta or Apple (the king of walled gardens) have suddenly become free-spirited entities, willing to cooperate for the greater good rather than their quarterly earnings? Yeeeah, right.

(Not to mention whether we want a company with a track record like Meta to be an essential part of the metaverse.)

But You Gotta Make Hay…

…while the hype is still hot. No wonder marketing agencies worldwide are jumping on the train, further propelling a vision of the metaverse that is likely not coming to fruition. Just say "metaverse," and everybody gets nervous and throws money around because nobody wants to miss "the next big thing."

Even Gartner, whose Hype Cycle is usually a pretty good indicator, writes:

Because no single vendor will own the metaverse, Gartner expects it to have a virtual economy enabled by digital currencies and nonfungible tokens (NFTs). The metaverse will impact every business that consumers interact with every day.

They write this even though in their Hype Cycle report for 2021, NFTs are just beyond the peak of hype. The first signs of the NFT bubble bursting are already there.

Brave new world
Blinded by the goggles. Photo by Lux Interaction / Unsplash

It's an astonishing spectacle that again reveals a lack of critical thinking across the board. Many seem blinded by the VR goggles.

Sure, you can develop a VR experience to promote your product and services. You can collaborate with game studios to create unique experiences. But in the end, it comes down to strategy. Why are you doing it? Because it drives value? Because it's an experiment? Or because of FOMO?

The inevitable fragmentation of the metaverse in thousands of applications will be the downfall of the digital utopia. We will get many different metaverses. In the end, there's little difference between metaverse apps and video games, each an entity of its own. They might be fantastic experiences, but they also might be bad.

A Flawed Concept

For the sake of argument, let's imagine—even if against all odds—there will be a singular instance of the metaverse: Will it be any good?

If we look at who's investing with which intent in mind, the metaverse will be an abundance of additional marketing for products. Flashy signs point you to the next digital brand store to buy a digital thing for real money. Sounds familiar? Ah yes, it's a second Second Life.

The notion to go back to normality is something we all experienced in the pandemic, but little thought has been dedicated to whether we should probably create a new normal. Because maybe the old normal wasn't so great in the beginning.

The corruption of emerging technologies and concepts by the current normal can be seen everywhere:

  • Cryptocurrencies promise a decentralised monetary system but remain a risky gamble for those with money to invest.
  • NFTs promised a new way for digital creators to earn money but turned out to be a device for hypercapitalism and speculation that counters the original idea of the free remix culture of Web 2.0.

So even if there weren't any urgent real-world problems for humanity to solve, the digital copy of the current system would inevitably lead to a duplication of its issues ranging from hate speech and harassment to marginalisation and inequality. Moreover, the romantic idea of bringing the world closer together has failed spectacularly, as Facebook proved repeatedly.

Nothing so far indicates that the metaverse will inspire much needed societal change. It won't solve existential problems like climate change or the widening wealth gap. It's a recreation of the existing with a single purpose: consumption. Welcome to the Metaworse.

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