The metaverse doesn’t have to be a dystopia – but it probably will be

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Metaverse metaverse metaverse. You may have heard of it. And you’re going to be hearing a lot more about it over the next decade – or until we think of a better name.

I have a lot of non-tech friends who have been asking me a very good question: “What the hell is a ‘metaverse’?”

And who can blame them for asking, when we have people like venture capitalist Matthew Ball describing the metaverse as follows:

“The Metaverse is an expansive network of persistent, real-time rendered 3D worlds and simulations that support continuity of identity, objects, history, payments, and entitlements, and can be experienced synchronously by an effectively unlimited number of users, each with an individual sense of presence.”

Well, that’s a mouthful isn’t it? And while it (presumably) makes sense to the tech bros in Silicon Valley, it’s gibberish to the casual user.

But to be fair, the metaverse is a complex concept – which may be why a lot of people are oversimplifying it by assuming the metaverse is just a fancy jumped-up new buzzword for virtual reality – which it’s not, although they can be forgiven for assuming that, since it’s that aspect of the metaverse that Facebook (Meta Platforms, whatever) and other tech companies are currently pushing.

Certainly VR is a key part of the metaverse concept, not least since the idea is that we will be more immersed in the digital world than ever before. But immersion doesn’t mean strapping on VR goggles and living in Fortnite or whatever. It means that the internet will become even more deeply integrated into our daily lives than it is now. Digital content of some kind will be constantly in front of us, whether it’s on a video screen, on our glasses, on a car windscreen, a dressing room mirror or inside VR goggles.

The metaverse, in short, proposes to blur the lines between the online world and the physical world even more than they already are.

Like with most technologies, the metaverse will excite some people and alarm others. Personally, I think that whether the metaverse is a good or bad thing will depend on a couple of things: (1) how we blur those physical and digital lines, and (2) who controls or shapes the blurring process.

For instance, there are plenty of concerns about where Meta Platforms fits into all of this. And for all of Zuckerberg’s talk about how Meta can’t (and doesn’t want to) build the metaverse all on its own, he’s very likely positioning Meta to dominate it in the same way Facebook dominates social media platforms and the internet in general now – possibly even more so.

Meanwhile, I also have reservations about the VR aspect of the metaverse – partly because we’ve heard that one since Howard Rheingold prophesised about it in the early 1990s, but mainly because tech companies have always delighted in overhyping it as the Next Big Thing that will change the way we consume media and interact online. (Remember how 3D screens and Second Life were going to do all that too? Yeah.)

I still remember sitting through a presentation back in 2017 where a tech exec from HTC Vive talked about how virtual reality will enable us to take virtual vacations in faraway places, or transform your tiny subdivided flat into a penthouse, mansion or castle overlooking the skyline, beach or mountain range of your choice – all without ever leaving your couch. A VR Utopia, he called it.  

The thing is, eventually the virtual reality goggles have to come off, and you have to return to the real world. And how are you supposed to feel then? Also, could a computer-generated beach ever match the experience of physically being there?

Sure, metaverse apologists will point out (correctly) that the technology will improve to the point of photorealism to the point where even our digital avatars stop looking like computer-generated cartoon versions of people and start looking like real people.

But I can’t help find it ironic that we’re now talking about a VR metaverse as the future parallel home of digital citizens after many of us have endured two years of lockdowns, isolation, lengthy quarantines and travel restrictions because of COVID-19. I would think that if we’ve learned anything from that experience, it’s that we miss the real world. Many of us can’t wait to go back out in it again, and hang out with people and talk and laugh and cry and experience each other’s company.

Anyway, it’s early days, and with the Omnicron variant now rearing its head, maybe we’ll just give up on reality altogether and live in our virtual Taj Mahals or whatever. All I know is that I’ve read Snow Crash too, only I remember that that metaverse was a violent, hateful and addictive place that encouraged people to indulge their worst instincts.

Sound familiar?

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