The latest penchant of the disconnected Mark Zuckerberg from the bubble of Silicon Valley is the metaverse. A term he didn’t invent. It comes from a book written by the brilliant author Neal Stephenson. It’s sort of portrayed in the book and movie, Ready Player One. Which was interesting, if not long and predictable. Kind of like Kevin Costner’s Waterworld. We humans do love dystopian futures.
For what Zuckerberg is describing, it does not exist. A few clever pundits have pointed this out already. Even Zuck doesn’t claim it exists. All that said, as might be expected, the hype engine kicked in and by August the energetic minds of the interwebs had created presentations, infographics and all kinds of interesting Venn diagrams and such to proclaim how it existed. Mostly in the gaming world. Suggesting the metaverse is real and exists. It does not. It may never. But it likely will, but not in the way we imagine it today.
Lets’ be clear, for both Stephenson and Zuckerberg, the metaverse is an immersive experience, that takes us completely “out” of the physical world, connecting our brains and dislocating us from the physical. Through various types of hardware that does not currently exist and sort of does exist (like clunky VR headsets that haven’t really changed in over 50 years.) And of which only a tiny fraction of the consumer market even uses. The implication of the metaverse is that we have a Brain Computer Interface (BCI) we access it through. We completely disconnect from the real-world and stop “sensing” the real world. We can “move” through an alternate, digital world. This capability does not currently exist.
The current claim of the metaverse pundits is that it is about the “dematerialization” of physical space, distance and objects. We’re already there to some extent, which these pundits will admit. For the past couple of decades, it has been largely known as cyberspace. Metaverse is a new label on the same pair of jeans. Proponents of the metaverse talk of “creative abilities”, but they’re just putting a new wrapping on what already exists.
Where we hear of it he most is in the gaming world and that likely where it will become more of a reality, largely through the use of VR headsets and maybe AR glasses. Brain Computer Interfaces are coming along, but largely remain experimental and are many years from consumer availability and even then, we cannot be sure consumers actually will want these technologies.
In the next few years, we are also likely to see greater consumer backlash against large tech companies on issues of privacy and personal data collection. As consumers come to realize just how much data is collected on them and how they’re being manipulated, privacy is becoming a key differentiator for marketing technologies for consumers. Governments are stepping in with regulations around privacy and even on taxation of data across borders. This will be a turbulent period. The metaverse will be averse to such issues.
Another key aspect of the metaverse is that it is completely interconnected. Across different elements, not entirely described yet. Online gaming worlds such as World of Warcraft, Fortnite, Roblox and some other expansive games are good descriptors of what the metaverse could be, but they are isolated from each other. Because they are businesses, there’s little to no financial incentive to be interconnected and each uses different technologies, much like the difference between macOS, Linux and Windows. One might talk about “creator economies” and decentralization and yes, they exist. But not in the sense of a true metaverse. They are mini-metaverses, competing with one another. For money. Isolated and siloed. They’re a multitude of platforms that offer varying degrees of immersive experiences but less than 2% of their users connect with VR devices.
The majority of the audience today and for the foreseeable future, is using a device with a screen. That is not immersive. That is not a metaverse. Cats still invade our space. Or dogs. Our friends, spouses and phone notifications still invade and distract. This does not a metaverse make. These need to be quietly integrated with Artificial Intelligence in the background making subtle decisions for us.
Some may say, well, these platforms enable creators to make worlds. They do indeed. But that’s still not a metaverse. It’s the gaming equivalent of when blogging platforms like Blogger and WordPress enabled people to write things over a decade ago, without needing to know coding. On a platform. It is no different. It is not a metaverse.
For over a decade as a digital anthropologist, I’ve studied online communities, how humans behave, socialize and incorporate technology. I’m keenly interested in the metaverse. To see it become a reality, how we humans will adopt and adapt. If you’re looking to invest in the metaverse? Don’t. Not yet. For now, it’s wonderful speculation and fodder for the pundits who seek the next-big-thing to write about. For now however, the metaverse does not exist. Whether it will or not, remains to be seen. A metaverse would be a 4th place, not the 3rd place current pundits claim it to be…the third place is already well established and they’re physical, not digital, though we do digital things in them. They’re coffee shops, public libraries and spaces. If a pundit claims the metarverse is a third place, they’ve not done their research. In addition, humans are already struggling to incorporate existing digital tools into society. Much of what the proponents of the metaverse talk about already exists, they’re just trying to wrap it up into something that looks interesting and different. It isn’t.
Not even well-established and highly respected research houses like Gartner or Forrester have included the “metaverse” into their hype cycle of future technologies. In a few years, perhaps.
Don’t forget, we know that any new, emergent technology, can take well over a decade to become aware, and longer to be broadly adopted in society. I suggest the timeless book and insights of Geoffrey Moore and the book “Crossing the Chasm”, which remains entirely relevant to this day despite being authored in the 1990’s. Augmented and Virtual Reality remain niche technologies for now and largely inaccessible to the masses or wanted yet. The metaverse is simply a fun way of putting a new label on an old pair of jeans. It’s like the hype of Web 3.0 and Web 4.0. They eventually faded away.
I believe that the metaverse will become a part of the warp and woof of society at some point. As technologies reach exponential rates of scale, they explode into the marketplaces. At some point, the metaverse will get there. For now, it will be a mashup of varying technologies such as blockchain, artificial intelligence, VR and AR that evolve in various ways and use cases. New digital products will hit the market, some will propel to new heights of consumer adoption, others will fail.
It is precisely because there are so many competing technologies and thus, digital products, that seek to drive massive returns for their investors and a lack of desire of these stakeholders to truly “integrate” that the true concept of the metaverse is for now, pure hype. Save your investment dollars. Even if you’re into high-risk investments, keep them to a minimum with the metaverse.