You have probably heard the term metaverse come up a lot in recent weeks - from Facebook rebranding itself to Meta, to Microsoft’s recent announcement to acquire ActivisionBlizzard, the metaverse is about to become a part of everyone’s daily lives whether we like it or not. However, as many mistakingly believe, the concept is not new at all as it has been with us for decades.
The word metaverse has its origins in Neal Stephenson’s science-fiction novel from the 1990s called Snow Crash, which takes place in virtual reality, a successor to the internet as we know it today. To escape the dystopian world where the global economy has collapsed and giant corporations have taken over the government’s roles, the people in the novel use earphones and goggles to connect with their avatars to explore the online world. Similar to the world today, the divide between the rich and poor is widening, and those with superior technology often look down upon the poor for having to use public terminals to access the metaverse.
As depressing as that might sound, this was the beginning of the term and it is said that Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurs, futurists, and engineers, are all fans of the novel, with the Google Earth designer Avi Bar-Zeev admitting that he was inspired by Stephenson’s vision, who is often referred to as the the “tech Nostradamus”. Ironically enough, the author said he was just “making shit up”, and yet he was able to predict our goals of digitalizing almost everything, not to mention our addiction to portable technology.
According to experts, the metaverse is a combination of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). The difference between the two is that AR involves overlaying visual elements and other stimuli onto a real-world setting, whereas AR requires a headset device like Meta’s Oculus Rift, where the world is artificially built. When realized, the metaverse will be a place where people can work, study, create, play, shop, and generally interact with friends or colleagues without having to escape the comfort of their homes.
Matthew Ball, a venture capitalist and an expert in the topic, defines the metaverse as the 4th wave of computers, with prior being mainframe, personal, and mobile computing. To put it into simple words, it is about “being within the computer rather than accessing the computer”.
Gamifying our everyday life
The metaverse and its surrounding technologies have been in development for years but have gained more attention during the Covid-19 pandemic when corporations were forced to switch from office environments to remote or hybrid platforms. That is one reason why big firms are acquiring gaming companies with already developed metaverse components. Gamers on platforms like Roblox and Fortnite spend hundreds of hours (and dollars) to unlock outfits and items to dress their avatars with which they access big open-world games via computers, mobile phones, or consoles, meaning the financial incentive is there, not to mention there is fun involved. As Nicole Herskowitz, general manager at Microsoft Teams explains, the world got hit by meeting fatigue as we find it hard to stay engaged in virtual meetings for more than 40 minutes. To solve this problem and make its users more engaged, Microsoft is developing metaverse-recognizable 3D avatars, with more game-like elements to be added in the future.
Metaverse ≠ web 3.0
As many new technologies are being developed at the same time, quite a few have started confusing the term metaverse with that of web 3.0. The difference between the two is, however, significant.
Web 3.0 stands for easier management of online identities, or in other words, a vision for the future of the internet where an individual does not have to trust 3rd parties with their personal information. It relates to the blockchain as it aims to create a decentralized way of how we interact with our day-to-day applications. It does not require a vast network of vital technologies such as interfaces, experiences, and a creator economy, something the metaverse is highly dependent on. Another difference between the two is also the target audience. While the metaverse is focused more on simulation training, education, gaming, movies, and is being developed by companies focusing on these sectors, web 3.0 is targeted toward everyone using the internet and not just users of specialized applications. It aims to achieve pure decentralization and that is also why it involves blockchain, however, the metaverse will most likely always stay in the hands of centralized entities, which explains the companies’ rapid acquisition of related technologies via all possible means. One similarity, however, is that both technologies are still under development and require far more work to reach mainstream adoption.
Although the concept sounds very interesting, it barely tackles the world’s problems and has, as the previously mentioned novel predicts, a very dark side to it.
Reddit co-founder, Alexis Ohanian, accused Facebook’s metaverse plans of being a “masterstroke in diversion and distraction” since the regulators have been announcing plans of breaking the corporation up in fear of it achieving even more power, and the rebranding seems like a great scheme to make people forget about its previous misdoings. It is, however, not just the issue of who wields the power over this technology, but with the technology itself. As with every new technology with insufficient cybersecurity capabilities, it could become a great platform for extremists to spread fear, coercion, and threats, warn terrorism researchers from the National Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology, and Education Center (NCTIE). The question also arises of who would be responsible for securing the metaverse since they will be held completely in the hands of private companies and not governments, who would most likely hold little responsibility or jurisdiction over the space.
The last and probably most concerning issue with this technology lies back with the origins of the term, in Snow Crash. Even Silicon Valley’s own people, the CEO and founder of Niantic John Hanke, for example, have called the metaverse a dystopian nightmare. In his blog post, however, he contradicts himself despite the severity of the title by remaining optimistic in believing this technology can instead be used to enhance the human experience, not replace it.
It remains to be seen into what the metaverse will evolve, however, the future of this technology, and our society in general lies completely in the hands of big tech gurus from Silicon Valley. It is for the reader to decide his opinion of the technology, which could, without doubt, be the next technological revolution our society has been waiting for. I, however, continue to question the usefulness of this technology and considering the previous misuse of people’s trust by the same companies that are developing the metaverse, I cannot end this blog post in an optimistic tone about what is yet to come.
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