The big takeaway from Facebook’s disturbing, somnambulant keynote last week is that the company is going all-in on the “metaverse” – a persistent digital layer sitting on top of the real world, accessible via virtual and augmented reality technologies.
The concept itself isn’t new: Sci-fi authors have been prognosticating about this sort of thing for decades. Put on your headset and find yourself in an immersive digital world, a fantasy land where the coronavirus pandemic never happened, and where Facebook never admitted responsibility for facilitating ethnic cleansing in Myanmar.
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whenever some tech person says “the metaverse” please remember that the term was coined by Neal Stephenson in 1992 to describe an exploitative, corporatized, hierarchical space that ultimately kinda sucks https://t.co/9OMTC0F1Wa pic.twitter.com/RTSLbNGvR7
— Kyle Chayka (@chaykak) August 6, 2021
Part of what’s so uncanny about Facebook’s take on the metaverse – and rebranding as “Meta” – is that it still feels like speculative fiction. Mark Zuckerberg envisions a world straight out of the film “Ready Player One,” where logging on is a form of escape.
Though it was meant as an opening salvo for a new era of technological achievement, Zuckerberg’s presentation was mostly just alienating. The backgrounds were fully green-screened; the speakers looked like they were being held at gunpoint; and even after 80 minutes, the applications for this tech remain unclear.
As my colleague David Morris pointed out last week, the blockchain industry has already been toying with metaverse tech. Virtual reality programs like Decentraland use non-fungible tokens (NFT) as a form of property rights – tokens are tied to 3D plots of land, which can be bought and sold on the secondary market. It’s crypto as in-game currency, a gamified spin on investing.
Even this feels a little “out there.” We spend our days online, but have yet to completely detach from the real world. Decentraland’s native token, MANA, recently shot up in value thanks to a wave of Facebook-fueled speculation, but how many people would opt for a virtual chat in Decentraland over a face-to-face Zoom call, at this point?
— 🎄Christmas Rachel🎄 (@tolstoybb) October 28, 2021
The reality is that some of this tech is already here, in ways that make more sense with the way we live our lives now. The metaverse as it exists today doesn’t require an Oculus headset, and our devices reflect this. Apple started building a LIDAR scanner into some of its iPhones in 2020, which allows for laser-guided measurements in physical space. Face filters on Instagram and Snapchat can provide convincing digital makeup for video calls (TikTok is still at work on its own toolset). And some fashion retailers are betting on “virtual try-on” mechanisms for clothing purchased online, with an assist from augmented reality.
The metaverse envisioned by Facebook is a kind of all-encompassing iteration on these concepts. It wants us to be more engaged, more online, while the world around us degrades. To the extent that the metaverse is already here, it’s an attempt to complement the systems we already use. It doesn’t ask us to completely reorient how we interact with each other online.
In an essay for Gawker called “The Metaverse Is for Babies,” the writer Hanson O’Haver suggested that “it’s almost unimaginable that any adult (who doesn’t run a Silicon Valley company) could be excited about [this] technology.” The Atlantic recently ran a piece with a similarly blunt title – “The Metaverse Is Bad” – which likens the tech to a “black hole of consumption” (a little like the propagandistic billboards from the movie “They Live”).
There’s a history of consumers pushing back against overly ambitious ideas in VR (see: Google Glass); Meta’s success or failure will depend on whether anyone is actually willing to make the jump.