Missing the metaverse?

If you have an internet connection, you probably know this feeling. Something new is starting to happen online. People seem really excited about this. Suddenly you are curious. (Of course, I’ll be joining TikTok.) Or maybe you’re feeling scared. (Am I too late to buy crypto?) Everyone worries at some point that they will miss something.

Speaking of which, have you heard of the Metaverse? Even if you haven’t listened to Mark Zuckerberg’s 81-minute video essay last week on the future of human interaction, which culminated with the rebranding from Facebook to Meta, the term has bubbled up this year. Leaders in tech, entertainment and fashion have rushed to make a claim, though few seem to agree on what exactly it is. The important thing is that it happens.

Conversations on the Metaverse reduce FOMO sentiment to its simplest, most generalized form. “Metaverse” – the term – was coined by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel, “Snow Crash”, and has recently been launched into such wide and varied usage that it has come to mean something more specific than the future. Who wants to miss this?

Well, to be honest, a lot of people. And they have their reasons. For now, talking about the metaverse is primarily a branding exercise: an attempt to unify, under one conceptual banner, a bunch of things that are already taking shape online.

Matthew Ball, a venture capitalist who writes about the metaverse, described it as “a sort of successor state to the mobile internet,” which is helpfully debunking: the metaverse describes how several emerging technologies – crypto currencies, NFT, online gaming platforms like Roblox, and mixed and virtual reality hardware, including Facebook’s Oculus, for example, can expand and overlap. In Mr. Zuckerberg’s words: “I believe the metaverse is the next chapter for the internet, and it’s the next chapter for our business as well. “

For comparison, Mr. Ball often looks to the era of smartphones, which changed our relationship with technology in such deep and shocking ways as it now seems commonplace.

Think back 10 years, when smartphones and apps were new and social media was on the rise. A lot of people thought that the era of the handheld supercomputer was going to change, well, a lot of things, even though they weren’t sure how. Metaverse boosters, who may seem eager to just throw away the baggage of the last era, believe we’re on the cusp of even bigger changes.

If that sounds more linear than visionary, despite the sci-fi branding and the “decades away” discourse, that’s because it is. Fortnite has over 300 million players worldwide, many of whom see it as a way to hang out with friends and engage in the culture at large. Cryptocurrencies and NFTs are only speculative in the financial sense – they exist and you probably know someone who owns them. There are currently tens of millions of virtual reality headsets in circulation, mostly for gaming. Give one. They are interesting!

You can even just consider the quite obvious ways the internet has become more present in your life, by gesturing in the general sense of the metaverse. The way you cultivated personas online in different contexts, on Instagram, LinkedIn, or Slack. The way you play Scrabble on your phone all day, wherever you are. The dismal virtual office of the Covid Zoom grind. Group chat!

Using a label like “the metaverse” has the odd effect of making things that are already happening sound distant and impossible. People really are spend a lot of time and money in rich and fun interactive spaces with cultures and economies of their own. Entrepreneurs really are building an alternative financial system using blockchain technology, buying and selling virtual real estate and trying to figure out how a placeless and stateless system could govern itself.

As several technical writers have noted, Mr. Zuckerberg’s speech is not particularly new. (Any Roblox fan in your life could have told you that.) The label also provides a slippery subject for criticism. If anything about these trends worries you, don’t worry! Everything will be better when we are really in the metaverse.

Despite all of his gestures towards a vague future to be built, Mr. Zuckerberg’s attempt to explain and claim the Metaverse made one thing clear: the strongest FOMO could be his. For someone whose business can truly be said to have changed the course of history, becoming central to the lives of billions of people, the prospect of a new Internet age could be downright terrifying.

The early winners of the social media age haven’t forgotten that much of what people are raving about online right now – just about anything that promises a ‘decentralized’ experience – is , by definition, positioned against big companies like Facebook. (It would also explain why Mr. Zuckerberg has spent so much time talking about virtual reality, where Facebook has a real hold.)

Not missing out on the latest big thing is what made technology leaders and their companies what they are. Missing out on the next big deal, whatever it is, is not an option. Giving various promising and menacing trends a unifying name is more heartwarming, from this perspective, than envisioning the chaos of dozens of competing technologies adopted by billions of people soaring in directions that even the most prescient visionaries. will only understand a little.

As Benedict Evans, another venture capitalist, wrote in October, the current metaverse talk is “a bit like standing in front of a whiteboard in the early ’90s and writing words like interactive television, l hypertext, broadband, AOL, multimedia, and perhaps video and games. , then drawing a box around them and labeling the box “information highway”. ”)

Today’s tech giants have industrial-grade resources, talent, and FOMO on their side, so it would be a mistake to underestimate their influence over this so-called successor state to the Internet.

There are, however, two predictions that I feel comfortable making about the Metaverse.

One: it will not be known, by the people who inhabit its sprawling, distinct environments, yet to be determined, as “the metaverse”. If we really do our work in virtual offices, we’ll just call it work.

Two: For most of us, missing out on a more tightly connected way of life, in which identities, work and sociality are more interwoven across physical and virtual spaces, many of which are designed in one. concern for profit, will not be the problem. It will be a question of whether we can leave.

For Context is a column that explores the limits of digital culture.

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