You can’t swing your arms at this point without hearing about “the metaverse” in some capacity, which is supposedly the reason why Facebook changed its name to Meta to capitalize on its aspirations for the metaverse as a concept. I’d certainly like to think that this is part of the reason why the company’s stock then utterly fell apart in February because, well… let’s start with the obvious fact, which is that “the metaverse” doesn’t exist.
But this kind of goes beyond that. The picture that companies like to paint of the “impending” metaverse is worse than non-existent; it’s also ultimately not desirable in the first place. It’s another piece of techbro fetishism in which people who are at best misguided and at worst actively rent-seeking scammers create a worse version of something we already have and try to get you to pay them for the privilege. And as long as I’ve already talked about how NFTs are bad and play-to-earn is terrible – and these are often linked scams – let’s talk about how this metaverse nonsense is, well, nonsensical.
First and foremost, I want to paint a picture for you that makes me laugh every time I think about it. I want you to think about what Mark Zuckerberg’s view of the metaverse actually is. Because it’s hilarious.
You wake up in the morning. You want to check the news first thing. So you get up, walk over to your computer, turn it on, wait for it to boot up, strap on your VR headset, launch the program, wait for it to load, log in, load your virtual space, walk over to the designated area for browsing information, and now finally you are getting to check the news.
By contrast, outside of the metaverse, you wake up, grab your phone (which might be on your nightstand, even), and check the news. You don’t even need to get out of bed if you don’t want to. Seriously, no one’s going to mind.
Oh, and let’s also remember that in this scenario everyone has a VR headset and the space to make it actually functional. And everyone has a desktop PC, something that is by no means a given since a lot of people can and do get by with just their phones. And that you have the time and desire to interact this way. And… you know what, I’m just stopping there because it just gets more ridiculous over time and still provides nothing that existing technology doesn’t.
But wait! That’s still not the metaverse because the ideal of the metaverse involves things not being set off into a single walled garden but where all these various apps and structures talk to one another. That’s kind of the whole driving point, right? Everything’s connected and you can make all of these programs talk to one another! You just need to convince people which standard to use in terms of the core metaverse framework, which is surely easy. It’s not like people all use different web browsers to connect to the internet, right?
It’s also worth noting that the people who are hardcore proponents of the metaverse also know it doesn’t exist yet. For example, no one has actually gotten married in the metaverse. People have gotten married and had ceremonies that exist within what are usually bespoke 3-D avatar and manipulation environments. It’s worth noting here that I’ve attended equally fictitious weddings in a variety of actual MMOs, which conferred no actual legal status, ranging from games that have systems in place to acknowledge the wedding (Final Fantasy XIV) and those that do not (World of Warcraft). In none of these cases did the game advertise that it was doing something heretofore unseen.
“Oh, but those are games instead of environments!” Well, the owners of Second Life and VR Chat would like to have a few words with you at this point. And it’s here that we have to kind of step back and examine where this idea of the metaverse and these ideas come from because all of this is actually being drawn from science fiction… while wildly missing the point, as one does. (At least no one named it the Torment Nexus.)
See, the term was actually coined in the 1992 novel Snow Crash, but it represents how a lot of media represented the idea of what future computer use would be. Exploring the digital space was a psychedelic mishmash of flying objects and virtual spaces, translating code and the concept of same into understandable visions of actual physical space. And this made sense in 1992 and before because the number of people who actually had a clear picture of what the internet looked like was pretty low. It was an obvious estimation of what connected technology would look like to make it universally acceptable.
It was also, you know, dramatic and easy to understand by readers who didn’t really understand things like text pages being scrolled on a computer screen.
As it turned out, we didn’t actually need that technology to convince people to use computers. We actually have widespread and common use right now of things that once sounded like science fiction, facilitated by the internet across a multitude of services. But the idea of the metaverse actually winds up turning the clock back, making all of these functions and services less intuitive and useful in the name of letting people have an easier interface that is not, it turns out, necessary or better.
This is also all eliding the fact that the very concept of the metaverse – a shared digital space where everything extends to connect everything else – requires a whole lot of companies to cooperate when they have no direct reason to do so. Sure, you can say that Meta and Epic both have a stake in the metaverse, and they do… but both of them have a stake in it being built upon that company’s internal technology. Epic doesn’t want to give Meta the keys to Fortnite; it wants Meta to give it the keys to its platforms to then be used via Fortnite, and vice versa.
Of course, supporters elide this all the time. “This is the future!” they cry. “The internet took time to catch on, too! Don’t you remember that?”
Here’s the bad news: Yes, I do remember the adoption of the internet, and no, that’s not what happened. What took time to happen was for people to be convinced that having a dedicated appliance in their home to access the internet was a worthwhile thing. Once you got exposed to it and saw what the internet had to offer, it was almost immediately and trivially obvious to people what a big deal this one. No one had to be sold on the internet as a technology any more than people had to be “sold” on broadcast television. It happened by virtue of its own utility.
Anyone who is trying to shout down complaints of utility or desirability or worthiness with “you don’t get it, this is the future” is full of crap because the future is usually self-evident and requires little to no convincing. The future is not strapping on a VR headset to make everything into a continual MMO instead of using a web browser that works faster and with lighter resources.
If someone is telling you “this is the future, buy in now or be left behind,” that person is a salesman using a fear of missing out to sell you something, not a prognosticator offering you a cheap deal on the ground floor. Don’t buy it.