We’ve had a lot of fun here having a good little giggle about the whole saga (if you want to call it that) of the metaverse, the bugbear of so many half-baked projects that don’t seem to be really going anywhere. It’s also become the favorite talking point of a lot of people who insist that the metaverse must exist in a form that will somehow become The New Internet, as if the current internet is somehow fallen or lesser because we’re not all wearing 3D avatars as we use it. And it’s also a talking point for MMO developer Raph Koster, who has a lot to say about it without being terminally infected with brainworms like a lot of the purveyors of the aforementioned projects.
However, I was thinking about it the other day and had a different thought on the metaverse writ large that I wanted to share. Oh, sure, it’s a silly term that has since become co-opted by insane grift schemes and deeply disappointing Second Life knockoffs, but if you really think about it… the metaverse is already here. No, I don’t mean that I’m about to gesture at game X and say that it constitutes the metaverse because that’s not it. I’m not saying “that, over there, is the metaverse.” I’m saying we’re in it. Right now.
I still remember my first smart phone, when I was super excited to get the Motorola Droid because it had a flip-out keyboard that I could use. (To this day I dislike phone keyboards, but obviously they no longer make that model. It wasn’t great anyhow.) That was 13 years ago, and it started a period in my life which I didn’t really recognize as being different at the time but I look at now with some amazement. I have gone from going online to just… being online. Perpetually.
Oh, sure, sometimes there are connection issues, but almost all of my day is spent with an online feed. I have never visited the physical offices of any job I currently have, and sure, some of them don’t have any. But my main job does, and I’ve never seen it in person, yet I’m still a valued part of the team. When I wake up, I talk to friends across the world before I get out of bed. I can get an email and check it while sitting in the office of the person who sent it to make sure it has everything I need.
This is, of course, not as cool as what you might see in something like Cyberpunk 2077. It doesn’t just display as an overlay in my eyes. But not to put too fine a point on it, that’s like getting upset that it’s 2023 and we don’t have flying cars. Five seconds of thought reveals, “Oh, that’s just a plane, and I don’t think I should fly one of those.” It’s mistaking fictional signs of the future as if these things are, like… actual inventions or things that anyone is trying to make.
I can stream video games to my friends halfway across the world and communicate with them in real-time. Many of them play online games with me, and not with me. We talk about shared locations that don’t exist as actual points of reference. Meet me in Labyrinthos or by Delkfutt’s Tower or on the upper level of Valdrakken or in Cantha. And I can be playing these games while talking to friends and often while watching a show on another monitor, a nonstop feed of information and new experiences.
“But that’s not the metaverse!” you cry, and for the last time, stop shouting these things out loud; I can’t hear you. But you may still have a point because the definition of “the metaverse” is incredibly porous. Most of the definitions involve what amounts to a world wherein you basically stop living in the physical world and just have a completely parallel virtual world you occupy through your every waking moment.
Here’s the problem: That definition is stupid because even if you agree with the premise it’s still inaccurate because we are still physical beings. I don’t care how carefully you curate your world to be able to work and entertain yourself while staying inside of your apartment, there are still going to be times when you need to void your bladder or sleep or get something to eat because your blood sugar is crashing. You can be disappointed that your fragile meat is the failure point in your online world, but barring a lot of big technological leaps that’s going to be the case for the conceivable future.
You may remember that I wrote a column a while back about how the metaverse was a bad idea and doesn’t exist. Have I changed my mind? Not really, but I think it’s interesting to look at this as a framing issue. It’s not that the metaverse necessarily does exist by some of the stricter definitions; rather, it’s that if you look at what the metaverse actually promises, the things that the concept claims to offer that would actually be beneficial to people? Well… yeah. That’s just the internet.
But I think it’s also easy to forget that “it’s just the internet” has changed a lot over the past decade alone, much less the decade before and so forth. We have gone from a world where “just the internet” meant message boards and Geocities fansites about Transformers (which I only obsessively checked once per day in high school until I figured out how to sneak into the library at which point it became many times) to a world where the internet is a fundamental component of normal human interaction.
And that’s cool. It’s neat. It creates a space where virtual spaces may not be as real as physical spaces we occupy, since, you know, your body won’t fit into the wires. But they are every bit as vital to what we feel, to the tapestry of our emotions and our experiences. A fight with a friend in an online space feels no less real than one who lives down the street from us, even if there’s not a physical presence.
So if what you really care about from the metaverse is that blending of the digital with the real? It came true. You’re looking at it. No, it didn’t play out like Second Life evangelists wanted to believe where we abandoned the real world because that’s just not going to happen. But it has, in fact, become our world. And if you can’t accept it because it doesn’t involve virtual real estate deals… maybe the blending of digital with real wasn’t really what you wanted in the first place.