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Embracing the metaverse
Photo: Julien Tromeur

How will we communicate and interact in 2030? If you ask the big tech and gaming companies, we will experience a much greater overlap between our online and offline presence in the next big evolution of the internet: the Metaverse — or Internet 3.0, as some call it. Being a futurist, I think the question we should be asking ourselves is not so much whether it will actually happen, but rather who will govern, control and moderate the coming Metaverse?

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta Platforms Inc, calls the Metcahaverse “the successor to the mobile internet” with “a bigger sense of presence”, and says that within 5–10 years Facebook will not be known as a social media company, but a Metaverse company. Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft describes it as “a new layer of the infrastructure stack” where “the digital and physical worlds converge”. Tim Sweeney, CEO of Epic Games, recently announced a billion-dollar investment to pave the way for the Metaverse. David Baszucki, founder of the gaming platform Roblox, has stated that the Metaverse is arguably as big a shift in communication as the telephone or the internet. Tons of articles are being written about the Metaverse, and the opinions expressed are many: Is it just a new hype and a way for Big Tech to divert our attention from the myriad of ongoing accusations being levelled at them regarding monopoly creation, misinformation and other failing responsibilities, or is it the real deal?

Photo: STeve Johnson

Either way, knowing the Metaverse is a must. One of the best definitions I’ve found is from venture capitalist Matthew Ball, who describes it as being persistent — which is to say, it never “resets” or “pauses” or “ends”. It is synchronous and live, everyone can be a part of it at the same time, it has a fully functioning economy, and it spans the digital and physical worlds, private and public networks/experiences, and open and closed platforms. The Metaverse also offers unprecedented interoperability of data and digital items, and finally it can be populated by “content” and “experiences” created and operated by an incredibly wide range of contributors — including AI algorithms such as GPT-3 and Wu Dao 2.0. Many of these features already exist in gaming, but the Metaverse is far more than ‘just’ entertainment. Casey Newton from The Verge, who interviewed Mark Zuckerberg on his views on the Metaverse, has referred to it as a “maximalist, interconnected set of experiences straight out of sci-fi”, and I find that description very fitting.

When I was a teenager, I was deeply fascinated by sci-fi and cyberpunk, reading books by William Gibson, Jeff Noon and the like. The term Metaverse originated in a sci-fi novel, ‘Snow Crash’ — a dystopian story from 1992 by Neal Stephenson, about a collapsed America in which the Metaverse is a virtual world without any rules, owned by corporate franchises, where the citizens can escape their miserable IRL. Not really an ideal vision for the future — so hopefully the Metaverse that we will see will have a different structure and goal which is not about abandoning real life in favour of a consumer-orientated virtual world.

There is no doubt that the creators of the Metaverse will possess extreme power when designing the structure and the new economies that will emerge in this new world of synthetic media. We are already seeing the beginning of the virtual economy, where you can buy avatars, virtual clothes and artefacts as NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens). But these economies are fragile — and could end up as a huge collective illusion of ownership online, with a possible collapse of virtual economies as a result. There is also the issue of the extreme amount of surveillance around your every move in the Metaverse, which thus knows what to present to you next, like a never-ending Tik-Tok stream. Who should be in charge of the algorithms that decide this? As Mark Zuckerberg puts it in his interview with The Verge, “it’s certainly not something that any one company is going to build”. So, luckily, we won’t have to fear that Facebook will own the Metaverse. But who will govern it? Will we see some kind of a cohesive society emerge with shared values and a shared understanding of the world? Or will it be spread out in unrelated bubbles?

Embracing the Metaverse means embracing long-term thinking, because the Metaverse will take a long time to unfold. In this process we must remember to take it seriously and remain conscious of the need to create a responsible Metaverse fit for a brighter future — not a dystopian future that resembles the darker sci-fi novels.

This article was published in SCENARIO Magazine issue #61, November 2021. Get the full magazine here.