In a recent announcement, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that the tech giant would transition from being a social network business to being a “metaverse corporation,” which will operate in an “embodied internet” that mixes the real and virtual worlds more than before.
So, what exactly is “the metaverse”? It seems like the sort of stuff millionaires speak about to get attention, such as Tesla CEO Elon Musk promoting “pizza joints” on Mars, to name a few examples. However, because Facebook is used by over three billion people each month, Zuckerberg’s proposal of a shift in direction is worthy of consideration.
The word “metaverse” is not new, but it has lately seen a resurgence in popularity, as well as discussion about what it could imply in practical terms in the future.
The concept of the metaverse is helpful, and it is likely to be around for a long time in the future. Even if, like me, you are skeptical of the future that its proponents envision, it is an idea that ought to be understood.
Is the term “metaverse” a term that has passed its peak?
From audio speakers and TVs to interactive video games and virtual reality, humans have devised a plethora of technology that deceives our senses. In the future, we may develop devices that fool our other senses, such as touch and smell. Many terms describe these technologies, but there is no widely accepted term to describe the whole of the mash-up of old-fashioned reality (the physical world) and our manufactured extensions to the reality that we are experiencing (the virtual world).
In recent years, words like “the internet” and “cyberspace” have come to be linked with locations that we may reach via screens. They fall short of accurately depicting the constant intertwining of the internet with virtual realities (such as 3D gaming worlds or virtual cities) and augmented realities (such as navigation overlays or Pokémon GO), among other things.
In addition, the old labels do not adequately describe the novel social connections, sensory experiences, and economic behaviors that are developing as a result of these expansions of the virtual world to the real world. For example, Upland combines a virtual representation of our environment with non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and real estate markets to create a virtual mirror of our reality.
Facebook’s statement relates to the company’s efforts to imagine what social media could look like in the metaverse.
It also helps that the word “metaverse” is a poetic expression. Academics have been writing about a similar concept under the umbrella term of “extended reality” for years, but it’s a pretty uninspiring moniker to use.
A lot more romantic is the term “metaverse,” which was created by science fiction writer Neal Stephenson in his 1992 book Snow Crash and means “metaverse.” Writers tend to see emerging trends that need to be named: the term “cyberspace” originates from a 1982 novel by William Gibson, while the term “robot” derives from a 1920 play by Karel Capek.
We have retained the usage of recent neologisms such as “the cloud” and “the Internet of Things” because they are convenient ways to refer to emerging technologies that are becoming more significant. The metaverse falls into the same category as the physical universe.
Who are the beneficiaries of the metaverse?
If you spend too much time reading about major technology firms such as Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft, you may come to believe that technological advancements (such as the development of the metaverse) are unavoidable. It’s impossible not to think about how these new technologies will influence our society, politics, and culture in the future, and how we may fit into that future at the time of reading this.
This concept is referred to as “technological determinism,” which refers to the belief that technological advancements influence our social relationships, power relations, and culture, with humans just acting as passengers. It ignores the reality that we, as citizens of a democratic society, have a voice in how all of this plays out in the end.
The metaverse is intriguing for Facebook and other major companies who are eager to embrace the “next big thing” before their rivals since it offers a chance for new markets, new types of social networks, new consumer gadgets, and new patents to be developed.
Why you or I would be enthused by all of this is not quite apparent, though.
A well-known narrative
In the real world, most of us are dealing with issues like a pandemic, a climate emergency, and the huge extinction of species caused by human activity, among other things. We are having difficulty comprehending what a happy existence looks like in the age of technology that we have already embraced (mobile devices, social media, and global connectivity are linked to many unwanted effects such as anxiety and stress).
So what is it about IT firms spending unfathomable billions in innovative methods to divert us from the daily world that provides us with oxygen to breathe, food to eat, and water to drink that excites us? It could be anything.
Ideas from the metaverse may be able to assist us in organizing our society more productively. People may benefit from shared standards and protocols that connect different virtual worlds and augmented realities together into a unified, open metaverse, which would allow them to collaborate more effectively and reduce duplication of effort.
For example, in South Korea, a “metaverse alliance” is attempting to convince businesses and the government to collaborate on the development of a national virtual reality platform. Identifying methods to combine smartphones, 5G networks, augmented reality, virtual currencies, and social networks to address issues for society is a significant component of this effort (and, more cynically, make profits).
In the early days of the internet, similar promises were made about the benefits of sharing and cooperation. Nonetheless, the early promise has been eroded by the dominance of big platforms and the rise of surveillance capitalism over time.
When it comes to linking individuals all over the globe to one another and serving as a modern-day Library of Alexandria, the internet has been very effective in storing huge amounts of information. However, it has also increased the privatization of public spaces, the introduction of advertising into every aspect of our lives, our dependence on a small number of multinational corporations with more power than many countries, and the virtual world consuming the physical world through environmental damage.
Beyond the boundaries of a one-world order
The fundamental issues with the metaverse have to do with the type of worldview it would reflect, rather than its physical manifestation.
Based on one worldview, we may consider ourselves to be passengers within a single reality that serves as a container for our individual existence. This point of view is undoubtedly known to most readers, and it also explains what you see on social media platforms such as Facebook: a “platform” that exists independently of any of its participants.
Another worldview, which sociologists believe is prevalent in Indigenous cultures, is that each of us is responsible for creating the reality in which we live via our actions. Work and rituals, for example, bring people, land, life, and spirituality together, and these practices together form reality.
A major flaw with the former view is that it leads to a “one-world universe,” which is a reality that does not allow for the existence of alternative realities. This is exactly what we’re seeing on current platforms right now.
The most recent version of Facebook may improve your ability to interact with other individuals and communities in new and interesting ways. However, it also restricts your ability to interact with them: features such as six predefined “reactions” to postings and material selected by unseen algorithms influence the whole experience. In a similar vein, a game such as PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (which has more than 100 million active players) provides for an infinite number of possible outcomes for a game – but specifies the rules by which the game may be played.
The concept of a metaverse, by transferring even more aspects of our life on a global platform, exacerbates this issue on a more fundamental level. However, it simply substitutes the limitations of the physical world with constraints imposed by what the metaverse will enable us to accomplish as a result of the infinite possibilities it provides.