Welcome to the metaverse. It sucks ass.
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One of the more enduring concepts of science fiction and futurist thought is the notion of a second, digital world that seamlessly integrates with our own and allows us to interact with other people and humanlike software agents in a simulacrum of reality.
In his 1982 short story ‘Burning Chrome’, William Gibson named it ‘cyberspace’, a word that has since been co-opted to mean basically anything internet-related. In his Sprawl trilogy, beginning with Neuromancer, it’s described as a “colourless void” crisscrossed with “bright lattices of logic” where the digital avatars of hackers do battle with corporate security systems represented by walls of ice and fire. In 1992’s Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson coined the term ‘metaverse’, describing a persistent virtual city accessible with VR goggles and public terminals which is — in true cyberpunk form — parcelled up and sold off by a giant corporation. The Matrix famously reimagined it as a prison for human consciousness and agency. In multiple episodes of Futurama from the early 2000s, the internet of tomorrow is depicted as a three-dimensional space rendered almost unusable by ads and porn.
Recently there have been multiple efforts to sketch the foundation for a metaverse — now the accepted nomenclature — which is broadly defined as “the convergence of virtually enhanced physical reality and physically persistent virtual space”. Social media, virtual and augmented reality, cryptocurrency, online multiplayer games, NFTs, livestreaming, the creator economy — basically everything buzzy over the last decade has been recontextualised as nascent efforts to build out a metaverse.
Matthew Ball, a venture capitalist and former Amazon Studios strategist, wrote a highly influential essay about the emergent space last year, and followed it up with a mammoth nine-part series this year expanding on the idea. In his telling, the metaverse will be a “successor state to the mobile internet” which will “revolutionise nearly every industry and function” by offering a shared, synchronous digital experience that interfaces seamlessly with reality. Its final form is still decades away, Ball argues, but we can see it starting to come together.
Here’s how Mark Zuckerberg described it in a recent interview with The Verge:
The metaverse is a vision that spans many companies — the whole industry. You can think about it as the successor to the mobile internet1. And it’s certainly not something that any one company is going to build, but I think a big part of our next chapter is going to hopefully be contributing to building that, in partnership with a lot of other companies and creators and developers. But you can think about the metaverse as an embodied internet, where instead of just viewing content — you are in it. And you feel present with other people as if you were in other places, having different experiences that you couldn’t necessarily do on a 2D app or webpage, like dancing, for example, or different types of fitness.
Ball’s essays and Zuckerberg’s recent commentary are all worth a read, if only to understand what the metaverse is in the eyes of the people who are trying to make it happen. Ball describes it as “the newest macro-goal for many of the world’s tech giants”, and it’s not hard to see the appeal. Online games like Minecraft and Roblox, and Epic’s Fortnite, which has evolved from a third-person multiplayer shooter into basically an all-purpose online social square for young people, are vastly profitable microtransaction engines. Facebook has made a vast fortune off creating online spaces where people congregate (initially because they wanted to, and now because they’re compelled) and its acquisition of companies like Oculus show it is keeping an eye on long-term opportunities and how online communities in the future might operate.
All of the above is really just an introduction into what I really want to talk about, which is Zuckerberg’s first effort at selling the metaverse (or a preliminary version of it) to normal people. He appeared on CBS to announce ‘Horizon Workrooms’, which is, to put it modestly, a brave step into a bold new future, the inauguration of a new epoch of technological development, and a startling reimagining of what it means to be human.
Just kidding. It’s virtual reality Zoom.
You and you coworkers can, thanks to the power of technology, sit around in a PS2 version of an office meeting room and experience a shitty, mimetic version of your regular office life. Including a whiteboard!
Workrooms is a virtual meeting space where you and your colleagues can work better together from anywhere. You can join a meeting in VR as an avatar or dial into the virtual room from your computer by video call. You can use a huge virtual whiteboard to sketch out ideas together, bring your computer and keyboard into VR to work together with others, or just have expressive conversations that feel more like you’re together in person.
It represents, in some respects, a social implementation of an earlier Oculus product, the chillingly named ‘Infinite Office’, which allows users to build a virtual office space in VR, including customisable displays “simulating a multiple monitor setup”.
I’ll pause here, while you contemplate the thrilling possibility of a virtual water cooler chat with a coworker where you discuss whose virtual horse did better at the racetrack this weekend, to return to Ball’s first metaverse essay. In it, he says the metaverse will:
…offer unprecedented interoperability of data, digital items/assets, content, and so on across each of these experiences – your “Counter-Strike” gun skin, for example, could also be used to decorate a gun in Fortnite, or be gifted to a friend on/through Facebook. Similarly, a car designed for Rocket League (or even for Porsche’s website) could be brought over to work in Roblox.
To this end, Fortnite is one of the few places where the IP of Marvel and DC intersects. You can literally wear a Marvel character’s costume inside Gotham City, while interacting with those wearing legally licensed NFL uniforms. This sort of thing hasn’t really happened before. But it will be critical to the Metaverse.
He’s a VC guy who has worked in the content game and has a deep understanding of entertainment businesses, so you can understand why these are the examples he reaches for. But for something sold as the successor to the mobile internet and a revolutionary new step in human digital consciousness, are virtual office meetings and Spider-Man in Gotham City the bold new horizon we have to look forward to?
There’s something deeply off about the way the same systems and the same organisational structure of contemporary society are replicated again and again through innovations sold as disruptive. Working at a digital desk in a digital office. The flexible gig and creative economies becoming regular nine to five work over time. The same multibillion dollar entertainment IPs, now interactive and interoperable. You get the overwhelming sense, to abuse an idiom, of the same shit in a different bucket.
Of course, there is also the fact that we have been promised this frictionless interface between reality and the digital realm forever. Like driverless cars, they’re always just over the horizon.
I’m endlessly reminded of Google Glass, an early effort to turn augmented reality into something normies might use as readily as their smartphones. Google made the unfortunate error of giving early prototypes to exactly the sort of people who readily adopt the new social mores instantiated by technology (read: nerds), who promptly went on to cause headlines by being attacked in bars for wearing them. At Gawker, Adrian Chen adroitly accused Glass wearers of “demanding social interaction on [their] wholly weird and unsettling terms.”
In 2014, I wrote a story for The Guardian about the Glass backlash and the general sense we were all being yanked into a “utopian future nobody wants”. To date, I have not written anything that generated a stronger response (both positive and negative).
Seven years later, I get the same feeling — but there’s a tired inevitability about it. We’re being pulled into a future which is being written by the tech companies who already rule our lives, and being told it’s going to be faster, more seamless, more accessible, better. Despite the shine, it looks a lot like what we’re already living.
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You can tell they’re all reading the same essays.