In a gleaming office in California, Mark Zuckerberg closes his eyes, and dreams of a better world. In this world, people hang out, chat, shop, watch movies and play together, unhampered by distance or time zone. It’s a world in which every creature comfort of modern life is available instantly at our fingertips in digital form. It’s a world where the shimmering spires of corporate-branded ‘experience centres’ stretch all the way to the horizon – and it’s a world that he controls. Mark Zuckerberg dreams of this world, and he smiles.
This hypercapitalist digital utopia is known as ‘the metaverse’ and has been hailed by many as the next evolution in our digital lives, with our online identities being forged into avatars to represent us in virtual worlds, accessed through cutting-edge VR headsets. The entity previously known as Facebook is leading the charge on this, going so far as to change its name to better align itself with the concept, but companies like Nike, Coca Cola, Epic and Gucci are also clamouring to stake their claim on this new frontier.
Except this brave new world isn’t really new. A clip recently did the rounds on social media, purporting to show Walmart’s vision for virtual shopping in the metaverse, but as was quickly pointed out, it’s actually a concept video from several years ago, when functional VR was still a novelty, and brands flocked to take advantage. The same thing happened in the early 2000s, when the short-lived popularity of Second Life led to everyone from Fox and Reuters to Cisco and Sun Microsystems establishing virtual presences within the game.
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Second Life didn’t reinvent social interaction, and neither will this new vision for the metaverse. This is because what none of the companies trying to jump onto this digital gravy train want to admit is that the concept is flawed on a fundamental level.
To explain why, we first have to recognise what has made the internet – and its current incarnation in particular – so successful. There are three main pillars on which ‘web 2.0’ is based: convenience, choice and accessibility. The technology to create and consume online content is ubiquitous and affordable, which gives us instant access to a functionally infinite library of goods, services, information and entertainment, no matter what we’re looking for.
Web 3.0, by contrast, misses all three of those marks. Creating a presence in the metaverse currently requires exponentially more time, effort, resources and skills than setting up a web page or social media presence, which means it’s restricted only to the corporate behemoths that can afford it. Consequently, your choices within the metaverse are extremely limited, as are your incentives for engaging with it in the first place. That’s also assuming you have the capability to do so in the first place; many metaverse projects are being planned with VR in mind, which remains prohibitively expensive for most consumers.
Second Life, released in 2003, is a real-time immersive social space in which residents can interact with complete freedom
What’s more, it’s intrinsically less convenient than existing user experiences. Current models for the metaverse most closely resemble a digital equivalent of Disneyworld (another appropriately nightmarish example of unfettered capitalism), with separate areas for different services or activities. Go and visit Nikeland to customise a set of virtual trainers, then head over to the Netflix multiplex to catch a film – that kind of thing. A rather jolly idea, on the surface, but it ignores the fact that I can already do all of that simultaneously, and more besides, with the devices I already have in my pocket and on my desk.
At this point, it’s important to note the distinction between the idea of the metaverse and the related – but not interdependent – concepts of VR and AR. Both VR and AR have compelling potential use-cases in a number of areas, including collaboration and social interaction, but they don’t need to be built on top of a twee, stylised virtual world to be useful. What they need is a solid framework of back-end technical support and functionality.
The ‘utopian’ vision of the corporate digital future, as presented by companies like Meta, is a fantasy, and a complete boondoggle to boot. For businesses, the cost of entering the metaverse will be enormous, and in a scant handful of years, the digital ruins of those abandoned investments will stand as testament to the futility of trying to recreate what we’ve already got.
We already have a blueprint for the ideal metaverse, and you’re using it right now. Since its inception in science fiction, the idea of the metaverse has been built around bringing everything and everyone in our lives together into one cohesive digital world, and the modern web has already achieved that. It may not be represented by fancy graphical environments or immersive experiences, but it’s brought people and cultures together in ways that Meta’s ‘walled garden’ approach can only dream of.
More importantly, it’s powered by the one essential element that every virtual world has so far lacked: interoperability. The rise of APIs has given us the ability to combine content and experiences from a huge range of digital services
The potential to create useful, functional and convenient experiences already rests in the palm of our hands, and it doesn’t require a team of animators and 3D modellers to do it. Instead of remaking the internet to suit the priorities of a handful of tech giants, organisations should instead focus their resources on strengthening the internet we’ve already got, building tools and engaging in true collaboration. To paraphrase Willy Wonka, if you want to view the metaverse, simply look around and view it.
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Adam Shepherd has been a technology journalist since 2015, covering everything from cloud storage and security, to smartphones and servers. Over the course of his career, he’s seen the spread of 5G, the growing ubiquity of wireless devices, and the start of the connected revolution. He’s also been to more trade shows and technology conferences than he cares to count.
Adam is an avid follower of the latest hardware innovations, and he is never happier than when tinkering with complex network configurations, or exploring a new Linux distro. He was also previously a co-host on the ITPro Podcast, where he was often found ranting about his love of strange gadgets, his disdain for Windows Mobile, and everything in between.
You can find Adam tweeting about enterprise technology (or more often bad jokes) @AdamShepherUK.
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