Show caption ‘The concept of the metaverse was coined by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 science-fiction novel Snow Crash, which was set in a near future in which the virtual world and the physical world are inextricably interconnected.’ Photograph: Artyom Geodakyan/TASS Opinion Techies think we’re on the cusp of a virtual world called ‘the metaverse’. I’m skeptical Sean Monahan Silicon Valley has been anticipating virtual reality for more than three decades, and keeps running into the same problem: people mostly like actual reality Wed 11 Aug 2021 11.22 BST Share on Facebook
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Maybe this will be my Paul Krugman moment. The Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist was famously the winner of a study to establish which op-ed commentator was most consistently correct. In 1998, he also famously claimed, “By 2005 or so, it will become clear that the Internet’s impact on the economy has been no greater than the fax machine’s.” I am not nearly so storied in accomplishments as Krugman. But I do make my living offering predictions and forecasts. So I might as well say it: I predict that the metaverse won’t happen.
The “metaverse,” for those who don’t know, is a still-mostly-hypothetical virtual world accessed by special virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technology. The idea is to create a sort of next-level Internet overlaid on our physical world. People plugged into the metaverse exist in our physical world like everyone else but can see and interact with things that others can’t. Think The Matrix or the Star Trek Holodeck or the Fortnite-esque brandscapes of Ready Player One.
The concept of the metaverse isn’t new. The phrase was coined by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 science-fiction novel Snow Crash, which was set in a near future in which the virtual world and the physical world are inextricably interconnected. Silicon Valley’s tech billionaires seem increasingly convinced that an actual metaverse is just over the horizon; the previously niche concept has been mentioned on earnings calls for Microsoft and Facebook. In a recent interview with The Verge, an enthusiastic Zuckerberg described the metaverse as “the successor to the mobile internet,” and a kind of “embodied internet, where instead of just viewing content – you are in it.”
At the same time as the metaverse discourse has been heating up, it’s been a breakout year for the crypto community. The non-fungible token (NFT) took the art world’s imagination by storm this winter. Elon Musk stoked – and then popped – a truly wild Bitcoin bubble. Now, neither Zuckerberg nor Bill Gates tethered their concept of the metaverse to crypto. But I find it interesting that both the centralizers – tech giants whose power and influence rival nation states – and the decentralizers – crypto innovators who remain something of an influential subculture – see the new chapter in technological progress in roughly the same terms: to escape reality.
It’s important to throw some cold water on this by remembering that the concept of virtual reality – which is really what the metaverse is – dates back a long time. Virtual reality was popularized by computer scientist and tech contrarian Jaron Lanier in the 1980s; his company VPL Research, short for Virtual Programming Languages, achieved such success that the toymaker Mattel licensed their “DataGlove” device – a kind of wired glove – to create a Nintendo game controller.
Yet it’s been more than three decades. Virtual and augmented reality of any kind hasn’t exactly taken off. Despite all the chatter about Oculus – the VR headset company that Facebook acquired, to much fanfare, in 2014 – few of even my most technophilic friends have hopped on the Oculus train. I’ve only encountered the Oculus VR gear as a forlorn gadget in startup HQs – a novelty unceremoniously dumped next to the WiFi router. As tech analyst Benedict Evans recently tweeted, “My son is approximately 1000x more interested in Roblox” – an online game platform on which users can create their own games for other users to try – “than in getting my VR headset out of the cupboard. Different models of the future.” VR was the techno-utopian future that Generation X was promised. But as the Substack writer Paul Skallas recently noted: “Back in 1999/2000 people would tell you VR was right on the cusp of taking over. That it would change everything. It’s 2020. Where is it.”
VR – and AR after it – have run into a continual problem: people mostly like reality. People have liked visual entertainment for as long as there have been screens, for as long as there have been theaters. But, like all entertainment, visual entertainment has its time and its place. Remember Google Glass? I had a pair. It was abominable to use. Who wants email notifications obscuring their field of vision all day? My phone is distraction enough. The synthesis of wearable tech and augmented reality pretty quickly parted ways. Augmented reality became fun Snapchat filters that make you look like a Pixar character. Wearable tech became Apple watches to count your steps and alert you if you’re having a heart attack.
Two factors determine whether new technology catches on: capacity and incentive. Not all things that tech can do (capacity), people want (incentive). Think back to the mid-2000s, or rewatch David Fincher’s 2010 classic The Social Network. The building blocks of social networking existed long before Zuckerberg created Facebook. In fact, several social networks already existed. Remember Friendster and MySpace? The capacity was there. But what was the incentive? To get people to join his network in droves, Zuckerberg added two ingredients that the earlier social networks lacked: exclusivity and status.
When Facebook first launched, only those who attended a small group of prestigious colleges could join. I graduated high school in 2005, and I’m ashamed to say that Facebook influenced my school choice. Facebook in the early days was additive. It was where you found friends before you arrived on campus, solidified nascent relationships, shared boozy and embarrassing memories. My question for metaverse boosters is this: what does the metaverse add to everyday life?
I’ve used Oculus goggles before. I found they had a weird time distortion effect. When I took them off, I felt vaguely tired. Coming out of the pandemic, which has reminded everyone that a Zoom call is very much not the same thing as hugging your mom, I’m skeptical that Zoom-fatigued workers will be interested in leveling up to working in the metaverse – whatever that may mean. A new youth survey by Dazed reports that just 9% of Gen Zers want to stay on social media; fatigue with digital substitutes for real life may be even broader than just the Zoom-fatigued legions working from home.
Tech oligarchs like Zuckerberg, with his Sauron-like ambition to own the One Ring to rule them all, seem like the worst choice to put in charge of building a new world. I’m more sympathetic to the crypto community’s nascent interest in the metaverse. The promise of crypto, it seems to me, is its potential to spark decentralization in an already overly centralized world, to play Gutenberg to the next generation’s Martin Luthers. The metaverse proposes a smoothed-out and rationalized version of our messy and chaotic world. The question that crypto seems to face most pressingly is: Why should crypto matter to everyone? If crypto is to be truly revolutionary, then it will have to give an answer that formats digital life down to a human scale, not up to a megalomaniac’s.
Sean Monahan is a writer and trend forecaster based in Los Angeles. He co-founded K-Hole, the trend forecasting group best-known for coining the term normcore. He releases a weekly trends newsletter at 8ball.substack.com