In 2022, we saw a flurry of “Web3” trends; among them, the Metaverse. Yet for all the talk, the Metaverse is still poorly defined, and understanding technologists' vision means we have to understand what problems they are trying to solve. There are good and bad bits in this futuristic vision, but the book provides only surface-level detail, and misses some easy targets.
I’ve talked a lot about the Metaverse this year. The topic comes up in my day job, in my Twitter feeds. It’s a complex topic, poorly understood, and many people in my spheres have a rather negative outlook on the concept. This negativity is fair: Metaverse is often brought up with Web3, which is brought up with blockchain tech, which carries with it a litany of earned criticism. Perhaps some of the resistance to Metaverse comes from the people and companies who are pushing it so hard. The Zuckerbergs and Facebooks of the world have not done well to integrate with existing social values, and there is a rightful criticism that this technofuturism proffers little more than a bleak vision where the rich get richer.
Before I go further, let me say that I am not negative on Metaverse myself. My own position is that the idea has promise, if used in the right ways, to solve for the right problems, and to provide the right innovations. This is not an endorsement of the Metaverse currently being sold, either. There is a deep techno-dystopianism lurking behind the concept, one that Matthew Ball briefly mentions a few times in his book, The Metaverse: And How it will Revolutionize Everything, as if for due diligence. Perhaps his references to Neal Stephenson and other sci-fi writers suffice.
As Ball describes it, the Metaverse consists of some essential characteristics. Per him, the Metaverse is a “massively-scaled and interoperable network of real-time rendered 3D virtual worlds that can be experienced synchronously and persistently by an effectively unlimited number of users with an individual sense of presence, and with continuity of data, such as identity, history, entitlements, objects, communications, and payments.” In other words, the Metaverse is a virtual world (or worlds), layered on top of our own. Slicing through these layers are some fixed notions, such as identity and property.
Using Ball’s definition, it’s easy to see many parallels with online gaming, and in fact, Ball spends an immense amount of time in his book describing the Metaverse and its future needs and capabilities through the lens of gaming. He’s not wrong. I used to play hardcore World of Warcraft, and I was good at it. I have a Paladin tattoo on my chest. I spent years in that game, building community, leveling my character, and participating in a virtual world with people from all over the globe. The identity of my character there is a part of me, one that is surprisingly more durable than my real identity. I have changed my name in real life, after all, but not in the game. I digress. The point is, the universe of World of Warcraft made me friends, gave me memories, taught me real things, and is generally something I look fondly on. What if it were easier to extend what I did there to a context outside of their servers? It’s a compelling thought. Thoughtfully, Ball deconstructs how even the most advanced games today provide merely a fraction of the capabilities necessary to achieve the scale of the Metaverse. It’s precisely this technical challenge that has tickled so many talented developers.
Through this comparison, however, the author misses some fairly easy discussion points, ones that could have made the book stronger, and less like a dewey-eyed techno-futuristic romance. There is a brief chapter about interoperability, a technical challenge as deep as the computing and networking requirements of the Metaverse, but it fails to deliver the nuanced discussion the topic deserves. Instead, it defers this to a rather windy discussion of blockchain.
There’s something to this, actually. Suppose I wanted to take my World of Warcraft achievements or my character’s gear with me, somewhere other than on the developer’s servers. I would need a universal data format, with a universal schema, and some accessible place to host the data. Blockchain does solve half of this problem, in a rather clever way. Nevertheless, I would need a way to render the data in the various Metaverse worlds, and in a lot of cases it doesn’t even make sense to do that. Do I want to show up to work in Judgment Armor? Do I want to play Call of Duty with a Hand of Ragnaros? Blockchain doesn’t solve the burden of artists and developers having to implement these artifacts, unless interoperable standards are defined. This is far from practical currently, and it’s not clear that there would be any value in this at the end of the day. After all, I’m proud of what I did playing top-level WoW, but all that remains that has value is the storytelling it allows me to do, almost exclusively with peers who understand the context.
This is precisely the weakness with the Metaverse concept as it is presented. Though Ball breathlessly describes the eye-popping revenue numbers of certain games, there is little evidence presented that these ideas have any staying power. There are many references in the book to previous internet revolutions, including the creation of the internet itself. But Ball makes a fatal assumption that because these revolutions evolved as they did in the past, the next revolutions will evolve the same way. No evidence is presented for this assumption. Games, for all their revenue-generating power, for all their craft and artistry, still have a limited cultural footprint. E-Sports have failed to generate the kind of recognizable celebrity like professional athletes are. Kids growing up today may dream of being famous YouTubers rather than famous actors or athletes, but there are still 24 hours in the day, and nowadays more, not less, electronic distractions compete for our attention. The likelihood of a child growing up to be a famous movie star is just as small as it was 30 years ago. Technologists have flirted with mainstreaming game concepts into daily life for years. Remember when “gamification” was the revolutionary new idea around the mid-2010s?
It’s unlikely that people will want to turn more of their life into a game. Virtual worlds are a great pass-time, but the Metaversal vision shared by futurists is not being pulled forward by market demand. This is not to say that the concept is useless. Our lives are surrounded with invisible metadata. There exists a date when I last changed my water filter. There is a documented supply chain attached to my medication. These data are outside my reach, but what if they were not? What if it wasn’t a colossal pain in the ass to figure out what batteries you need for your bike light, or what if learning about a product safety recall didn’t require you essentially stumbling on that information on the news. Sure, there are deterministic ways to solve these problems. I could write down when I change my water filter. I could register my products with the manufacturer. But these are cumbersome, annoying exercises that siphon valuable time from our lives. My own vision of the Metaverse is one where humanity is augmented. I would love better tools for managing my life. I’d love to be able to create virtual spaces with my erstwhile WoW friends. I wonder often how Starvok and Psiranz1 are doing, and lament that the tools I had to keep up with them are the Facebooks and Twitters of the world. Which is also why I am so disappointed with the Metaverse vision Ball sells.
At the end of the day, the question of “what is the Metaverse” can only really be answered if we try to understand the vision of the people driving it forward. It is not hard to imagine. These are wealthy, powerful people, clamoring for more wealth, more power, and immortality. The Metaverse is a power play by major tech companies to create an irresistible world where they control the profits. The Metaverse lives in a parallel plane of existence; its governance is and will remain controlled by those who created it. Ball inks a remarkable number of pages describing existing payment infrastructure, despite the fact that nothing in the as-described vision of the Metaverse would require new payment infrastructure. When discussing the negatives of blockchain-based currencies, the environmental toll is barely mentioned. The proliferation of fraud and insecurity is dismissed with a handwave. The vision is to create a virtual universe unburdened by the controls of the real universe. Nothing is certain, the saying goes, except Death and Taxes. Perhaps the tagline for the Metaverse should simply add, “but what if it wasn’t?”
Names changed to protect the innocent, and me, the guilty; I was also a huge asshole in my WoW days. ↩︎
Estimated Reading Time: 8 minutes