Big Tech Needs to Stop Trying to Make Their Metaverse Happen

The race is on to cash in on the metaverse hype. Last week, Microsoft described its $68.7 billion takeover of gaming studio Activision Blizzard—a move that would have usually been interpreted as the Xbox maker simply expanding in the gaming sector—as a way to create the “building blocks for the metaverse.” Meta—which rebranded from Facebook to be named after the metaverse—is at work on the world’s most powerful supercomputer, in order to power the metaverse. Now Meta is also reportedly planning to introduce NFT features on its Facebook and Instagram platforms; Twitter has already allowed users to transform their NFTs into hexagonal profile pictures; and YouTube might do something similar soon. According to the ever-swelling ranks of Metaverse analysts and chin-strokers, NFTs, a type of cryptocurrency tokens regarded as digital title deeds, will be core components of the Metaverse.

That is when and if such a thing ever exists, of course. The Metaverse is a fuzzy concept: It entered dictionaries via Neal Stephenson’s 1992 dystopian sci-fi novel Snow Crash, where the Metaverse is the virtual refuge from an anarchy-laden world controlled by the Mafia, and was brought back by a series of blogposts by VC Matthew Ball. In Ball’s formulation, which has quickly risen to scriptural status, the Metaverse is an always-online virtual world that seamlessly blends with the real, flesh-and-blood world, courtesy of augmented reality, and virtual reality, and mixed reality. Videogames are part of it, but are not it; crypto and tokens will play sizable roles as the Metaverse’s currencies and assets, given that people will actually work and make money in it. 

Rest assured, we are told, the Metaverse is coming.

What is most striking about the buzz around the Metaverse is that everyone claims to be building it, but no one knows what it really will be or what it should look like—and whether people will ever want to use it. As WIRED’s editor in chief Gideon Lichfield put it, we are witnessing “a terminological land grab”: Companies and entrepreneurs have sensed some kind of change coming in the air, and they are scrambling to call it the next big thing, put their label on it (in some case going to Meta-rebranding-level extremes), and find ways of monetizing it. The question is whether we—the intended users—will go along with it.

The shift that Big Tech has spotted is obvious: Over the past few years people have started spending much more time online. The Covid-19 pandemic accelerated that vertiginously. For the white-collar workers who were asked to work from home, the office instantly shrunk to the size of a screen. Free time, for identical reasons, was also forced to find digital alternatives. With cinemas closed, and bars shut, and parties out of the question (unless you worked for the UK Government), bored people spent an inordinate amount of time playing video-games, on engaging in gamified activities such as flipping meme stocks and dabbling in crypto or crypto-adjacent products (like NFT pictures). In some cases the two things merged into strange chimeras of games and cryptofinance, making online pay-for-play universes like Axie Infinity, the NFT-based video game, a source of revenue for impoverished Filipinos. Meta et al’s gamble is that this state of affairs will persist, and eventually evolve—by way of faster internet, better VR, and a more functional online economy—into the Metaverse, aka the next internet.

It is a perverse gamble. In order to really work, it requires us to be bored at home for the foreseeable future. Barring extreme cases, it is only when clubs are closed, and concerts are cancelled, and in-person meetings are off-limits that one would go for their Metaverse equivalents. It might be a smart gamble—a new variant, the climate crisis, or a nuclear apocalypse might force us all indoors again—but it is, to put it dramatically, a bet against humankind. It is not necessarily bad for technology companies to take a leaf from sci-fi, but if you really have to, at least try picking the utopian stuff, like Amazon’s Echo, blatantly modeled after Star Trek’s chirpy talking computer, over the unsettling dog-eat-dog hellscape of Snow Crash.

And still, the morality of the Metaverse project is the least of its problems. Unlike Google Glass, the gold standard of tech blunders, it is not an overhyped (and ill-conceived) product: It is pure hype, without a product—except for some hypothetical “building blocks.” Benedict Evans, a venture partner at London-based firm Entrepreneur First, has drawn an apt parallel between the Metaverse and the “information superhighway”—a very fashionable early-1990s term announcing the advent of some kind of US-wide digital communication network encompassing everything from video-games to interactive TV, to fiber optics. 

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