The Metaverse: What the hell is it?
And why should I care?
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Now that the dust has settled (a little) and everyone has had the chance of dunking on Mark Zuckerberg and the new parent company name, Meta, I'd like to add my two cents to the whole 'metaverse' conversation. And no, it's not about how I don't want to work in VR.
For those out the loop, recently Mark Zuckerberg has decided to rename the parent company 'Facebook Inc' to 'Meta', apparently to better reflect the ambitions of the parent company (to the detriment of many smaller companies who's names are similar to 'Meta', or even is called 'Meta').
You could argue that Meta was trying to distract from the negative press of the 'Facebook Files' - a series of files leaked by a whistle blower that show internal research and acknowledgement of Facebook having negative effects on society. I personally don't think the reason of the name change was to distract from yet another series of negative press for Zuckerberg and Co., however the timing definitely is very convenient for them. Zuckerberg claims that this name change has been a good few months in the making, due to Facebook being more than a social media company now. I'm inclined to believe him. Sarah Frier writes in the book 'No Filter' about how Mark Zuckerberg has had the obsession with connecting everyone digitally. The metaverse is an obvious next step.
But what the hell is it?
Metaverse is the sum of all digital experiences
The prefix 'Meta' means 'after' or 'beyond', so the word 'metaverse' in itself implies it is a universe that goes beyond what we have at the moment? It was originally coined by Neal Stephenson for the show 'Snow Crash'. In the show, the metaverse was a 3D virtual world inhabited by avatars of 'real-life' people.
Today, when people are talking about the metaverse (I suspect this term will change in meaning as time goes on!) they generally are talking about the 'virtual world' - the world, environment or ecosystem contained within the digital realm that is persistent, meaning that if you make a change in the virtual environment, it stays like that.
You could argue a video game is metaverse; games like GTA have a fully functioning world and you can have a life inside there and that's that, but that isn't what people are talking about here. The games you hear people referencing are Fortnite and Roblox, mainly because they are the most popular games at the moment that relate anything close to the metaverse. Most people fail to describe what it is about Fortnite and Roblox that makes it more like the metaverse. The aspect that people are referring to here are quite specific that sets them apart from other games.
Roblox and Fortnite represent a Metaverse in a basic form
Roblox, for the uninitiated, is a a software or tool where people can develop their own 'experiences' (they used to be called 'games' but got changed to 'experience' because of the Epic Games and Apple lawsuit). It gives you all the things you need to create something in the digital world of Roblox. Once you create an experience, let's say a game, other people can buy (or it can be free!) the digital experience (in this case a game), play the game using their digital Roblox avatar with their friends in real time and then move on to the next experience. Within Roblox you have your own currency called Robux, and therefore there is a mini economy within the Roblox universe, and through long convoluted ways, you can turn Robux into real cash, but that's a story that other people have covered.
But what you have here is a digital world where you can hang out with your friends real time with your digital avatar, build your own worlds, buy and sell things you created like assets and games, chilling spots, businesses, etc. It is a persistent universe where, if you really wanted to, could live in and actually make income. It's a Metaverse, just that it's Roblox's metaverse as you can't take anything out of the digital ecosystem of Roblox.
Fortnite is the other digital experience that people refer to. Fortnite is a video game where you play as a player to kill everyone on the island and try to be the last person standing. However, in recent days, Fortnite has hosted real time musical events and has taken the digital experience to the next level. All you needed to do was have an (free!) Epic Games account and the (also free!) game Fortnite, which is accessible on nearly all devices (minus iPhones, because, legal and things). Once you had that stuff set up, you could all gather together with your friends (from anywhere in the world) and attend a concert hosted by a musician, like the DJ Marshmello. You could experience a real time music show experience with your friends in a digital world and this experience only existed in this digital world and you could only access it through the gates of Epic Games and Fortnite.
If you combine the aspects of digital experiences from Fortnite and the digital tools and economy of Roblox, you have something that you could argue is a digital world and experience that simply can't be recreated in the same way in a physical world.
And that's what the metaverse is supposedly meant to be. Most, if not all, the examples of the metaverse at the moment will be focussed around working together, rather than social and consumer experiences. That's likely because most innovations are generally normalised by business first to make it viable for the consumer.
But in my opinion, we are massively limiting our comprehension of the Metaverse and letting people like Facebook open another door to violate our privacy.
But before we carry on, I want to talk about ambient computing, something that will play an integral role in the metaverse.
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A quick side road: Ambient Computing
Walt Mossberg, widely considered as one of the best tech journalists in recent memory, wrote in his final column for Recode about ambient computing back in 2017. Ambient computing is computation that happens in the background - meaning devices that are permanently turned on (voice assistants, IoT, cloud computing), using multiple conscious inputs ("Hey Google", or "Alexa") or unconscious inputs (our smartwatch detecting skin temperature and turning your thermostat on when you're too cold), to make decisions for us.
We already live in the world of ambient computing in the primitive form. Google gave a whole keynote about wanting to show you information that you need without you asking for it. Let's say you have Google Calendar and you put in an event in the calendar, for example a flight to Madrid from London Gatwick. Google will know where you currently are (from your phone location), assess the traffic and any public transport delays, and give you a notification letting you know when you should leave to the airport, any traffic or transport updates and sometimes if the flight is to be delayed, all without you explicitly asking Google to do so. You probably will start thinking about making ways to the airport, thereby influencing you to act, or you could ignore it, but inside you will be thinking about preparing to go to the airport. Did you ask Google assistant to do this? Most likely you deliberately didn't (you may have agreed to this through some shady terms of service agreement), but you might find it useful and probably welcome this.
This is the same thing with the Internet of Things (IoT), where everything is connected to the internet in your home. You can program your thermostat to automatically turn on when you are in the house after work or turn off when you leave. You don't have to actively interact with the device and computer, it just does it in the background using the many input and data points that they collect from you from hyper tracking you.
With every tech iteration, the 'computer' is becoming more and more abstract
To understand where the metaverse is going, we need to appreciate how simple it has become to use a computer. Back when Apple first started out, the problem they tried to solve was to make computing more accessible to those who do not know about computers. Computers were essentially for nerds back in the days and Apple wanted to make it as frictionless as possible.
Since then, every iteration of consumer computing has pushed for making it easier and easier to use technology. At the same time, computers were moving towards a more portable design so that you weren't geographically locked to a location to use a computer (like you are when you use a desktop). Now, computing in the backend is so abstract, young gen z's today don't even know how a file system works - background computing manages that for you. By making computing as frictionless and as abstract as possible, it gives big tech a large amount of control over your device and how you use it.
So what does this mean for the Metaverse?
Mark Zuckerberg recently mentioned in an interview how frustrated he was that the most common way to interact with a computer was with a mobile phone. He believes that a rectangular screen being the way we interact with computers is a huge limiting factor to the advancement to technology. In an ideal world, you need minimal manual input to interact with technology, thereby reducing as much friction as possible. Facebook have invested in multiple VR companies, social media companies, messaging as well a device for video calling called 'Portal' and some smart sunglasses that automatically record your day. These are all devices and tools designed to make interacting technology and people as seamless as possible.
People are looking at the metaverse in an old fashioned way
When people talk about the metaverse, they refer to digital AR or VR worlds. The reason most people scoff at the idea of the metaverse is because they most likely think "There's no way I will be working with a massive VR helmet on my head, no thank you", but this is a very primitive way to look at the concept.
Big tech are working to break down this manual interface we have with interacting with technology. We have body sensors, such as Apple Watches, as well as voice assistants that can talk to IoT devices throughout the home. In the most ideal world we would literally think things, like what to type on a laptop, and it would happen. I know that sounds pretty ridiculous but Facebook are throwing money at researching how to do this very thing.
Imagine Facebook achieves this? I haven't even touched on vendor lock in - imagine being locked into a Metaverse made by one company? Like Facebook's Metaverse? Or Microsoft's one? (This would go against Web 3.0, but that discussion is for another day)
The metaverse will be enabled by Ambient Computing - and we should be concerned
The Metaverse is going to be when interacting with computers is so seamless we don't even need to make a conscious decision to do it - and it will be making decisions for us without us even realising. The barrier of entry to VR and AR is being broken down more and more to the point we don't need any form of peripherals - maybe we would have chips in our eyes that can activate VR and AR automatically? I mean, we are close to making chips to treat blindness.
Why should we be concerned?
Big tech have proven to us that they can't manage our data in the flat version of the digital age we are in at the moment. They tracked us relentlessly and abused out privacy and data and when they got caught, lots of noise was made in congress with minimal regulation (just look up my favourite scandal, Cambridge Analytica, or any other tech scandal and check to see what punishment the original abusers got). Without even holding them accountable for the mess they've made now, they're running into a new dimension, and with ambient computing literally millions of more vectors are created for tracking and violating our privacy. We are barrelling towards the next stage of surveillance capitalism of large companies literally influencing and controlling our thoughts, emotions and actions to a microscopic level.
I feel like the fact not enough pushback is being raised is our 'free services' moment - we welcomed and loved the idea of free services and games without realising the real price we were paying with our data is infinitely worse than the hard cash we would have paid.
Without any hard pushback and regulation to force them to behave, big tech, such as Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Snapchat - the list goes on - will all be working on making ambient computing devices and are going to be the literal keys to our existence at this rate.
Do we trust them?
If you have a better idea than I do, if I’ve missed out anything or you think I am talking absolute rubbish, feel free to reach out either by commenting on the post, or by emailing me on firstname.lastname@example.org
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