In the annals of hypes about things that don’t exist yet, the metaverse has traveled an impressive rocket-like trajectory. It’s so important to Mark Zuckerberg that he changed his company’s name to Meta. Other tech giants, including Microsoft and Nvidia, are also turning to the metaverse. But what is it? And do we actually want one?
The Metaverse: And How It Will Revolutionize Everything
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In the mid-20th century, “metaverse” was an obscure synonym for metpoetry, or poetry about poetry. The modern technological meaning of the term was introduced in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 science fiction novel, “Snow Crash.” The folks in this 21st-century dystopia would wear virtual reality goggles to access an empire that’s part massive multiplayer video game, part immersive internet: a digital urban planet in which all kinds of entertainment and shady business dealings can be pursued. Since then, Mr. Stephenson’s readers have been wanting to go to the metaverse. John Carmack, the lead developer of the first-person shooter game “Doom”, once said that it was a moral obligation to build the metaverse. Instead, we got Facebook.
What exactly the real metaverse should be is still not settled. Some describe it as the merging of all existing and future virtual worlds into one gigantic and fluid digital cosmos. Just as today’s Internet can be described as a network of networks, the metaverse will be the virtual world of all virtual worlds. This is the vision offered in “The Metaverse: And How It Will Revolutionize Everything” by Matthew Ball, the former global head of strategy for Amazon Studios. Herman Narula, meanwhile, works with a more elaborate idea in “Virtual Society: The Metaverse and the New Frontiers of Human Experience.” Mr. Narula, the co-founder of a British software company, views ancient myths and religions as proto-metaverses, imaginary worlds with meaningful effects in the physical world and vice versa.
The crucial difference is that such worlds, for example from Greek and Norse mythology, are not interoperable. Hercules cannot visit Valhalla. But interoperability comes with its own challenges. “While it might be funny to imagine Lord Voldemort being mortally wounded by a machine gun-wielding hobbit from the ‘Halo’ universe,” notes Mr. Narula noted, “such an event would probably break the pre-determined value systems in each of those universes.” At the very least, the consumer-dweller of our brave new world should be able – analysts predict – to have a nice pair of buy virtual sneakers and wear them everywhere she goes.
Even that is not a trivial technical problem. Like mr. Ball points out, today’s virtual realms disagree in a fundamental programming sense about what counts as a shoe. Is it a single object or is it made up of multiple objects? Smoothing out the conceptual difficulties of the multiverse thus resembles a repetition of age-old problems in the philosophy of mereology – the study of parts and wholes.
Virtual Society: The Metaverse and the New Frontiers of Human Experience
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“Reality+: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy”, by Australian philosopher David J. Chalmers, is a very lucid and thought-provoking exploration of such matters – from René Descartes’ thought experiment on an evil demon who is the input in controls his brain, to the modern “simulation hypothesis” that asks if we already live in an alien metaverse without knowing it.
Ultimately, the fundamental question posed by Messrs. Ball, Narula and Chalmers has to do with the social value of the metavers: can human life still flourish in a virtual world? Fortunately, the three authors agree that it is possible. They argue that the structures of our personal and social lives are just as meaningful, whether the substrate is our physical reality or a digital world.
Narula even argues that the metaverse could be superior to real life, as it provides the sense of purpose and fulfillment that most people in the flesh space — the old cyberpunk term for the physical world — clearly don’t provide. His diagnosis of the problem is convincing, although his examples of an authentic and fulfilling life in the metaverse may seem eccentric. “Imagine a world,” he instructs us, “where you can inhabit the body of a Galápagos tortoise and speed up time so that you can stop its entire lifespan in the hours between breakfast and lunch.” Why?
Alternatively, spend your days in ‘Heist World’, where an entire virtual economy is left to the intrigue of police and robbers: some people make a living playing burglars, while others are employed as detectives. Are there so many people willing to change careers and become improv actors? Is the general appetite for role-playing – actually “Dungeons & Dragons” in VR – that big? We will find out. For now, the metaverse mainly represents a huge new advertising opportunity that needs a great app. Ordinary users have yet to be convinced to participate. (The ad-tech industry, Mr. Ball ominously notes, will have to colonize this space.)
By the way, what will happen to the real world that so many of us would supposedly want to leave behind? mr. Ball is excellent at the massive infrastructure investment required to build a metaverse. Many more fiber optic cables will have to be built, and the computing power needed to render a realistic 3D world for millions (or billions) of simultaneous users will be staggering.
Speaking of computational requirements, both Mr. Ball and Mr. Narula argue that blockchain – the technology underpinning cryptocurrencies – will be crucial to the metaverse. for mr. Ball, the benefits of blockchain include the ability to reliably verify ownership of virtual assets (as with NFTs). Meanwhile, its decentralized and automatic nature, argues Mr. Narula, solving the trust issues in governance that are so spoiling the meat room.
But the elephant in the room is energy consumption. According to a 2022 study by the Columbia Climate School, Bitcoin alone consumes more energy annually than Argentina, with CO2 emissions equal to those of Greece. This is because currency mining and blockchain verification procedures require supercomputing clusters. To skeptics, building a metaverse on blockchain may seem like we’re fleeing into virtual reality while setting fire to the environmental infrastructure that supports us.
This would be particularly unfortunate, given that so much of today’s metaverse boosterism is reminiscent of the wide-eyed cyber-utopianism of the 1990s, according to which the fledgling internet represented a new era of anarchic creativity and collaboration. (And yet we have Facebook.) For some, the upcoming metaverse represents yet another political and cultural Year Zero, in which we can redesign society from the ground up and avoid the mistakes of the past. But who gets to redesign it?
Mr. Ball believes existing governments should regulate the metaverse, while Mr. Narula imagines new virtual laws being enacted by something he calls the Exchange: “a series of stakeholders, probably dozens to start, would come together and form a consortium, involving representatives with expertise in technology, business, game design, ethics, politics, media, art, psychology, and so on.” So an oligopoly, if it’s a supposed benevolent one. Through an alchemy of soft authoritarianism, these experts will “design a transparent method of governance and a means of encouraging ethical, prosocial behavior in it,” even though in the real world such things are never Eventually, parts of the metaverse, Mr. Narula predicts, will become self-governing countries of their own accord.
However, if history is any guide, newly created nations will not choose to coexist in perfect harmony – a fact presumably well known to Mr. Narula, whose own company, Improbable, builds simulations for the military. It is not clear why this pattern would be different in virtual reality, as the structures of human behavior will remain the same. (Think about how people behave on social media now.) So the dream of the metaverse is, in a sense, another form of naive digital exceptionism: the assumption that things will be qualitatively different if we only do them with computers. Meanwhile, the world outside our VR goggles will continue to glow quietly.
-Mr. Poole is the author of “Rethink: The Surprising History of New Ideas.”
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