You wake up in Los Angeles, in the mid-21st century. But Los Angeles is no longer part of the United States. The devastating worldwide economic crash has left the world in pieces. Most of the power of the federal government has spilled over to private organizations and entrepreneurs. As a result, the world has been divided into various sovereign enclaves and gated communities, such as Mr. Lee’s Greater Hong Kong, NovaSicilia (run by the American Mafia) and New South Africa (where only whites are allowed).
Despite the breached national borders, the world has not become freer. But fortunately, there is a way out. A way out of all the petty rules that keep society in its grip. A way out of the inflations that caused everyone to live in tiny shacks. A getaway into a universe where only your imagination sets the boundaries.
What is the Metaverse?
According to some enthusiasts, the Metaverse is the next best thing after the invention of the internet. The Metaverse is a network of virtual environments where humans are able to interact and experience things that are impossible in real life. The term was first coined by Neal Stephenson, in his 1992 book Snow Crash. (Realize that the Internet didn’t even exist back then!)
Stephenson describes a future where everyone lives a virtual life in a 3D world that runs parallel to the real world. One can enter this world by putting on VR glasses; at home, at one of the public stations, or on the go. You create your own avatar — a word that was also used for the first time in Snow Crash — and then you are able to walk around in a completely simulated world and interact with other avatars.
Characteristics of the Metaverse
- Avatars. A digital representation of yourself, which is fully customizable to your liking.
- A fully-functioning virtual economy, in which digital assets like virtual real estate, experiences, access passes and skins are traded. These (micro)transactions are made possible by proofs of digital ownership , validated by blockchain technology and NFTs.
- Digital persistence and synchronicity, meaning that all events in the metaverse occur in real-time with permanent effects. There is no reset button, life in the Metaverse grows organically.
- User-generated content, which is facilitated by no-code/low-code tools that allow users to build new in-world objects.
- A sense of presence; giving you the feeling that you’re physically participating in the Metaverse. Your avatar is basically an extension of your body, with the help of Virtual Reality glasses and motion sensors.
Does the Metaverse already exist?
In this article, I’ll outline how close we already are to realizing a Metaverse and what initiatives are underway. This is not just about the technology, but also the social, political and individual effects that are observable.
5 Signs the Metaverse is Already Here
The technology is there, video games are more popular than ever, and we are already part of an interconnected world. In what ways does the Metaverse already exist?
1. Virtual Reality Hardware
In 1992, before the Internet even existed, the Metaverse was a futuristic concept that was far from feasible. Computers were just making the switch from 2D to 3D, laptops were so heavy you needed some serious leg muscles, and phones were still phones; not smartphones.
But even back then, there were companies that saw a future in Virtual Reality. Take Nintendo for instance, who launched a pair of VR goggles called Virtual Boy in 1995. These had only a monochrome display that could show red images on a black background. It turned out to be a gigantic flop, and if you’ve spent 10 minutes looking through this Virtual Boy glasses you’ll immediately know why: they give you a terrible headache.
But now, three decades later, the Metaverse is technologically feasible. The Internet is commonplace, game consoles can offer life-like graphics, and VR glasses have undergone tremendous development and are already available from $300*
*For that price, you do sell a piece of your soul to Facebook, as you are required to log in with a Facebook account to use all of the Oculus Quest 2’s features.
2. Digital Ownership
As our devices have gotten smarter, we have become more willing to pay for software. App stores are packed with supposedly free apps that attempt to shake a few dollars out of your wallet through clever tricks. More and more games are brought to market for free – Fortnite, Call of Duty Mobile, Halo Infinite – and then present players with an in-game currency that allows you to buy new items through microtransactions. Hell, Electronics Arts earns more from players buying FUT points than the sales of the actual $70 game. Once your product is in the hands of the consumer, you can do everything in your power to entice them to make in-game purchases.
This transition from hardware to software is not going unnoticed. Even industries that were purely hardware-based, such as the automotive industry, are copying the strategies of app developers. Tesla, for example, puts artificial limitations on their car that reduce the driving range, which the driver can unlock by purchasing a software upgrade. Gradually, ownership is moving to a right-to-use. This trend is going to be even more pronounced in the Metaverse.
Blockchain technology may well be a defining factor in the success of virtual worlds. Not only could one of cryptocurrencies become the central currency of the metaverse, but blockchain technology allows for NFTs. These Non-Fungible Tokens make the ownership of virtual items possible. Trade in virtual goods are kept up-to-date by means of a decentralized network that validates all transactions. This ensures that your virtual possessions, for example that hoverboard you have spent so long saving for, cannot be stolen overnight.
But from my perspective, NFTs still have a major weakness to overcome. For a virtual product is relatively easy to copy, especially compared to physical products. You can purchase an NFT that proves you are the official owner of your CryptoPunk profile picture, but nothing stops me from taking a screenshot and using the same profile picture. I wonder how this will any different for the Metaverse, especially when users are given access to tools that can easily (re)create objects.
The first few years of the Metaverse are going to be a battlefield, when it comes to copying, imitation and impersonation. The regulations for unauthorized imitations of digital goods are not yet ready for this. It is unlikely that governments will be prompt to regulate these matters, so it will come down to the owners of the Metaverse to police infringements. Lots and lots of bans incoming. And that brings me to the next point:
In Snow Crash, a franchulate is a conjunction between a franchise and a consulate. In the novel, most national and federal governments have gone bankrupt, thus private companies have taken over the role of public authorities. To become a member of a particular franchise you have to pay a membership fee or meet some (racial) attributes.
In our world today, we can already see omens of franchulates emerging. The group of five prominent big tech companies, MAMAA – Meta (Facebook), Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Alphabet (Google) – all have their own ecosystem and thus can impose their own rules. And you better listen to MAMAA, because she will give you a good spanking if you misbehave.
If you violate one of Facebook’s rules, your account can be blocked without mercy. This not only locks you out of the social platform, but also prevents you from accessing your photo gallery, the marketplace, the groups you were a member of, or logging into other websites with your Facebook account.
We already see the tech giants putting profit above freedom of expression. For instance, Apple pulled a Quran app from the App Store in China at the request of the government, and Nintendo released a special variant of their popular Switch game console in China that could only play 13(!) out of hundreds of games. YouTube also has a few tricks up their sleeve when it comes to censorship, where certain political views or criticism can face punitive action. Some videos with controversial opinions are not shown as recommendations or creators may get demonetized, which takes away their ad revenue. Don’t say anything that violates the guidelines, or you will be cancelled.
By virtue of their dominance and the global reach of their platform, tech companies often overstep moral boundaries by introducing new “features” at the expense of their users’ privacy and ease of use. Some technologies are introduced stealthily and only come to light years later, so it sometimes takes a while before public outrage arises and governments act. That is, IF governments are even able to act and protect their citizens, as some technologies are so novel that no laws apply. In addition, these tech companies have strong lobbies and meddling power, most notably in American, Chinese and Russian politics, bending the legislation in their favor. So when it does come to a conviction, the penalties are often so low that tech companies simply factor in this punishment.
It is a never-ending cat-and-mouse game between the expansionism of tech companies and the restrictive power of governments. At some point, the fangs of these tech companies become so powerful that they can no longer be tamed by governments. Or are we already past that point?
“As the power of the common person declined, the power of the Big Tech overclass multiplied: power over attention, over time, over users’ judgment, and soon power over their speech.”
~ Josh Hawley
4. Content Creation by Individuals
[insert your content here]
5. Culture shift → Virtual becomes more important
When the lion’s share of one’s life takes place in a virtual world, it is only logical that the real world will come second. Once possessions in the metaverse become more important than possessions in the real world, people will start to neglect their real lives. With so many activities and experiences to be had in the metaverse, you want to spend as little time as possible on actual physical activities. In fact, the only reasons to step out of the virtual world are to eat, drink, pee and poop — showers are optional. We see this in many dystopian cyberpunk movies, games and books.
In Snow Crash, Hiro Protagonist – the protagonist of the story – lives in a storage closet where his most precious possession are his VR glasses to log into the Metaverse. In Ready Player One, the protagonist lives in the Stacks – a collection of ramshackle shipping containers stacked on top of each other. Along the rusted iron exterior of the containers run pipes to drain away sewage, but not every Stack is reported to possess such luxuries. It’s practically a vertical trailer park. But these harsh conditions are quickly forgotten when Wade Watts steps into the virtual universe OASIS. There, the boundaries of reality are your own imagination.
“I would never prioritize a virtual world over the real world!”, you might think, “those are only things you read about in sci-fi stories.” But in our daily lives, we are already seeing the omens of a virtual world taking over the place of the physical world. Many kids and young adults spend more than four hours per day playing video games, dedicating much of their time to a virtual world. Conversations among young people are about dances they can do in Fortnite or weapon skins they own in Call of Duty. There is more discussion about the stats of their virtual football players in FIFA and how well they performed in-game, than the real players on which they are based.
We spend more time on social media than we actually communicate face-to-face. Look around a restaurant, and you’ll see countless couples who prefer to passively scroll through a Instagram feed rather than actively talk to their partner. Smartphone addictions are possibly the biggest non-drug addiction of the 21st century. Social media status triggers all forms of anxiety, self-esteem issues and emotional instability. Perhaps our secret desire for a virtual world is best described by the word nomophobia — the fear of running out of battery and having to deal with a non-working phone.
Examples of Metaverse that already exist
The idea of creating your own avatar that allows you to walk through a virtual world and interact with other players is not entirely new. There have been several precursors to the Metaverse in the past. In 2003, Second Life was launched; a virtual life simulator that was actually way ahead of its time.
Second Life already had many features from the future vision of metaverses. There were extensive avatar customization options and user-generated items such as clothing, accessories, and buildings available. These could then be purchased with an in-game currency, which established a fully-blown virtual economy. There were businesses that put up billboard ads in the virtual spaces and virtual estate deals were booming. Countries like the Maldives, Sweden and Estonia opened an embassy in Second Life. I remember a municipality in the Netherlands buying a piece of land in the Second Life world for 300k, which, in hindsight, was a pitiful waste of taxpayers’ money.
Because after the initial craze and millions of people taking a look at the virtual world, Second Life slowly faded into oblivion. The number of annual active players dropped below one million. Nevertheless, in 2015, Second Life had an estimated GDP of $500,000,000, which is more than some small countries.
Perhaps Second Life was simply too early. For 2003 it was revolutionary and cutting-edge, but looking back it is not what we expect from the metaverse. You still had to control your avatar with a mouse and keyboard from behind a PC; the technology of Virtual Reality glasses was not yet sophisticated enough and smartphones didn’t exist yet. Also most people were reluctant to pay for online items, and PayPal was practically the only online payment solution. By now, microtransactions have become so commonplace, that paying for virtual goods is something more people are comfortable with.
Facebook’s vision for the Metaverse
In October 2021, Mark Zuckerberg held a keynote in which he announced that his company will focus all its efforts on developing the Metaverse. To underline this, he even went so far as to change the name of the entire Facebook Group to Meta. Needless to say, this was definitely not because of the horrible reputation that Facebook has accumulated over the years. Of course, you can’t blame the company that actively collects personal data from people who never gave their consent, played a harmful role in the U.S. presidential elections, and got millions of teenagers addicted to Facebook and Instagram through dark user patterns, for wanting a different name.
You can imagine the excitement around the world when Mark, out of all people, revealed his plans for the Metaverse. Evidently he couldn’t wait to see the reactions either — what a pity that due to a stupid mistake the comments below the keynote were disabled (sic).
Microsoft signed a deal with Samsung to work on a future generation of its HoloLens headset that will most likely launch to consumers around 2024. With their Azure-platform, applications for video games, Xbox-platform and popular Teams collaboration tool, Microsoft already has a strong footing in the games and communications industry. Moreover, Microsoft owns LinkedIn, so perhaps they can approach the business side and focus the Metaverse on productivity, better interactions and video conferencing with a sense of presence.
And what about Apple? There have been rumours about a possible VR headset for years. The iPhones are already equipped with LiDAR, which enables the scanning of 3D models. This would make the creation of 3D objects for the Metaverse considerably faster and more user-friendly. Also, with their M1 processors, they already have their own chip platform that is smaller and outperforms competitors like Intel and AMD in energy efficiency. But Apple’s focus seems to be mainly on the Augmented Reality end, and less on Virtual Reality.
Something that does scare me is a possible entry from Amazon. They are perhaps the biggest political player of all, so they can make the term franchulate become very real. And I think we would not be better off if they did. I can already see how users are not allowed to step out of Amazon’s Metaverse in order to use the toilet, and that your VR glasses come with a free pee jar with a big Amazon logo on it.
Do you want to live in the Metaverse?
I am a bit ambivalent about the Metaverse.
On the one hand, I am curious about all the new experiences it can offer. For content creators it is a Valhalla, and it opens the doors for digital museums, audiovisual experiences, innovative games and virtual getaways. I thought SecondLife was a great concept, and with today’s technology and people’s increased willingness to participate in a virtual environment (from Zoom to Fortnite), I estimate the rate of adoption is much higher.
At the same time, I am extremely concerned about privacy and censorship. These aspects are a growing problem in our browser and app world, but will only get worse in the Metaverse. Data collection will become frighteningly large if your eye and body movements are also stored. The algorithms on social media and YouTube are already geared towards engagement and regularly lead you into the darker realms of the internet. The dark realms of the Metaverse could be much darker and harder to get out of. Think, for example, of a world where you are tempted in all sorts of ways into your gambling addiction. Add to that microtransactions and highly fluctuating NFTs, and one can completely ruin oneself financially.
Today, comments are moderated and reported, but when voice monitoring becomes active, even more comments will be subject to retaliation. Something is easier said than typed. Will you be allowed to curse in the Metaverse? Can you say something about Hong Kong, Uyghurs or Meta’s position of power? Political correctness will only increase, as will the number of wrongful convictions. Moreover, the impact of a ban is many sizes larger. It is one thing to be unable to use Facebook because of a ban, but to be completely excluded from virtual society and no longer be able to meet your friends…
And what if you need the Metaverse as a source of income?
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