The Metaverse: a Snow Crash

Metaverse

We’re nearing the one-year mark for Facebook’s tranformation into Meta. So, is the Metaverse ramping up to be the next big hit?

What is ‘the Metaverse’?

Near the end of the movie Kingdom of Heaven, the main character Balian has a conversation with the Sultan Saladin outside the walls of Jerusalem. Saladin has tried to invade the city, and Balian has managed to hold it against all odds. While parlaying, Balian asks “What is Jerusalem worth?” and Saladin replies “Nothing… Everything.”

And that sums up the metaverse nicely, I think. The metaverse is really nothing but existing technologies strung together under a marketing umbrella. But, to Facebook — sorry, Meta — and other companies, who have tied their fates to ‘the Metaverse’, it is everything.

Of course, that does not really help you understand it. Well, that makes two of us. The original term ‘Metaverse’ is from the novel Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. There it describes a virtual world, like in Ready Player One, where people can hang out, have jobs, and do whatever people do together. That is the vision that Mark Zuckerberg foisted on us when he renamed Facebook to Meta, and went all in.

After that, the crypto crowd slithered by, and has since expanded the definition to include the decentralized spiel they are offering through “Web 3.0”. The libertarian wet dream for the internet, in other words.

Finally, other big companies followed, smelling opportunity. Microsoft hopped on the bandwagon, as did Google. Apple did not, but they are investing in the technologies that will supposedly underpin the metaverse.

A disclaimer

So, before I continue. I have to say, I haven’t visited ‘the Metaverse’. I have a set of VR glasses, but I have yet to see a feature that would actually make me go to ‘the Metaverse’. Or, more accurately, Horizon Worlds, the Metaverse VR world by Meta.

Does this make me a bad person to have an opinion on it? Maybe. On the other hand, I have a VR rig, I have an interest in tech, and I do partake of the Twitter, Facebook, Discord, Mastodon, and other social media fire hose. I’m also an IT developer, with some experience designing 3D environments and a lot with building a good user experience

So, I do have some relevant background. And even now that I’m typing this, I’m contemplating entering Horizon Worlds, and thinking ‘nope, don’t care one fig’.

The Tech

As far as I can see, the metaverse seems to build on four core technologies: the Internet, VR, AR, and blockchain.

The Internet provides the connections needed to make the metaverse work. Honestly, I debated even naming it. It’s like saying that if you build a new shopping mall, roads are an essential building block. That is true, but it goes without saying.

VR should also be pretty obvious. The metaverse hype contains all those digital avatars and 3D worlds, where we supposedly get to hang out. Of course, VR is not required to enter a 3D world, as computer games have been proving for decades. So I suspect VR might not be as crucial to this new metaverse as you’d think. In fact, a successful social medium requires access covering everything from public terminals to smartphones.

AR, or Augmented Reality tries to integrate virtual reality with actual reality. AR is both interesting and divisive. On the one hand, I love the Head-Up display in my car which projects my speed on my front window. On the other hand, Google Glass was, and is, a privacy nightmare. And that’s the core of AR, I think: it can be useful, but can be dangerous and needs regulation. The same kind of regulation that is failing to emerge around voice-recognition technology.

And then there is blockchain. The metaverse is supposedly going to be this distributed virtual world, and what better to underpin it, then with a decentralized digital receipt system. Blockchain will provide the metaverse with digital scarcity and is where it ties the metaverse to what the companies want: revenue.

What’s in it for the companies?

Meta is not in this for nothing. Marc sees the metaverse as the future. Other companies are less vocal, but Microsoft and Google are still investing in it. As are crypto and web 3.0 companies. Those companies see a way to make money. So, how does that work?

The idea is that with a digital world will come a digital economy. This consists of two parts, on the one hand the gear needed to access the metaverse. That’s the small change, I think, compared to the rest. Yes, VR rigs are expensive for consumers, but remember, Meta is now selling them at near or below cost. The big profit-wet-dream of Marc Zuckerberg is gatekeeping the metaverse.

Gatekeeping is king. Let’s start with video games. So-called live services and selling cosmetic game items have made billions. For video games, the problem is that they need to stay relevant to make those big bucks. World of Warcraft managed to do this for years, netting Blizzard a lot of money. Fortnite is currently doing the same for Epic games. Meta dreams of hosting a virtual world that will be a permanent part of our lives. A part of our lives controlled by Meta, meaning an infinite stream of revenue.

That’s why the crypto people moved in as well. If the metaverse is the new virtual place to be, forever, then if you can get your crypto stuff in there, you can make a lot of money. It’s a match made in heaven for the crypto companies, and big tech. Meta gets to control the metaverse, and the crypto companies get to help monetize it. Like with NFTs, blockchain can make assets in the metaverse artificially scarce. And scarcity means Meta and other companies can start selling people things, or even better, renting them things.

That’s Mark Zuckerberg’s dream, I think. And you may have already guessed it: I think it’s a nightmare.

What’s in it for me?

So, maybe Big Tech will control this metaverse thing, but that doesn’t have to be that bad, right?

Take Amazon, for example; a big company that offers valuable services, right? They allow you to buy all kinds of stuff for cheap, right? And Apple makes great stuff. Yeah… Amazon is a union busting, worker exploiting, art-killing monster. And Apple has more money than most countries.

But let’s set aside for now that those big companies want to use the metaverse to empty your wallets at their leisure. What could the metaverse offer?

If you look through all the buzz and fancy videos… well, there’s not a lot left. Best case, they offer a kind of advanced Roblox meets Minecraft. Minecraft is hugely popular, as is Roblox. So, there is clearly a market for virtual worlds where you can hang around. However, while fun, the metaverse wants to be more than a fun game.

Any useful stuff?

Some ideas floating around are that you could use it to try out clothes before buying (using the AR parts) or walk around a house for sale before visiting (VR). Those are indeed useful things. However: you don’t need a metaverse for that.

Then there are AR/VR meetings. The metaverse videos show us stuff about interacting with people across the world, going to concerts together, or shooting hoops. Oh wow, that looks awesome! It’s also utterly impossible at this time, and doubtful that it will ever work. The problem is: AR is nowhere near creating virtual holograms of people, especially not in the resolution you see in the videos. But also: who is recording these holograms? It’s impossible for AR glasses to do that; you’ll need to lug around some external hardware for that (remember Microsoft Kinect), or wear a suit, I suppose. But how is a set of cheap AR glasses you wear while shooting hoops going to record facial expressions?

The only remotely-connected viable approach I see is doing VR meetings. That technology is being looked at for remote work or socializing. However, I’m already working remotely and I have zero need for VR meetings, and I game remotely with friends every week, and have zero need for VR meeting with them either. If it’s important I can meet in person, and that will always beat VR. And, the same problem applies as before: how are you going to measure facial expressions under a VR helmet.

So, is there anything else? I haven’t a clue. The social media aspect, I suppose. But Second Life already exists, and it never took off.

Metaversal abuse

Remember I named Roblox before. Roblox is a kind of virtual world where you can build things. It’s also a pit of despair. It features child abuse, grooming, exploitation, and so on.

The metaverse, or rather Meta’s Horizon Worlds, is already racking up its own controversies. Social Media have increasingly become a place of abuse, and online harassment has taken off to a frightening degree. There’s the suicide of Amanda Todd, where Facebook was instrumental. And its link to the genocide in Myanmar. So, the metaverse, this place we are to spend our lives is going to be run by the company that brought us the tool used to drive girls to suicide and genocide a people.

I’ve argued before that social media in their current form cannot be effectively moderated, and I stand by that. And from what we’re seeing, the metaverse is likely to suffer from that same fatal flaw. Only you get to be abused while out in the real world using AR. Yeah, that should work out well.

The interoperability pitfall

All in all, there is very little appeal to the metaverse. Also, the things being peddled can work very well without requiring some shitty 3D world to go with it. Mark Zuckerberg might dream of being the guy in Ready Player One, but to most of us, that’s just a gimmick that we might enjoy for a while, like Minecraft. If at all.

I have been wrong before though. I didn’t see the need for tablets back when the iPad was announced. That was clearly a bad call. So, perhaps the metaverse will turn out to be the next big thing. But, even if some killer feature does show up, there is another problem.

Because the only chance the metaverse has, is if it becomes something akin to the internet. But the basis of the Internet is it’s openness, and the biggest threat to it is the corporate-driven push to make the Internet into a closed system where we regular people are the product. All those ad networks, privacy violations, and echo chambers are killing it. Funny thing to then try to make the metaverse a closed corporate-owned thing.

The metaverse is not going to work if it isn’t open, I think. Of course, if it becomes truly open, like the Internet used to be, corporations can’t exploit the heck out of us with Web 3.0. However, if they don’t make it open, it’s going to be hard to get enough start-ups and people on board.

So, the ultimate catch-22 of the metaverse is that for Meta and other Big Tech to make it work for them, they’ll have to make it in such a way that it might not take off at all.

Regulations

And that brings us to the final nail in the coffin. Governments are slowly waking up. The EU is tightening the thumb screws on privacy. Even the US might be wising up. Either Biden regulates stuff, or the US re-elects Trump and he turns the US into a fascist state which will regulate stuff to his liking. Either way, regulations are a-coming. And that’s bad news for the metaverse, at least the gated version Mark Zuckerberg dreams of.

Conclusion

I think it’s ironic Mark Zuckerberg took the name metaverse from the novel Snow Crash. The bad guy in the novel is a media magnate who tries to take over the minds of everybody in the world using a metaverse virus.

I suppose Mark doesn’t see himself as the evil media magnate trying to control the people of the world, but there are a lot of eerie overlaps between them. He does appear to want to control our virtual lives, with him as the gatekeeper, collecting our money and becoming a god of his new virtual fiefdom.

And with that disturbing image I will leave you. For now, I don’t see the metaverse going anywhere. I pray it doesn’t go anywhere. If we’re lucky it will bring down Meta, and spawn some interesting new technologies. But given how things are going… well, I guess we’ll see.

Martin Stellinga Written by:

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands

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