The Case Against The Metaverse

Post by: Rick Ellis 27 October, 2021

If we have learned one lesson over the past thirty years of the mainstream Internet era, it's that a few key people can coordinate and push out an idea that quickly goes from "what's that?" to the point when your 70-year-old boss wonders out loud in a meeting "Should we be doing something with this thing?"

That has certainly been the case with the so-called Metaverse, a mystical idea that has attracted interest of everyone from Amazon to the crypto currency bros currently clogging up my social media timelines. The name sounds vaguely futuristic in a way that feels like it must be important. 

The Metaverse idea is based on Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash, and it basically reimagines the Internet as an interconnected virtual world. Imagine everything you do online being done in some heavily commercialized Fortnite interface. The idea has been kicking around for awhile, but it gained traction in the investment world when venture capitalist Matthew Ball wrote a nine-piece treatise outlining a tightly integrated world where everyone interacted via avatars and traded virtual goods that would of course be sold to you by big corporations tracking your every move:

This is where the potential for Omniverse gets so exciting. As the world shifts to mirrorworlds and simulation technology, it becomes possible to interconnect previously independent simulations. Imagine interconnecting the Hong Kong International Airport to the local highway to scenario-test the flow of traffic. Then to the streetlights system that manages that traffic. Potentially with precise information on every car on the local grid. 

The best indication this is a bad idea is that the Metaverse concept is extremely popular with Silicon Valley venture capitalists, the crypto community and Mark Zuckerberg. Zuck gave an interview to The Verge's Casey Newton in July, in which he raved about the Metaverse concept and how he is positioning Facebook to be a major player in any future Metaverse:

And my hope, if we do this well, I think over the next five years or so, in this next chapter of our company, I think we will effectively transition from people seeing us as primarily being a social media company to being a metaverse company. And obviously, all of the work that we’re doing across the apps that people use today contribute directly to this vision in terms of building community and creators. So there’s a lot to jump into here. I’m curious what direction you want to take this in. But this is something that I’m spending a lot of time on, thinking a lot about, we’re working on a ton. And I think it’s just a big part of the next chapter for the work that we’re going to do in the whole industry.

If the idea of combining the problems of the blockchain with the invasiveness of Facebook sounds like a dream world, then you are going to love the Metaverse. 

As Facebook moves into its reboot phase, it is reportedly embracing the Metaverse idea, seeing it as the optimal way to further integrate its userbase into a world where they will find it nearly impossible to escape. A future where "deleting Facebook" would mean also losing access to all of the other businesses and products that are integrated into this Bladerunner-style Metaverse of commerce.

Indeed Zuckerberg is following through with that plan, with Facebook announcing on Monday they plan to spend tens of billions of dollars per year to stake out the company's place in the Metaverse:

Mark Zuckerberg says he has long imagined a virtual world where people work, play and interact. Now he’s preparing to spend billions of dollars and years of effort at making that a reality so Facebook Inc. can prosper.

Facebook on Monday said its spending on Facebook Reality Labs, where the company works on augmented and virtual reality, would dent total operating profit by around $10 billion this year. “I expect this investment to grow even further for each of the next several years,” Mr. Zuckerberg said.

The article goes on to note that Facebook "sees a growing market for digital clothes, tools in an online world people will inhabit." So good news, in the Metaverse, Grandma will not only be encouraged to hate Democrats. She'll be able to invest in a nifty digital "Biden Sucks" sweater her avatar can wear everywhere she goes online. 

And on Thursday, Mark Zuckerberg upped his gamble on the Metaverse, announcing that Facebook is changing its name to "Meta: A Social Technology Company." During his presentation at the company's Facebook Connect event,  Zuckerberg said, "We are a company that builds technology to connect. Together, we can finally put people at the center of our technology. And together, we can unlock a massively bigger creator economy."

I have many concerns about the idea, the most obvious one the issue of privacy and the problem of having your Avatar - your online personality - potentially attached to a blockchain as Met becomes part of the larger Metaverse. Entries in a blockchain can't be deleted, can't be changed without leaving a very public trail. And given all of the problems that we are already having with digital trails and personal information following us around, do we really want to create a world in which any mistake is on our public record forever? Every online interaction is there to be dug out by a future spouse or child?

But there is the larger idea of putting "people at the center of technology." People are already the center of Facebook. In fact, I would argue Facebook's biggest problem is that it is too easy for people to connect. Too easy for bad players to manipulate other users or target them for harassment or recruitment.

There is also the problem of just the larger concept of encouraging people to participate in an idea where much of its usefulness (and fewer of the downsides) flow to the big corporations and investors that tout its inevitability. 

As an example, let's take a look at this explanation in the Economic Times of why the Metaverse will be a positive thing:

While many virtual worlds exist online, users currently can't move between them while retaining their identities and assets. The eventual metaverse could solve this problem, turning disparate online worlds into a single, seamless entity. It has even been dubbed the next evolution of the internet.

I don't mean to be a snarky troll, but is anyone who isn't trying to sell something asking for this? We live in a world where participating in online bubbles and quickly falling down rabbit holes of crazy is a common predicament. The Metaverse is all of the evils of a Facebook and the YouTube recommendation engine, wrapped into a shiny gaming interface. You think it's impossible to talk to half of the people in your life now? Wait until they spend their days in an interconnected online world where businesses can track their purchases and target them based on their past behavior on every site they visit and every public interaction they do. We haven't scratched the surface of solving the problems connected with our current 2-D Internet and digital hypesters are already planning on how they can strip mine the profits out of the upcoming interconnected world they are convinced will be much more efficient. 

One of other lessons we've learned as a society in the past 30 years is that the tech world and its investors have no interest in considering the consequences their products have on their users. When they use a word like "frictionless" or talk about stripping out the gatekeepers, what they really mean is that they want to use their products to make it easier to manipulate consumers and sell products. Creating a platform that makes it easier for neo-Nazis to find each other online? Well. sure, that's not ideal. But on the upside, we can sell advertising that targets them!

Not surprisingly, many venture capitalists and investment firms salivating at the prospect of creating a virgin marketing experience argue that while consumers might find themselves inevitably drawn into this Ready Player One Metaverse, reality itself is a bit overrated:

It can be argued that the real world is overrated. While we tend to be idealistic about the future of humanity and despite what we see on the news every day, the world as a whole is trending in the right direction in most categories. However, there are billions of people in the world who have not been dealt a great hand in life and have many more things to worry about than debating the Metaverse, like paying rent or even putting food on the table. For the first time in history, anybody with a virtual reality headset, no matter their real-life circumstances, will be able to experience the best of what life has to offer and much more in this virtual universe unbound by the laws of physics. Physical resources are scarce, virtual resources are much less so. The future of sustainability could be a shift to digital.

Sure, you live a town with rampant poverty and no job prospects. But have you checked out our new NFT's of food?

I understand why this idea is so attractive to venture capitalists. It's a new world of selling opportunities and with the ability to follow your customers online, the upside is nearly unlimited. Which is likely the primary reason why Roundhill Investments has already rolled out the Ball Metaverse EFT, which hopes to cash in on the future opportunities provided by the Metaverse:

The Ball Metaverse Index is the first index globally designed to track the performance of the Metaverse. The Index consists of a tiered weight portfolio of globally-listed companies who are actively involved in the Metaverse. 

Is that the world most customers want? I suspect if you asked them, they would prefer to balance convenience with privacy. And that's really the first question that should be addressed in any meeting that involves the Metaverse: what is best for our customers? Because whether it is a streaming service or digital goods, if you approach the problem from a customer-first direction, you will almost always come out ahead financially.

I fear that instead this Metaverse idea is just going to prove to feel more like social media on crack. A more intense, more irrational and harder to police version of the digital hellscape we often inhabit now.

On the upside....with cool graphics! And collectible digital clothes!

This is an expanded piece that was originally posted in the July 22nd, 2021 edition of the free daily newsletter "Too Much TV." You can subscribe to that newsletter here

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Updated 10-28-2021 with info about Facebook's name change.