The rise of the metaverse

The metaverse is on the way. Its utopian advocates claim that the next iteration of the internet will free us from the physical world. But Web 1.0 is a warning from history. It quickly became dominated by big business and government.
People wearing VR headsets watch films during an exhibition at 'AHSPACE' immersive live broadcast base in Hefei, Anhui Province of China.
People wearing VR headsets watch films during an exhibition at 'AHSPACE' immersive live broadcast base in Hefei, Anhui Province of China. Credit: Ruan Xuefeng/VCG via Getty Images
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In July 2021 the founder and CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, said in an interview that his controversial social media giant will undergo a major transformation over the next few years. Facebook, Zuckerberg said, ‘will effectively transition from people seeing us as primarily being a social media company to being a metaverse company.

Welcome to the metaverse – the next iteration of the internet where, its advocates believe, we will all work, play, and socialise in the coming years and decades. At stake is whether this next generation internet –  also known as Web 3.0 or the spatial web – will be much like today’s, with proprietary platforms such as Facebook and Google that monetise user data, or if it will be open and decentralised, free from the control of a handful of big tech companies.

The term metaverse (yes, it’s singular, not plural) has ancient Greek originsMeta means ‘with’ or ‘after,’ but in modern English the word has come to mean ‘going beyond,’ while verse means ‘universe.’ The metaverse, therefore, is a technological concept that goes beyond our current universe of neatly delineated physical and virtual worlds, and it is widely believed that its development will be an economic boon worth trillions of dollars.

The Web 1.0 of the 1990s was passive, in that users merely read and consumed the information they found on web pages, and the Web 2.0 of the early 2000s was interactive thanks to social media. Web 3.0 will be immersive, tactile, and decentralised due to the emergence and confluence of several technological trends such as virtual and augmented reality, 5G networksblockchain, cryptocurrencies, and eventually, human augmentation such as digital wearables and even brain-computer interfaces

All of these technologies are hastening the dissolution of the boundary between the physical and virtual worlds. It is this ongoing breakdown that is key: the metaverse is not merely virtual worlds, it is where the physical is rendered virtual through digital twins and mirrorworlds, and the virtual is rendered physical through the overlaying of data on to physical locations and objects thanks to augmented reality and haptics, and through 3D printing.

American venture capitalist Matthew Ball, an early champion of the metaverse, is influential in setting out its commercial and technological criteria and advocates that it must be persistent (as in, it never ends), synchronous and live, allow limitless concurrent users, be a functioning economy, encompass the physical and virtual realms, and allow a range of contributors – from individuals through to corporations – to create content and experiences. Importantly, Ball also insists that the metaverse be interoperable in a way that provides users with digital autonomy over their own data and digital possessions. In other words, a user might spend time in the Facebook part of the metaverse and then visit another part built and owned by an individual without logging out, changing platforms, or changing their avatarJamie Burke, the CEO of Outlier Ventures – a UK incubator for Web 3.0 startups – also advocates for this, but refers to it as an ‘open metaverse.’

This metaverse interoperability or openness will be a challenge for the big tech companies of today who have made their fortunes building and operating proprietary platforms where users are essentially ensconced in ‘walled gardens’ and their personal data is monetised. This is where blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies such as Ethereum and Bitcoin come in. Blockchain – a distributed ledger – is inherently decentralised and, theoretically, can provide users with greater control of their data and allow smaller businesses to flourish online through smart contracts and the like. Cryptocurrencies incentivise users to maintain the blockchain for the common good based on coded laws and governance, in turn creating a tokenised economy that threatens to disrupt everything from banks and law firms through to traditional government structures and organisation.

The conceptual scope of the metaverse appears to be limitless. It will range from your home, street, office, and town or city, through to the solar system itself, and everything in between. It will also be a place of fantasy worlds as well as social, economic, and cultural experimentation. Those of us of a certain age might be skeptical about spending our waking hours in the metaverse where everything will be gamified, but it is the digital natives among us who occupy today’s metaverse of FortniteRoblox, and Minecraft who will likely adapt the quickest and thrive. 

Just as with its literary and intellectual antecedents, pace Stanislaw LemNeal Stephenson, and William Gibson, the ideas behind the metaverse are permeated with gnostic tropes heavy on interiority and the perception of an irredeemably fallen physical world. Politically, libertarian (and even, occasionally, anarchist) sloganeering reminiscent of one of the internet’s earliest champions, the American poet John Perry Barlow, prevails. In his ‘A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,’ Barlow, on behalf of his fellow cybernauts, warned big business and government ‘to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.’ 

Barlow, of course, turned out to be very much mistaken. In the decades since his declaration big business and governments have dominated online activities and governance with ruthless effectiveness. I doubt the metaverse will be any different.

John B. Sheldon

John B. Sheldon, Ph.D., is an adviser to the Space Policy Unit at the Policy Exchange in London, UK. He is an Associate Partner at AzurX in Dubai, UAE.

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