Ironically, the birth of the Metaverse arose in dystopias. From its inception in Neil Stephenson's Snow Crash to the iconic Ready Player Me, these two dystopian futures captured the imagination.
The Metaverse emerged out of a need to escape the squalor of these fictional dystopias, but it was not perfect either. For instance, the tech presented in Snow Crash, much like the tech of today — if to an extreme — was not neutral. There were motives behind the creations and consequences for use.
Even still, these two sources are repeatedly referenced when painting a picture of the Metaverse, one that has taken a distinct rose-colored tint.
But, the mature metaverses presented are also pure science fiction, given the current state of technology. On the flip side of this, the pictures of the Metaverse painted today — many still referencing these dystopian fictions — go the opposite direction, building absolute utopias.
From the plethora of Meta ads that have been running, with awed high school students calmly walking calmly through the Coliseum, to astronauts flying around the world to save trees, the Metaverse that is being bundled for consumption today is one that seems too perfect to be true.
And, to be honest, the Metaverse lies somewhere between, like just about everything — virtual, but still grounded in reality.
So, what is the Metaverse?
This should be parsed into two answers. There is the Metaverse of the future, clearly still in the future, not the now. It's not realized, and could turn into any number of things. But, for many, this means a single platform or interoperable platform — so think the Internet, but XR. That being said, this is a gross oversimplification.
The other version of the Metaverse is why you will see me use both capital and lower case metaverse throughout this article. The Metaverse is that singular Metaverse of the future. The metaverses that we have now are all siloed environments, with different capabilities…and limitations.
But, one uniting thread is the focus on immersive experiences. And tech. This means it is largely based on XR and 3D modeling, as well as other underlying technology like blockchain and NFTs, which grant digital spaces similar scarcity to what we have in the physical world.
But, ultimately, there is no one definition for either of these versions. As an early and emerging space, the Metaverse, and all of its subsequent definitions, are still largely in flux. They change person to person, and at the moment, platform to platform.
What does the Metaverse enable?
Well, now, it depends on where you go and what tech you have available. Not everyone has a VR headset, and more projects are wising up to that fact, and creating web, or even better, mobile, entry points to metaverse platforms.
But, in general, the focus of the Metaverse is to provide:
- Venues for interactive or solo activities
- Spaces for learning and collaboration
- An expansion of the Internet: advanced video, sound, touch
- A place to create, market, sell.
All of this is already happening, whether in Metaverse stores, games, meeting spaces, or more. And, Covid-19 only accelerated this. You can see this in the advancements in AR/VR, digitalization of brick-and-mortars industries, and the rate at which we hang out online that we've seen over the past few years.
But, the ultimate goal of the Metaverse goes beyond what we have now. It's to enable us to do everything and more that we do in the real world…just in digital spaces.
Between Dystopias and Utopias
The idea of the Metaverse was born out of clear dystopian futures. This spurred a mirriad of utopian futures — built on these very same ideas.
But, it's important to keep in mind that the metaverses of now, and even the Metaverse of the future, will have to deal with the very real ethical limitations that we live in. Whether that be based on the fact that AI, and even all code, is built by humans, and therefore subject to our biases, or simply pitfalls of human nature, which lead to things like groping in the Metaverse.
But, these limitations don't mean that we shouldn't chart new digital territories. I know very few people who would throw away the entire Internet for the failings and hurt it causes, alongside the many benefits. It just means that now is the time to set our goals, bring on board people from every background, and enter into creation of digital spaces that are better than we had before, whether it's because they're more immersive, or just safer for more people…
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