Why Metaverse Cannot Only Be About Meta
The term “metaverse” is frequently used. But how frequently have you thought about the definition? The phrase, which was first used in 1992 by science fiction writer Neal Stephenson, gained enormous popularity during the COVID-19 epidemic, especially after Facebook changed its name to Meta in October 2021. There are now countless articles about the metaverse, and thousands of businesses have contributed to its growth. According to a forecast by Citigroup Inc., there might be 5 billion users and a $13 trillion industry for the metaverse by 2030.
The metaverse has enormous potential in terms of pandemic preparedness, global connectivity, and climate change. Virtual world meetings leave a lot less of a carbon impact than actual gatherings do. In virtual places, people from all around the world can come together. Through virtual business, the metaverse can give disabled persons new ways to participate in society. Additionally, the metaverse served as a place where people might go to be alone, for example, if they shared a small apartment in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The risks are also enormous, ranging from discrimination and misinformation to exploitation and spying.
But because there is ambiguity about what the term “metaverse” actually means, talking about these advantages and risks is still challenging. I am an anthropology professor who has studied the metaverse for almost 20 years, so I am aware of how important this ambiguity is. The metaverse is practically at a turning point. The metaverse will most likely be shaped for decades by the norms and standards established in the upcoming years. But without a shared conceptual framework, no one can even discuss these rules and guidelines.
People can only talk past one another because they are unable to discriminate between invention and hype. This allows strong corporations like Meta to define the rules for their business purposes. For instance, in his essay from May 2022 titled “Making the Metaverse,” Nick Clegg, a former deputy prime minister of the United Kingdom and current president of global affairs at Meta, tried to steer the narrative.
Virtual worlds, which are online spaces where actual people interact in real-time, are consistently mentioned in the majority of attempts at descriptions of the metaverse. There are already several virtual worlds, some geared toward gaming, like Roblox and Fortnite, and others that are more open-ended, like Minecraft and Animal Crossing: New Horizons.
The list of metaverse technologies goes beyond virtual worlds and typically includes avatars, non-player characters, and bots, virtual reality, cryptocurrency, blockchain, and non-fungible tokens, social networks like Facebook and Twitter to Discord and Slack, as well as mobile devices like phones and augmented reality interfaces. Principles like Interoperability—the notion that identities, friendship networks, and digital things like avatar attire should be able to move between virtual worlds—are frequently included as well.
Humans don’t categorise things using laundry lists, which is the problem. Instead, decades of cognitive science study have revealed that the majority of categories are “radial,” having a core prototype. A long list of characteristics could be used to describe the term “bird,” such as having wings and flying. However, the average bird in North America resembles a sparrow in appearance. Ducks and hummingbirds deviate more from this model. Penguins and flamingos are still further away. Yet, emanating from the socially specialised prototype, they are all birds. Penguins might be positioned closer to the centre by someone who lives nearby the Antarctic.
Most human inventions also fall into radial groups. Few individuals would sketch a beanbag chair or dental chair if asked to draw a chair. The realisation that the metaverse is a radial category is the key to describing it because it is a human invention. The metaverse is typical of virtual environments. The laundry list also contains other items that don’t always appear but radiate outward. Additionally, the details will be socially specific. It will appear differently in Alaska as opposed to Addis Abeba, or a business as opposed to a family gathering.
Who defines “essential”?
This is significant because one of the most cunning rhetorical strategies being used right now is to claim that some optional component of the metaverse is normal. For instance, a lot of experts claim that cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology are the foundation of the metaverse. But many virtual worlds already in existence utilise methods other than blockchain to verify ownership of digital goods. Many people use national currencies, such as the dollar, or metaverse currencies pegged to national currencies. Another example of this kind of persuasive device is when Clegg uses the metaphor of a two-story structure with a foundation to argue that Interoperability will not only be “the foundations of the building” but also “the common theme throughout these floors.”
However, Clegg misses how Interoperability isn’t a fundamental feature of the metaverse in his warning that “the metaverse will become fractured” without “a large degree of interoperability baked into each floor.” Fragmentation is frequently desired. I might not want to use the same identity on Facebook and in an online game or in two different virtual worlds.
This begs the question of why Interoperability is so important to Meta and many pundits. It’s not necessary to be. The “basis” of Meta’s business model—tracking users throughout the metaverse to target advertisements and possibly sell digital goods—goes unmentioned in Clegg’s essay. The fact that “metaverse” is a radial category means that Clegg’s assertion concerning Interoperability is untrue. It aims to make surveillance capitalism, the core of the metaverse, into a prototype form.
— B2B International (@B2B_Insight) January 24, 2023
Definitions being fixed
This example shows that defining the metaverse is more than just an academic exercise. The conceptual effort will fundamentally influence design, legislation, profit, community, and the future of digital technology. In light of the fact that many metaverse technologies won’t be completely realised for at least ten years, Clegg’s essay ends with the upbeat assertion that “time is on our side.” However, as the father of virtual reality (VR), Jaron Lanier, has emphasised, once concepts of digital technology are set in stone, they can be challenging to change. They evolve into electronic common sense.
Time is most definitely not on our side when it comes to the definitions that will serve as the metaverse’s fundamental foundation. Since these criteria are going to become our digital reality, I think it’s important to discuss how the metaverse will be categorised right now.