First person

Reporting from the metaverse

I live south of Sydney, on the fringe of the national park, and most often on these cold, late-winter mornings there’s smoke on the air from wood heaters. We’ve been watching the “empty Olympics” on TV, we’re locked down, and see only the neighbours. Afghanistan is falling, the climate is warming, and I can sense the memories of this strange time being laid down in my children.

The final element of flavour in the scene is “the Metaverse”. Like the internet, the metaverse is beginning its career with a capital letter, and right now it’s everywhere. Whether the word itself leaches away, or whether it becomes as foundational as “the internet”, our actual trajectory appears set.

A series of technologies – software, hardware, networking, financial – will be invented, implemented and adopted. They will change our behaviour and our societies as profoundly as the internet.

Just as “the Internet” was a concept to describe some computers, wires, and networking protocols, “the Metaverse” is a concept that describes … what exactly?

The essence seems to be a richer networked world, the hallmark of which is immersive three-dimensional experience and persistent virtual objects and worlds.

It’s hard to be more precise about something that doesn’t exist.

Like the internet, the metaverse is being championed with an enthusiasm that appears wilfully naive.

If you don’t subscribe to Crawford Media already, please sign up.

VC with a headful of ideas

Venture capitalist Matthew Ball will go down as a founding parent. Ball has laid out the principles of the metaverse in a series of essays. This guy is smart and convincing, and he’s paid attention to the detail. I couldn’t help feeling some satisfaction on behalf of humanity as I read through the essays: here was a wonderful example of our ability to pretend something into existence.

Matthew Ball

Ball is optimistic about the emergence of standards that will allow virtual objects and identities to be shifted from platform to platform, and the possibilities for work and leisure that open up. He is also realistic about the barriers to this happening right now, with discussion of computing power (he calls it “compute”) and latency in networks, among other problems to be solved.

Latency is the time it takes for a packet of data to travel over a network, and it turns out humans are sensitive to incredibly short delays in certain circumstances, like when we’re trying to read someone’s expression. 

There will probably always be a certain amount of latency in online interactions because the speed of light constrains how fast a message can travel. I say “probably” because some of the things that we consider routine now – for example, being able to access the entirety of printed literature from anywhere – were previously close to unimaginable.

Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg is the highest profile business leader to have embraced the metaverse.

“I think over the next five years or so … I think we will effectively transition from people seeing us as primarily being a social media company to being a metaverse company.”

If it wasn’t already clear that this not-yet-real thing would transform media, Facebook’s whole-hearted adoption should convince you. Facebook, and Google, were built on top of the internet and re-invented advertising, in the process destroying most news media business models. But as Benedict Evans pointed out to me a few weeks ago, that is insignificant compared to what they did to business itself, allowing small businesses to advertise for the first time and creating whole sectors out of thin air.

The same will be true of the metaverse. Here is Matthew Ball writing on what happens to content:

“The Metaverse will also lead to the establishment of many new entertainment franchises and consumer-facing brands. This is because new access technologies do more than shift how consumers access content. They change the content itself.”

Ball is right. Each medium calls forth a new face. We may be considering the same questions, but every evolution of information technology modifies or transforms expression. This can be superficial – search engines encouraging boring headlines in online news – or as deep as the way social media seems to favour partisanship and exaggeration.

But what actually is it?

Before you dismiss the metaverse as a re-branded internet, consider how you would describe the internet itself to someone from the past. I am thinking about my grandmother, who was born in 1914 and died in 1995. You could explain the internet as a whole lot of computers connected together, a network that lets you send mail, make calls, do the grocery shopping, and watch movies. She would readily understand that, because all those things she already understood. But precisely because of this I wouldn’t really be explaining it. The internet changed what it was possible to do.

If what Matthew Ball is saying is correct, then the metaverse will be like the internet all over again.

He names children’s gaming platform Roblox as the current best precursor to the  “virtual platforms” that will be integral to the metaverse. I wrote about Roblox, its slow build and phenomenal success, earlier this year. Every month around 200 million humans – mostly small humans – use it.

Ball also namechecks Minecraft as a virtual platform and metaverse precursor. Interesting that the future is coming out of the nursery.

Longing for something we already have

Both Zuckerberg and Ball are focussed on the positive aspects of the metaverse, and Zuckerberg is convincing when he points out the flaws in current experience.

“We have these phones. They’re relatively small. A lot of the time that we’re spending, we’re basically mediating our lives and our communication through these small, glowing rectangles. I think that that’s not really how people are made to interact.”

It seems that blind optimism is the natural inclination of entrepreneurs, and without hyper-intelligent blunderers like Ball and Zuckerberg, we wouldn’t have the modern world. 

We can also safely say, right now, that their optimism is ludicrous.

The flipside of a metaverse that provides a new way to work, have fun, and make social connections is new ways to fragment societies and minds. At bottom, the metaverse is a challenge to the primacy of physical reality.

It’s exciting and it’s disturbing, and once we go there, we’re not coming back. 

It makes me nostalgic for the present, the simplicity of our two-dimensional screens, and the charming innocence of a social media constrained by the glowing rectangle. I return to lockdown, late winter, and the sights and smells I hope will provide a happy anchor through whatever wonder the future holds.