You’re living in the Metaverse, you just don’t know it yet.
Like many families dislodged by the pandemic, my wife and I sent our children to a new school last year. They had to make new friends, and they had to do it while wearing masks that hid their faces and staying six feet apart on the playground. Social distancing, as the name implies, is not conducive to creating strong new social relationships.
Luckily, my children and their peers had a world where they could hug, jump, and run together. After school, they would meet up in the virtual world of Brookhaven, a digital city you can explore inside the Roblox universe. When it came to building rapport with their peers, the clothing, vehicles, and dwellings you can purchase inside of this app were more important to them than what they actually wore to school, the kind of car we drove, or the kind of home we lived in.
There has been a lot of chatter lately about the Metaverse, sparked by Mark Zuckerberg’s repeated declarations that building a virtual world is his company’s next big ambition, and the announcement of Horizon Workrooms brings that ambition closer to reality. A question worth asking is, why now? The concept of the Metaverse was coined by sci-fi author Neal Stephenson decades ago, and technologists have been writing about it on and off ever since. Facebook isn’t the first major company to declare its ambition to build the metaverse; see for example this tweet from Epic Games in 2019 or this wonderful essay from Matthew Ball published at the beginning of 2020. Have we reached some meaningful inflection point in our journey towards this dream?
I think the answer is yes, and I think the tipping point is two fold. First, an ongoing pandemic has driven many to more fully adopt remote work. Companies like Facebook are betting that will lead to a boost in offices relying on virtual reality and digital avatars to forge connections and recapture some of the spark that comes from face to face interactions. A plethora of other digital tools and worlds will also try to improve the quality and immediacy of remote work.
Second, but perhaps more novel, is the growing appetite for digital artifacts like NFTs (non-fungible tokens). Most of us already live in a Metaverse to varying degrees, and it’s increasing presence in our lives will be fostered by a slow accumulation of digital worlds and goods growing deeper roots into our personal and social selves.
Unique digital assets with potentially enormous monetary value have broken free of the siloed worlds created by gaming companies and come into their own on the open web. The rise of the crypto economy has generated new forms of currency and collectibles, allowing creatives new ways to monetize, and encouraging humans to do what comes naturally to them, seeking out new ways to grow their social and financial capital.
The creeping spread of the Metaverse
The Metaverse slips into daily life differently depending on who you are. Let’s say you’re a hermit who lives in a cabin surrounded by woods. Life for you resembles a contest in Alone. You spend each day attending to the basic needs of food and shelter. Your contact with the Metaverse is nil.
What about a senior citizen who grew up in an age before the internet? Maybe you spend as much time away from a screen as in front of it, or more. The bridge game with your friends and the early bird special with your neighbors are as important to you as the number of likes on your occasional Facebook post.
But you might also be a grandmother who spends as much time posting on Facebook as potting plants. The conversation around an anonymous figure like Q, who has no material form, might be your guiding maxim these days. Without noticing, you have allowed an entirely digital entity to become the center of your life.
Now, take a geriatric millennial like me. Growing up, I cared deeply about what video games my friends played, but we had to be in the same room to enjoy Nintendo’s multiplayer experience, and we cared about the cartridges someone physically owned, not the clothes the characters wore. I’ve paid money to own digital cards in a game like Hearthstone, but their purpose is to help me enjoy the game, not to act as a status symbol to others I meet online. I can’t deny however, that some of my identity is bound up in my status, or lack thereof, on social media. I crave attention and adulation there, even if it comes in the form of likes from total strangers.
You may believe NFTs are a flash in the pan, but the value of digital artifacts has been growing for decades. Teenagers understand the money they can make trading virtual sword and shields in World of Warcraft or selling bells they harvested in Animal Crossing. Top players in esports like League of Legends are earning six and seven figure salaries. And people well outside the world of tech are paying for moments on NBA Top Shot, giving them ownership of a GIF.
I am still struggling to accept that a patch of pixels could be worth millions, but my kids won’t have these same reservations. From the time they entered primary school, digital objects and virtual interactions had as much significance as real world playdates or toys. Adults, sensing opportunity or simply curious to create and explore, are venturing into this same mindset. I have many friends and acquaintances in the world of media and technology who have stepped more deeply into the Metaverse. They have spent thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars on their digital avatars. They collect and trade NFTs, which hold value to them as an investment and a signal of one’s social status and disposition. The value of the NFT market continues to swell.
NFTs extend the logic that has been driving the value of in-game items. Create a digital artifact, but don’t limit it to the universe of a single game with a corporate overlord. Make it something that can be used across the open web and give it at least the veneer of a unique, singular object by tokenizing it. Sure, anyone can copy paste your $50,000 bored ape avatar or pudgy penguin PNG. But only you can resell it.
A life lived online
There is a grand vision of a network of fully realized virtual worlds where users connect as believable avatars and carry their digital lives between VR, AR, and IRL. That’s not how most people live today, but we’re moving along a continuum where more of everyday life is mediated through digital worlds and personas with each passing year.
As someone who has struggled with an addiction to video games, I’m afraid of the world my children are growing into. It seems likely that, the earlier you step into the Metaverse, the greater the chances it will hold a deep and lasting significance as you age. While virtual connections were a lifeline during a pandemic lockdown, when seeing each other in person was dangerous, I’m troubled by research that indicates teenagers whose everyday lives are dominated by their social interactions online are more likely to experience depression.
What gives me hope is that there seems to be a cohort of young people who understand the risks and are rejecting a life lived completely online. And new research indicates that the connection between a life lived online and mental health struggles may not be as significant as early work claimed. The pandemic has been a powerful reminder that video calls and multiplayer games can only provide so much social sustenance. Once it’s safe to gather again, I think we’ll see a swell of offline activities. Meanwhile, the building blocks for the Metaverse continue to be laid into a foundation.
Let us know your thoughts on the Metaverse and where you see it becoming more fleshed out in your own life in the comments.Tags: augmented reality, metaverse, virtual reality
I don’t see how we aren’t already there.
Young people are persona non grata without a cell phone. We treat cyber-bullying as if it is real bullying, and post pictures of our meals online. We nearly get run over because we are looking at cell phones in crosswalks. Tweets make news. Everywhere I look, everyone is looking at their cell phone. The other day an entire family was sitting in lawn chairs on their front lawn. Enjoying the nice weather? No: looking at their cell phones.
The metaverse isn’t the future; it is now.
In the movie Blair Witch Project, one of the lost hikers accuses the other of trying to film everything because looking at the world through the lens was easier than actually looking at the dismal reality around them. I believe this is the state of many who use cell phones sadly, and partly explains the generational shift towards favoring socialism in the West.
You must be from the USA.
Seriously. I know American right-wingers think that governments collecting taxes and providing services is “socialism” (despite that being a feature of the last 5,000 years of human civilization), but now apparently spending too much time looking at your phone is “socialism”? Hilarious!
While I appreciate the comments, let’s remember to be kind and civil with one another. Also, this is not a place to talk politics, especially since the article itself makes no mention of them.
You are lost, and not smart at all. Socialism? Are you still in1944.
When I heard Metaverse, I immediately thought of Persona 5…
I agree many folks live more on their screens than IRL. What’s missing from the sci-fi vision of a Metaverse is the persistent connection and identity between the different digital realms and the ability to see this virtual reality layered on top of IRL locations and objects with ease. We may get there in the coming years, or we may find that the original vision for the Metaverse doesn’t match how it developed in real life.
I fully agree with Robert Harvey, having experienced the impact of usenet (via 56K dial-up modems) and its successors back in the 80’s and 90’s even the generation I belong to already sat endless hours in dark cellars immersing into the above mentioned metaverse. And not to mention the endless hours playing computer games and watching TV zapping through the hundreds of channel (which was some sort of Metaverse for a lot of people on its own).
Nevertheless a lot of us still managed to engage in direct social activity with our friends and family, escaping the digital world and enjoying all sorts of activities out-&indoors. I guess acknowledging that both, the metaverse and the in-person real life has it’s benefits and caveats and finding a natural balance between both is key to having a healthy approach to the diverse social activities.
Strangely there’s not a word here about God or spirituality, which is the real metaverse, without electronic devices needed. It’s a big question if the digital metaverse will give the final shot for the youth being completely cut off from a spiritual world-view, or thoughts, experiences and energies. Saying this with all respect to anyone’s own religious or world view, using my electronic device to connect to this digital metaverse…
Because, with all respect to anyone’s own religious or world view, this is not a proselytizing website and religion has no place being discussed in it.
the thing is religions are just belief systems; belief in a metaverse counts, imo.
And yet, when we examine it closely the whole world of Scientism turns out to be a faith-based religion. Just start with the proofs for what we have come to understand is a “virus”. Take a good long look at that, starting with the Enders paper from the 50s. It may be that the tiny critters in our biome—Germ Theory—don’t cause illness after all but that it is poisons, toxic substances, altered genetics and effects of starvation that are the CAUSE OF ALL DISEASE.
So, My two cents, which I think is relevant.
I’ve thought along these lines too. I wonder if for atheistic perspectives the meta verse is a chance at the idea of eternal life.
I’ve also heard some interviews where tech creators/thinkers who believe in a soul think it will follow a conscious mind if it is scanned and uploaded to the meta verse but that’s getting a bit ahead of what’s being discussed here.
I think your comment is completely legit, in spite of Kilazur’s objections.
“The concept of the Metaverse was coined by sci-fi author Neal Stephenson decades ago.”
Literally because he said “Virtual Reality” didn’t sound as good.
Why an Overflow blog post that mentions NFT trading and “the metaverse” does not at least mention the environmental consequences of living in this virtual world? (first link that Google showed me: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/nft-art-environmental-costs/)
Hi Ben 🙋♂️… thanks for your timely musings in the Metaverse❗️ One of the amazing qualities right now, at this very moment in time, is that it’s easy to think, express the thought and understand that we have always lived in the Metaverse – nobody has ever experienced reality but that hasn’t stopped us from knowing how to live well, be happy and trust our children that they can be happy too. I have 73 years behind me and since being very young I was longing for what is now called the Internet & World Wide Web – the unbelievable access to information – which BTW is not just useful but also spiritually enlightening – and the almost unbelievable access to so many people and their thoughts and dreams and emotional intelligence… 🤷♂️ … the online Metaverse is effectively the culmination of the need to understand and coexist with billions of others without the artificial and and controlling barriers that have served, sometimes accidentally but often purposefully, to depress human creativity and curiosity and natural spirituality.
Don’t worry about your children’s future; use that time building a strong friendship with them, that will enable you all to deal with the futures that face us all: climate change, biodiversity collapse, poverty, inhumanity, singularity events, the Universe and everything else too…. Have fun R 👏☘️🐝
What’s funny (read: dramatic) is thinking that cellphones are the reason for teen depression being on the rise.
You got it all wrong, it’s access to information that does it. Information that tells them how much the world is f’d up, how corrupt are the people that are supposed to lead them, how unrewarding the workplace tends to be, and how they’re gonna give the best 40+ years of their lives to live their last miserably, if they survive until then at all.
It’s the world that’s depressing, not the internet. Don’t blame the messenger.
You can’t take wordly possessions with you when you die. You can’t take the metaverse with you when you look away from a screen. Material gain and status has always been ephemeral. The metaverse is even more so. The younger generations will have to spend much of their lives online to maintain that feeling of realness for their digital artifacts. Look away from the screen, corrupt a hard drive, lose electricity and it all disappears. Who is maintaining the infrastructure that keeps this all going? Who are laying the wire and fiber optics, building the power plants, fixing your power outages, keeping the sewers running? Can these people accomplish those goals in the metaverse? The attempt to legitimize the metaverse is so detached and clueless. It takes for granted billions of dollars in infrastructure and the probably millions of man hours needed every year to keep it running. Something that’s propped up by an underclass who is already mocked and ridiculed by the professional class as it is. Now they want to add another layer of dependence upon people they are openly hateful towards. Like any tool, these new technologies will be useful and can be instrumental in enhancing our lives. much like how the internet has enhanced our lives (when we don’t let it control our lives). But the concept of the metaverse itself is an exercise in mental masturbation at best. Something so detached from the lived experience of millions of people isn’t sustainable. Only a holistic attitude about technology that balances between the digital and real has any chance of long term survival.
After reading the article, I had a very strong urge to write a comment. Now, I don’t normally write comments for a variety of reasons. But your comment, Kai, so succinctly and clearly stated what I was going to write…well, the only thing I need to say now is “Thank You”.
“You can’t take wordly possessions with you when you die” depends on your religion. Not everyone shares your religion.
So many ways to live your life.
So many places to be, so many virtual worlds to experience, so many people to compare ourselves to, so many ways to earn a living online, etc. With too much possibilities come doubt, insatisfaction and fear of missing out. I’m afraid it will take longer for future generations to find their place in this over-saturated world (real and virtual) and to reach a balance in their existence that makes them sustainably happy. I wish I had an advice to give them, but I can’t think of one.
We are indeed living in the Metaverse.
I perceive this as well as a case that has been brilliantly developed through making people ‘social’ especially in Euramerica.
Enslaving humans to their own ego, making them the best customers that buy anything and also sell/share their anything personal for something that does not actually exist, all for the sake of increasing their ego levels.
Recently read about the case of a huge ‘solar storm’ that shuts down the whole world Internet, resulting into a burst of laughter thinking of all people that are incredibly addicted to the ‘Matrix’ type-of game, especially the under 18s.
I find also much funny calling some media ‘social’ which at the same time results in making users exactly anti-social (e.g. family or friends sitting on a table after having been seen in months, speaking for 10 minutes to half an hour and then spending the rest of the time , attending something fake.)
As mentioned in the series ‘DEVS’ -> “Instagram makes people feel like shit about their lives. Twitter makes them feel reviled. Facebook destroyed democracy. “,
this in my home country Greece could be more than 60% true.
Cannot figure out where this leads, but definitely in a further huge need of psychiatrists, psychologists in the years to come.
People related to anything technological should be further educated and maybe explain to others – especially young children in schools, the importance of having such “artillery” in their hands.
This whole situation is getting out of reach for the capabilities of a human brain and it will definitely be not the AI that enslaves humans, rather than human being in favor to be enslaved by anything if it is for likes or ego-istic indulgence to anything that ‘earns points’.
I find that we speak bout some sort of the classical Matrix, just lacking the exotic robotics, the ‘bad bad’ machines.
Each one’s self can do a similar job, which is also bloodless.
I just finished re-reading Ready Player One which takes place primarily in the Oasis (the book’s version of the Metaverse). And while I know it is easy to get caught up in the scary unkown of that future world and economy – I think society should also actively participate in ensuring that the many amazing opportunities that the Metaverse presents are made accessible to the general public. I’m referring to things such as being able to go to school in the metaverse, and “travel” across the globe. Being able to work without the constraints of geography or even physical limitations such as a disability (which wouldn’t necessarily matter in the metaverse). I think the older generation (myself as a Gen Xer included) is trying to wrap our heads around what this world would look like and how the mechanics of such an economy would work – but you are right that in many ways its already here.
I’ve had similar thoughts. How do you think those of us who aren’t working in tech can help bring this about?
I don’t believe NFTs and owning digital cards in a game like Heartstone or Magic: the Gathering Arena can be compared.
As you state, the latter does not convey any sort of ownership or status. The act of “owning” those cards doesn’t have any value in and of themselves, it’s the access they grant. They’re more comparable to having bought a ticket to an amusement park.
NFTs on the other hand seem to want to artificially create value where is none, they want to have a value like a piece of art. Owning an NFT doesn’t give access to anything, like a ticket, it’s more comparable to owning a Rembrandt and hanging it on the wall. I guess the real discussion here is wether creating an NFT is comparable to the act of painting the Rembrandt.
I guess we’ll see. Whether they will succeed in the long run is yet to be seen, is my opinion, whereas the digital cards, though not tangible, give value right now. You can play the game right now. You may not be able to play the game in 5 years time, or 10, depending on how long the game stays around. Actual value like with a Rembrandt shouldn’t be temporal. While there will always be people willing to discuss buying a Rembrandt, in 5-10 years time nobody is going to be willing to trade for your digital cards if the game is no longer playable.
Whether NFTs will have that longevity quality is probably the core question. I think they’re just a fad.
In my opinion, NFTs are just yet another way to try to convince people that the printing press you just created to print money is actually producing value. I don’t believe this will stay for long.
Though, I may be wrong. It has happened before.
Initially when I went to VR conferences and film festivals I got extremely excited about multiplayer vr games. It triggered the realization of what would be possible.
Recently after my computer and devices got hacked into and I experienced cyber harassment it turned my excitement into caution.
There are very powerful technologies being developed that could fully connect us to an experience that is indistinguishable from real life. It will be tantalizing to partake because the ability to do anything might be made possible in a meta verse. But! It brings with it growing pains and caveats that we haven’t yet established laws for. It is being developed by companies that often do not have to answer to a regulatory body because developments are beyond current law.
I hope we can vote for how we want to create this meta verse…. Is it too late? I hope we can collectively create it, not with our dollars but with public, in person discourse and physically documented regulation.
We vote with each and every bow-of-the-head to unlawful mandates. They are useful in the overall data scrape, analyzing us all predictively for “What-Works”-Finance gamblers who are designing this virtual reality for profiting in end-stage Capitalism. Profiting off the misery of the vulnerable. and doing it [they hope & aspire] ON THE BLOCKCHAIN.