Never trust anyone who says they can predict the future of tech. Right now, a growing chorus of voices insists that the metaverse is our inevitable tech future. Qualcomm CEO Cristiano Amonl, for example, just predicted that metaverse wearables could be as big as smartphones. But is that true?
Author Neal Stephenson coined the term “metaverse” in 1992 in his science fiction novel Snow Crash. In the novel, lifelike avatars gather in realistic virtual environments. As opposed to sci-fi novels that imagined alternate universes or purely virtual experiences, the idea of a metaverse was a liminal space that blended offline reality with virtual environments.
Similarly, in the novel Ready Player One, recently adapted into a film, individuals escaped their bleak reality by immersing themselves in a metaverse. This blended reality is also the basic structure behind Second Life, which has existed as a metaverse since 2003. Instead of “users,” individuals in Second Life see themselves as residents living in a metaverse. Instead existing purely as a multiplayer game, Second Life’s purpose is to create a layered existence for conversation and experiences with its virtual world providing space for experimentation and whimsy.
Facebook placed a massive bet on the adoption of the metaverse with the recent announcement that the company is changing its name to Meta. “I believe the metaverse is the next chapter for the internet, and it’s the next chapter for our company too,” Mark Zuckerberg recently said. A deluge of thinkpieces followed this announcement, each trying to imagine what the metaverse will entail and whether Meta will be successful with this major pivot.
When I imagine the metaverse, I think about it in terms of my current options for watching a Yankees game with a friend. Right now, I can use my smartphone to text a friend to meet up at the game in person. If the friend lives far away or is unable to attend, we can both watch the game independently on our TVs or laptops and text each other about the proceedings. We also have the option of watching the game in a VR headset.
But in the metaverse, my avatar could meet my friend’s avatar at a virtual Yankee Stadium to watch a real game. Instead of thinking of my avatar as separate from me, embracing the metaverse would encourage me to think of that avatar as an extension of myself. Theoretically, over time, I should begin to accept my avatar’s experiences as my own. Which would mean, in this scenario, that I did go to Yankee Stadium and see my friend. But at the same time, I stayed in my apartment wearing a headset.
Is this the future?
History of the Metaverse
Tech Is About Interaction
Predicting the future is a perilous task given that the adoption of a product or platform is based more on how humans interact with it than how that technology performs in a vacuum. The Segway, for example, was supposed to change the future of transportation but instead evolved into a novelty attraction and a running gag in the Paul Blart: Mall Cop franchise.
Google Glass is an infamous recent example of flawed assumptions about technology. Sergey Brin identified a real problem — we shouldn’t be staring at our phones, and we should free our hands — in his 2013 TED Talk. Google Glass offered to break us free from the smartphone as a solution. But Google Glass, of course, was a spectacular failure.
But its lack of adoption wasn’t because of the tech. It failed because of how people interacted with it. Brin was entirely right in his assessment that being hunched over computers and smartphones is a terrible way to live. But he was oblivious to a different question: Do people want to wear a piece of tech over their eyes instead? Of course, this didn’t stop Snap from misunderstanding Glass’s reason for failure and assuming that the tech needed to be improved by making it sexier with their release of Spectacles. Likewise, Spectacles failed with consumers.
The ebook is another useful example of a poor technical solution to a problem. This technology asked why you should own dozens of heavy books that take up space when you can have the same exact content on one light device you can fit in your bag. The future of reading a decade ago looked to be a march toward digitalization, with those buying dead tree versions viewed as relics holding onto a past that was bound to be buried — digitally, of course.
But here we are in 2021, and print book sales are going up. Ebook sales, on the other hand, are down. Huh? If we treat ebooks versus print versions as a battle between utility, ebooks win hands down. But as humans, we don’t make purely rational decisions based on utility. We make decisions based on how technology makes us feel. I spend my days staring at screens hunched over a laptop, so the last thing in the world I want when I relax is to stare at yet another screen. The inefficiencies of a print book become an advantage. It helps me to get lost in an author’s world and move away from screens.
As a fun example of how our actions as consumers often run counter to the prevailing narrative that the world is going fully digital, vinyl record sales increased in 2021. Most major artists are now releasing their work on vinyl, even though it is comparatively inefficient next to streaming. In fact, 2021 marks the 16th consecutive year that vinyl record sales have gone up. They have increased every year since 2007, the same year the iPhone was released.
Why would this be? In my opinion, buying music isn’t solely about gaining access to the content but also about connecting with the artist and having an elevated experience. By that measure, listening to vinyl is far superior than streaming on Spotify.
So, as I sit here during a pandemic that has made it difficult to physically meet up with friends and family, I find it notable that the public’s response hasn’t been to widely adopt virtual reality. Instead of VR, the hot piece of futuristic tech that everyone talked about was...Zoom. Although VR headset sales have gradually gone up, the technology’s use remains comparatively niche.
If ever there was a time for VR to really go mainstream, the physical distancing that Covid required should have offered the ideal conditions. Bereft of physical interactions, VR seemingly offers the very social connectivity we’ve longed for. Chatting with someone on WhatsApp doesn’t feel the same as being together physically in a room, but VR promises a sense of “presence” that mimics reality. It is a form of social connectivity greater than social media.
The problem, however, is that all forms of social connectivity are not equal. VR, along with the metaverse, promises social connectivity, but it may not be the kind of visceral connection we are really after.
Digitalization Is Not Emotionally Fulfilling
Just like virtual reality, which has been hyped as the next big thing since the 1990s, the hype around the metaverse misreads what the public desires from social connectivity. Despite the trappings of a digital age, our basic desires have remained static: We want love, friendship, knowledge, and fun. We are social animals who care about cohesion and don’t want to feel alienated. If a product or platform helps us achieve these basic desires, we’ll adopt it. If it gets in the way of fulfilling these desires, we will reject it.
I suspect that the metaverse caters to a surface-level understanding of social connectivity but completely fails to provide the depth of emotional connection that we truly desire. Meeting my friend’s avatar at a virtual Yankee Stadium is certainly better than not meeting at all, but it is painfully inferior to the satisfaction I would feel from being in the physical presence of my friend. The metaverse may increase our connectivity while simultaneously decreasing the satisfaction that we derive from being connected.
In my opinion, the metaverse will be far less consequential than the current hype for a very simple reason: Most people don’t want technology to be a springboard into a fully immersive existence. Our lives are filled with screens, so, as a counterbalance, people still buy dead tree books and listen to vinyl records.
It is easy to misread our increasingly digital lives as an inevitable path to complete virtual immersion in a metaverse, but that completely ignores that we, as humans, determine which technology is adopted and what flops. Imagining a future where we live inside a metaverse doesn’t seem inspiring; it actually seems quite depressing.
Just like our experiences with virtual reality, where we can be wowed without wanting to live with a headset on, I believe the metaverse is something most people will want to experience intermittently rather than fully live in.
Betting on the metaverse argues that humans of the future will look inward for connection. To me, that idea feels like a retreat. I want my technology to help me look outward, to become a conduit for my basic human desires for love and friendship. Snow Crash is a dystopian novel, after all.