Mark Zuckerberg’s on a mission from god: He’s gonna plug you in. How else to explain Zuck’s hell-or-high-water commitment to building the Matrix except to say that he’s on some sort of divine quest? In October this year, Meta announced it had already lost $9.4 billion on the metaverse (opens in new tab) before telling investors it planned to lose a whole lot more in future and, despite a huge swathe of firings (opens in new tab) at the company, its metaverse ambitions are undaunted. Sounds like a crusade to me.
Of course, Zuckerberg isn’t the only metaverse zealot running a tech company, though he is the only one who changed his company’s name to prove his dedication (and not for any other reason (opens in new tab) at all). Epic’s Tim Sweeney has also caught the bug, and even has a court ruling to prove it (opens in new tab). Plus we’ve got interest from the likes of Konami (opens in new tab), Tencent (opens in new tab), Nvidia (opens in new tab), Microsoft (opens in new tab) and, uh, Lego (opens in new tab), along with who-knows-how-many crypto weirdos and Web3 outriders.
But despite all this enthusiasm, the metaverse… hasn’t really gone anywhere this year. There was a lot of bluster and noise and big promises about the world that is to come, but after almost 365 days and many tens of billions of dollars, the metaverse’s 2022 feels like it all came down to some very expensive hardware (opens in new tab), a stupid selfie (opens in new tab) and the announcement of legs (opens in new tab).
So, where does it go from here?
Turn on, tune in, drop out
It’s remarkable that—eight years after Facebook bought Oculus—the metaverse’s biggest promoters still seem to struggle to explain what it is (opens in new tab). A year ago, I probably would have told you that’s because they don’t really know; it’s just a whim of Silicon Valley oligarchs who never got over Snow Crash (opens in new tab), and other people have to figure out the details. But now I think the reason is a lot more banal: The metaverse is boring.
I can tell you what the metaverse is. It’s the internet in VR. Instead of scrolling through Amazon pages, you’ll roam virtual aisles, pick up products with simulated hands and encounter other shoppers along the way. Rather than work in a physical space, or from home with one eye on Slack/Microsoft Teams/GChat, you’ll inhabit virtual offices with virtual coworkers.
Does that not sound… a bit tedious? I think the reason that Meta’s VP of the metaverse, Vishal Shah, seemed to have such trouble putting the concept into concrete terms in the company’s Metaverse 101 series (opens in new tab) was because the metaverse in concrete terms sounds pretty dull. Far better to speak in messianic tones about the creator economy and the metaverse’s “experiential” possibilities than it is to tell everyone you’re turning their 9-to-5 into a drab version of Second Life.
So, fundamentally, the reason CEOs still struggle to explain the metaverse to us is because it only makes sense when they explain it to each other. From the perspective of tech corporations, the metaverse is dizzyingly attractive: An infinitely-expandable virtual space over which they have total control, which they can regulate and tweak to their heart’s content (at least until/unless the government gets involved), and whose “creator economies” provide an ocean of intellectual property to tax and monetise until the end of time.
That’s what former Greek finance minister (and former Valve economist, what a career) Yanis Varoufakis meant when he said (opens in new tab) the metaverse was “a digital fiefdom in which Zuckerberg dreams of being the techno-lord”. And it’s also a paradox that Second Life pioneers Philip Rosedale and Bradford Oberwager observed in an interview with PCG (opens in new tab) last April: The metaverse needs residents, but to attract residents it needs to be filled with cool stuff, and to become filled with cool stuff it needs residents to build it.
A bit of a catch-22. And so far those resident-builders haven’t been ensnared by the fuzzy sales pitch (and they’re not going to be captivated by the concrete one because, again, it only really appeals to tech capitalists). So we end up with how-many-millions of marketing and research dollars spent on metaverse-flavoured Coca-Cola (opens in new tab), Zuck’s dumb selfie (opens in new tab), and legs (opens in new tab). And that’s just in the last year.
So far, none of it has succeeded in ginning up the enthusiasm the metaverse will probably need to survive. It exits 2022 much as it entered it: stalled.
No. The truth is that if you spend sufficient billions on something, you may end up warping reality enough to get what you want. Not just Meta, but tech companies around the world smell blood in the water with this thing, and if you made me put a bet down, I’d say they’ll probably find a way to spend it into existence at some point.
It’s not all doom and gloom. Despite my pessimism, it could nevertheless be the case that the tech industry just doesn’t find a way to make this thing appealing even if they do throw even more billions at it. And even if they do, we’ve had sketches of a better metaverse (a betterverse) drawn up in these very pages (opens in new tab), one that makes us healthier and happier rather than finding yet another grim way to extract value from daily life. But I suspect that if the audience does want either of those outcomes, it’ll take organisation and voting with their virtual feet. Not sure how you’d go about planning that kind of thing, to be honest, though I do know somewhere our avatars can meet up to talk about it.