It is no coincidence that the metaverse as a practical project emerged out of the experience of the Covid-19 pandemic. The concept is older, tracing its origins to such science fiction classics as Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, but the last two years have transformed it into an actual business proposition, capable of dictating a name change for Facebook (now Meta) and moving billions of dollars in capital markets.
The great migration to digital during the pandemic showed the enormous advantages of being able to work and live within an artificial, secondary universe. In this universe, the laws of space and time no longer apply, or at least they can be bent, enhancing human powers in ways still to explore: an end to long commutes and the achievement of measurable increases in productivity; the ability to participate in meetings and conferences on different continents and on the same day; and children still able to attend school, even amid the worst public-health emergency in a century.
Unfortunately, the limits of digital experience were no less apparent. A lot gets lost when human interaction takes place on a screen. The results of remote schooling have so far proved mixed, at best. A digital work environment soon revealed itself as considerably more exhausting than the real counterpart. Human beings are built for the kind of immersive interaction that takes place in the physical world, where all five senses get involved. Some of our mental abilities, including memory, suffer markedly when we are reduced to disembodied egos on Zoom. As for entertainment, digital experiences are still so far from the actual fun of going to a restaurant or a music concert that nothing one tried on the Internet during the lockdowns measured up.
The immediate appeal of the metaverse is that it promises to marshal the virtues of digital life, while addressing many of its shortcomings. Instead of business meetings on Zoom, imagine entering a digital room and talking to our colleagues around a virtual table, or even walking together in an electronically conjured garden. I imagine the metaverse as a virtual world with some of the characteristics of a city. There will be virtual malls, where users can move from store to store and buy the products that will later be delivered to their physical homes—a big improvement in digital shopping over the flat webpage. There will be virtual beaches where we can meet our friends to chat and play, much like what Fortnite already offers today, only much better. There will be concerts and art galleries. Is there a reason to travel physically to Venice to visit the Biennale instead of jumping into the metaverse and enjoying all the art and video installations with the latest fully immersive technology? Traveling to exotic locations could happen while we sit in our own living room. It’s easy to imagine the growth of a new digital economy, where creators will be less dependent on mediators of all kinds. Barriers to entry will likely be lower, and audiences potentially much larger, than in the real world.
The metaverse has to be highly concurrent: this artificial world has to be continuously updated from the inputs of its millions, or potentially billions, of users. The only way a virtual experience can rival the real thing is if it acquires the same flux and complexity. It’s not enough to encounter a prepackaged version of reality. One wants to travel to a virtual Biennale in order to see what others are preparing for us in real time; ideally, too, one wants to arrive with thousands of other people, with whom it would be possible to interact and with whom one could share the event. It should be possible to acquire some of the artworks, in both physical and virtual formats. Virtual objects, once acquired, must be preserved within the metaverse. One should be able to carry them to other digital spaces, without sacrificing their virtual authenticity, in a world where “virtual authenticity” is not a contradiction in terms.
Return to the virtual malls above. Users visit a virtual car dealership where they can buy a model to be delivered to their physical homes. They will want to test the car virtually, and they may also be interested in buying a virtual twin to drive in the metaverse. The virtual and physical worlds might become increasingly integrated.
An immersive three-dimensional environment expresses the vision of a metaverse more fully and more naturally than other interfaces, but it isn’t the innovation’s most important feature. What truly distinguishes the metaverse is its autonomy from the physical world. The metaverse exists on its own. It has a life of its own. It creates a genuinely alternative world. As Mark Zuckerberg does not tire of pointing out, the metaverse cannot be compared with the Internet because it aims to place us within the digital experience, inside an embodied Internet, on a more or less unending basis. One accesses the Internet. One enters the metaverse.
The difference matters. To see why, consider how the relation between user and the digital environment gets turned on its head. With the Internet, the user remains sovereign, dictating when and how digital interactions take place. In the metaverse, the user finds himself entirely surrounded by the platform, and the quality of the experiences will frequently depend on whether he or she accepts that fact.
Zuckerberg notes that nothing will prevent us from using non-virtual technologies to enter the metaverse, at least in part. There are obvious practical limits to the deployment of virtual-reality headsets, for example. If your metaverse avatar is scheduled to attend a musical concert but you happen to be riding the subway in the physical world at the time, it should be possible just to listen to the concert on an app in your phone, using regular headphones.
But the metaverse needs to be fully persistent and continuous. If the ambition of the metaverse is to constitute an artificial world, capable in time of rivaling the real one, experiences there must acquire meaning with reference to other experiences in the metaverse, not just those taking place in the real world. And this means that the metaverse should never really disappear, even when a user momentarily withdraws into real life. The metaverse must persist or perdure.
This is not to say that 3-D technology will not be a significant element of the metaverse. Once it is established that the metaverse aims to create a persistent and continuous environment, it makes sense to develop that environment in ways that make it genuinely capable of rivaling the physical world. Three-dimensional technology is a part of that, as are payment services, games, currencies, and networks.
Aspects of the metaverse have been around for a while already. How to interpret the advent of social media if not as the first stage of the metaverse? Consider Twitter. It has some of the characteristics of an artificial world, starting with high density and including persistence and continuity, helping to explain its extraordinary success. Technically, Twitter is rather primitive, a predominantly verbal medium of low bandwidth. From a conceptual perspective, however, it has been a revolution: a new world that users enter rather than contemplate and that continues to exist and develop in their absence. Log out, go to sleep, and when you wake up, all kinds of developments, responses, and interactions will have occurred.
I am reminded of the story of a New York executive who posted an ill-considered tweet right before boarding a flight to South Africa a few years ago. While she was flying, presumably without Internet service, the tweet was retweeted thousands and thousands of times every hour; she was fired from her job, lost all her friends, and saw her life collapse like a house of cards. She had disconnected from Twitter, but the beast kept growing and moving, even in her absence. What makes Twitter addictive is its actual resemblance to the physical world in the power of its autonomous operations, while being relatively free of many of its constraints.
The simplicity of Twitter’s artificial world has created difficulties for its revenue model—there is only so much one can do to monetize it. Imagine now a Twitter that you could enter in virtual reality, with advertising hanging on the walls of a virtual room where messages are exchanged. One can think of a metaverse version of Twitter that features virtual stadiums, where your social media followers will congregate to hear your speeches, or where you could launch your own entertainment programs.
Many current social developments are early manifestations of what the metaverse will likely bring. As social media laid down the initial infrastructure for alternative realities, we witness how conspiracies of all kinds and other social games start to erupt. Many can be better understood as analogues of video games, elaborate programs where participants take on different roles or avatars and must follow complex rules determining how the game should be played and how to perform the tasks for which social points may be awarded. As the metaverse expands, phenomena of wholesale dissociation from reality are bound to multiply. We may soon face a choice between building a rich metaverse and improving the real world, just as reality faces new crises ranging from pandemics to climate change. Even economic growth may eventually bifurcate between two concepts, one valid in the metaverse and the other in physical reality.
One day, the Internet arrived, seemingly from nowhere, and we got used to thinking that it would be forever. It now seems clear that we are on the cusp of a successor: the metaverse. Much has been written about a clash of titans between Facebook and Microsoft to decide which will control the new virtual world to which humanity as a whole is supposed to migrate. Usually, though, market forces follow state forces: Is there a geopolitical race for the metaverse?
One of China’s main think tanks recently published a report on the implications of the metaverse for national security—perhaps the first such reflection. The main conclusion is not that we shall soon be fighting wars in the metaverse but something much more plausible and relevant. The report sees three immediate impacts of the metaverse. First, it will be a driver for technological innovation and, in some cases, in areas adjacent to military interests: simulation graphics, artificial intelligence, wearables, robot technology, and brain-computer interface. The second will be to move the digital ecosystem and the digital economy to new technological platforms—e-commerce will no longer take place on current platforms, for instance. Third, the metaverse will start to integrate the needs of the virtual and physical worlds, as we saw above, realizing an old ambition of the Internet age.
The report anticipates that the metaverse could have deep consequences for the global distribution of power. It “will trigger a new round of reshuffling” in the global technological order. Some companies and countries will lose out; others might have an opportunity to rise. That happened already with the Internet economy, when Europe could not help falling behind the United States and China was able to resist the imperium of the large American platforms only from a purely defensive posture.
According to the Chinese think tank, American authorities may hope to use the metaverse revolution to push U.S. companies to a new and unassailable position of global dominance, while taking advantage of the new technology to promote American culture and American values globally. That Meta has taken the lead is seen as particularly ominous.
It is easy to see why many might regard the concept of the metaverse as excessively influenced by Western ideas. The metaverse is, before everything else, a method of escapism. Each individual gains the freedom to pursue his or her own most personal fantasies in the metaverse. It is as if the common world fragmented into millions or billions of private universes. Science fiction writer Liu Cixin argues that the metaverse is like a drug—one so powerful as to break our connection with the world around us. As he put it, humanity is now at a fork in the road: in one direction lies the exploration of outer space; the other leads inward toward virtual reality, the “dead end of entertainment.”
How could the Chinese Communist Party not regard the project as a threat? The historical mission of a revolutionary party is to call the masses to a common project and to transform the physical world as needed to satisfy this objective—not to encourage an escape to an artificial universe. Renowned blockchain expert Yu Jianing, author of a new book in China called Metaverse, has insisted that the metaverse must never become a virtual economy but only a tool “empowering the real economy.”
I do see one way to reconcile the metaverse with CCP interests. Rather than using the metaverse to invent purely imaginary worlds, it would be possible to use it to create altered versions of the real world. In this sense, the Chinese Internet is already a kind of metaverse, a virtual-reality machine giving us a vision of the world from which certain elements have been excised.
The concept reminds me of phenomena I have written about in a different context: China’s vast global Belt and Road infrastructure-and-investment initiative. Even in its formative stage, the Belt and Road is an exercise in the opacity of power. There is an exoteric doctrine of the initiative—and then an esoteric practice, where deals are agreed upon, often with no written evidence, and where hierarchy resembles that of security-clearance levels of access. Some participants know only the broadest strokes of the plan, sufficient to defend it and to communicate with lower levels. Others know nothing. Only a few can see months or years in advance. The metaverse would offer a range of similar possibilities to the Chinese regime. By forging different levels of virtual reality, it could establish different levels of access for different groups, while ensuring a much tighter grip on how access is distributed.
The metaverse represents the most recent battle between human freedom and the constraints of reality. It could also become a battle to define reality itself.
Top Photo: ANTHONY KWAN/GETTY IMAGES