In Essays

The idea that one day we will all work, shop, and spend our free time in “the metaverse,” and that’s why tech companies are now battling to control it, has taken hold of the media’s imagination. The storyline is fantasy and the forecast is nonsense.

The metaverse will never happen.

The idea is purposefully amorphous, mostly because we already do lots of stuff online, and seems to involve aspirations to 1) Provide user interfaces that are like the real world, or some version of it, so we can use physical gestures to experience and interact with it and one another instead of keyboards, and therefore 2) Require massive amounts of expenditures on goggles, gloves or even body suits, and boatloads of connectivity and bandwidth infrastructure.

The most intoxicating aspect of the idea is that the metaverse would a thing that a company could “own,” much like businesses already own and operate massive multi-player online role-playing games (“MMORPGs”).

It’s intoxicating to tech companies and their financial cheerleaders because ownership would present the chance to totally surveil and thereby control and take a cut from everything people did during the time they “lived” there, like the sci-fi fantasies of movies like Ready Player One only more encompassing of everyday experiences. Forget dropping cookies on your browser; the metaverse would monitor the totality of your existence down to the nanosecond and bit.

So, it’s a technologist’s wet dream, and authoritarians probably find it pretty stimulating, too.

Thank goodness it’ll never happen, for at least three reasons:

First, like I said before, the internet already exists and even Google Search doesn’t own or control everything that happens there. Perhaps more importantly, the loudest proponents of the metaverse can’t articulate how their fantasies are any different that what’s already possible, though they usually involve interacting with cartoon characters.

Second, interacting with a cartoon character isn’t an improvement in experience, and even engaging with 3-D life-like images won’t necessarily be, either (let alone even possible). Life in virtual reality would have to be demonstrably better than regular life or a meaningful improvement over the experiences available to us via tech in our hands and on our countertops. Remember, the immediacy and ease of texting made Second Life’s landscape irrelevant.

Third, what’s far more likely are lots of little metaverses that provide more immersive experiences, whether for business or entertainment, especially in customized ways that scream necessity or some other benefit. Do I need to witness the stock market as if it were a giant game of Tetris wherein I’m hopping around from one stock to the next? Maybe. Would I like to demo clothes in 3D from the comfort of my own home? Sure. Might gaming be more fun if I were surrounded by a battle instead of just watching it? Hell yeah.

But after that? I’m sure there’s more to invent that we can’t yet conceive, but innovation is disparate and episodic, so there’s no way that plans for some all-inclusive virtual destination could survive the efforts of more streamlined and focused places doing fewer things better, faster, and more cheaply.

The likelihood that I’ll want to stay in my MMORPG or Stock Investing metaverse long enough to buy groceries or work with my daughter on her homework, let alone those experiences being demonstrably better there versus an other little metaverse dedicated to those purposes, is next to nil.

Also, remember that there are a lot of people innovating ways to make real, geophysical experience easier and more rewarding.

So, why the buzz?

It’s a storyline that’ll help lots of people raise and spend tons of cash. It’s an easy story for journalists to tell because they can’t be tasked with (or held accountable for) reporting on details that simply don’t exist.

It’s a great distraction from the realities of the online surveillance economy and how it’s scrapping our actions and from that extrapolating our intentions, all the better to manage the latter and monetize the former.

And, if a company could pull it off, it would be the most profitable prison ever built.

I wonder if/when we’ll start talking about the topic with more honesty and clarity.

Until then, thank goodness the metaverse will never happen.

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