Will the metaverse happen?

The rumors were (disconcertingly) true: Facebook is now Meta, a company focused on the metaverse, VR, AR, and apparently “XR” technologies. I watched the keynote, which is less a keynote address and more of an extended commercial for Meta and its products, particularly the ones still in development.

Online reactions to the spectacle started going up before the livestream even ended, and I took some time tonight, laid up as I am with strep throat, to read a decent-sized chunk of them.

I’m still puzzled by the “Look at Facebook flounder! They’re not long for this world!” crowd. In what universe is Facebook–excuse me, Meta–about to go under? They’re not even about to replace Zuckerberg. No one is leaving Facebook and its services, at least not in numbers that have any meaning for such an enormous enterprise. 70% of Americans use Facebook. I remain the only person I know who has actually deleted my account in 2021. Plenty of people “take breaks” from Facebook, but they tend to keep using Messenger at the very least. And that’s not to mention the fact that Facebook is most likely still tracking me, and definitely hasn’t deleted all of the data I gave them during my 14+ years of use. Luckily for me, I didn’t quit for privacy reasons.

In the same vein, a lot of commentators are still laughing at the very idea of the metaverse, which is not new and has been touted as “the next big thing” multiple times over the past 30+ years. Several people I’ve spoken to have said something along the lines of, “No one’s asking for something like that, so there’s no way it’ll work.” But no one asked for smartphones or online social networks, either. These products were answers to questions that hadn’t been asked when they first appeared. They were (and are!) schemes to extract more money from people. The idea that corporations exist to serve us, the everyday individual consumers, is incredibly dated and naive. Companies like Apple and Facebook exist to serve their investors and their advertisers, not the people who actually use their consumer-facing products on a day-to-day basis.

“The most popular games today aren’t the ones that fully immerse players in a virtual world; the screen interface isn’t a problem that particularly needs to be solved.”

https://www.wired.com/story/virtual-reality-rich-white-kid-of-technology/

It doesn’t matter whether it’s a “problem” or not, or whether we want it or not. What matters is that Facebook has decided that this is the future of the internet, and they have the money and the power to make that vision come true. Unlike many previous pushers of the metaverse, Facebook is not a startup. It’s a powerful and deeply entrenched part of individual peoples’ lives and corporate business plans. What you want is irrelevant: if your employer requires you to attend meetings via the Horizon platform, your choice is gone. And a company as big as Facebook can ensure that employers eventually do just that.

There’s also a lot of incredulity about people “wearing stuff on their faces.” But thirty years ago did you imagine that everyone would carry little computers around and use them to watch TV shows, listen to “podcasts,” and read “tweets” every time they experienced a fleeting moment of boredom? Probably not. We adopted the mobile internet with lightning speed and are only now starting to glance back and wonder what happened and if it might not have been such a great idea. Once miniaturization gets far enough along the production pipeline and enough corporations adopt metaverse platforms, nothing will stop VR goggles and AR glasses from going mainstream, for work and play.

Another argument is that the metaverse already exists. Some say it’s in the form of immersive gaming, some say it’s the internet itself. I get the Fortnite argument, but Fortnite is a single game, not a near-infinite virtual world in which you can have your own “home.” It’s not even close to the same thing that Zuckerberg is describing (and building as we speak).

The idea that the metaverse is already here in the form of the internet itself is compelling, and it describes why I think the Facebook version of the metaverse will probably come to be: the call is coming from inside the house. More than one third of us already spend almost all of our time online. And we’ve known for a long time that younger people are spending nearly all of the “free time” they have on a connected device. There’s no giant leap to be taken here. We’re already living on the internet.

By far the worst take I’ve seen is Kara Swisher’s in the Times. How can anyone believe that Meta is just a distraction tactic to make us forget about “The Facebook Papers” et al? Facebook has been semi-openly thinking about this concept for years, and it’s been in the public consciousness forever–there were versions of the metaverse in science fiction literature even before Neal Stephenson gave it a name that stuck in 1992. I find the idea that Facebook cares that much about the recent “revelations” in congress laughable. My guess is that next to nothing will come of this very quiet “uproar.” I’ve even wondered if it was no more than a feeler intended to gauge how much the public really cares about what Facebook and other social media are doing to us and our kids (answer: not a whole lot!).

Along similar lines, Ian Bogost sees the metaverse as a mere vanity project, “the private vessel of trillionaire intergalactic escape.” That’s a take I have to strongly disagree with. The metaverse isn’t about Mark Zuckerberg, or any other tech baron. It’s about us. Not about helping us, or connecting us, or giving us new streams of income, or giving us creative outlets, or any of the other nonsense that got heaped on our virtual plates in that keynote. It’s about separating us from our money, the same thing every for-profit venture has ever been about at bottom. What makes this venture unique is that just like smartphones and social media, we’ll probably eat it up without any resistance whatsoever. In ten years, I’m betting we’ll be spending our real money on fake clothes, fake art, fake houses, fake games, fake concerts, fake socialization, fake lives. Sure it’s been tried before–several times, in fact–but I think now the timing is right.

By far the most fascinating takedown of the metaverse is that it’s “boring.” People have been saying this about Facebook itself for ages, and now they’re saying it again about both the social network and the upcoming metaverse project. But if Facebook is so boring, why are we still addicted to it? If the metaverse is so dull, why have dozens of techies and startups and corporations tried to create it so many times and at such great expense? Face it: we’re pretty helpless in the face of masterfully engineered tech. And the metaverse will be nothing if not carefully calibrated to keep us hooked.

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