History Tells Us The Metaverse Can’t be Decentralized

Image by Reto Scheiwiller from Pixabay

Read any article promoting the inevitable coming of the metaverse and littered throughout, like a meditative mantra is the word decentralized. It will all be decentralized. It is perhaps the single most used word surrounding the concept. It is however, a hallucination. A fiction woven by Meta, a company that is more centralized than an authoritarian government and ruled by an autocratic technocrat. Often, Web3 is conflated with the metaverse and proponents howl louder than a pack of wolves under the moon about decentralization. The metaverse is not and cannot, entirely, be decentralized. That is a myth. It is an idea humanity has pursued many thousands of times over hundreds of thousands of years. Rarely has it worked.

We will definitely see some multitude of metaverses, but unlikely one single one. This may be good, in fact. There are also some benefits to these multiverses that will happen. From remote healthcare to interesting project collaborations. Digital Twins and others. But thinking it will be decentralized? No.

The Current State of the Metaverse

Well, there isn’t one. So there’s that. There are however, a bunch of quasi-metaverses. There are about 12–15 of them, varying in functionality and capability. There’s a list of 11 here and 7 here. One name that strikes one as rather ironic is called Decentraland. It is very centralized. All might well be better described as gaming platforms. Sure, you can create some NFT’s if you want (but that’s another hallucination.) Some major brands are buying “property” which is funny given how small the market is. But it is early days. More quasi-metaverses will start to appear. It is expected that for most, they’ll interact in a metaverse with a VR headset, maybe an AR device. Estimates vary greatly, but there are between 55 million and 70 million VR users around the world. Usage data is a mix of stats as well. Most of these stats are generated by research firms and makers of the technologies, so they’re biased to a fair degree.

The Decentralized Myth Humans Believe

Centralization has been a human social endeavour for many hundreds of thousands of years, even with economic models going back to the Neolithic age. What does that have to do with the metaverse and decentralization. Fundamentally, everything. Just because the metaverse is a cool idea, it won’t change human behaviours.

Some might like to think so, but the evidence is overwhelmingly against that just from a sociological perspective. There have been decentralized cultures in the past. For example, It was long thought that hunter-gatherer or forager cultures were decentralized. They were not, it turns out. These societies existed from roughly 2.6 million years ago until around 7,000 to 11,000 years ago. Anthropological research has shown that many had centralized aspects and places, contrary to decentralization as often assumed. One such example is in the US state of Louisiana called Poverty Point. There’s little evidence to suggest habitation happened there and more to suggest it was a centre for religious practices and trade. Similar sites exist in Finland and of course, there’s Stone Henge in England.

Humans have to centralize to some degree. We do it for commerce (known as reciprocity which exists in some form in every human culture), spirituality and in many cases to keep gene pools from stagnating.

Zipping ahead a little bit in time, we know that a key result of Web 2.0 has been centralization. This is not the internet the hippies envisioned when they started building it in the 1970’s. The vision then was decentralization with the goal that it always would be. A digital network created by all and for everyone. Until it wasn’t. Now, centralized technopolies like Facebook, Google, Twitter, TikTok rule the digital world. Roblox is already a centralized force with its own metaverse.

Crypto entrepreneurs and pundits love to say that crypto is decentralized, a radical new form of egalitarianism. It’s a nice ideal. It’s not reality. Case in point is Changpeng Zhao, the founder of Binance who has an estimated worth of $65 Billion. Binance is highly centralized. There’s a great article on him here. Crypto founders talk a lot about decentralization, but when the money starts flowing in, they centralize quite quickly.

Centralization is how a lot of money is made. It has long been a factor of free market economies. It’s how monopolies come to be and eventually, regulators step in and use anti-trust laws to break them up.

Humans, in our modern society and in many past societies, like wealth. We often equate wealth with power. It happened in the Aztec, Incan, Roman, British, Spanish, French, German, Omec and many other cultures. The methods of centralization, distribution of wealth and how power is held and kept vary greatly. Scott Galloway explains centralization in detailed economic terms in this great article here.

So we have the mix of human sociocultural factors and modern economics that show decentralization is a very nice idea. We’re just not very good at actually doing it. Meta, Roblox and VC firms are well lined up to ensure they can centralize as much of whatever this metaverse hallucination becomes. There may be layers of decentralized apps and services in various mini-metaverses, but it will not be decentralized. There will be a layer of decentralization, collectives and communities that use decentralized apps and services, who create solutions to perplexing problems and improve our digital wellbeing. There are amazing opportunities, but we shouldn’t delude ourselves over the myth of decentralization.

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Digital Anthropologist | Featured in Wired, National Geographic & Forbes | Cymru | Celt | Explorer | Intensely Curious | UX Strategy

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Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Digital Anthropologist | Featured in Wired, National Geographic & Forbes | Cymru | Celt | Explorer | Intensely Curious | UX Strategy

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