The Metaverse: Brutal Realities

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

Right now, there is no metaverse. At least, not in the sense of a “place” that is singularly accessible to everyone, in the same sense that planet earth is accessible to anyone. It is a bunch of places, owned and operated by companies such as Roblox or Meta among others. For metaverse enthusiasts and dreamers, it is decentralized and will create powerful opportunities for creators and entirely new, equatable places for everyone. This is not the reality that is unfolding. What are the realities of the metaverse?

Decentralization is a Myth

It is a cornerstone of pundits and believers of the idea of a metaverse. It is not, unfortunately, reality. It may never be. Yes, there can be degrees of decentralization on the edges of a metaverse, communities of creators that do interesting things within the limitations of such an environment. But a universally accessible and fully decentralized metaverse? Under the current model of global capitalism, it is not possible.

The early days of the internet were largely decentralized, anyone could set up a server, build a computer and software was hacked together. It really was a “creator economy.” Until it wasn’t. Telco’s and other companies, like ISPs (Internet Service Providers), discovered they could build businesses. Once Telcos realized their lines were being used for data and that was a market opportunity, investment into technologies enabling the rapid expansion of the internet happened. Centralization began.

The Metaverse Is A Marketplace. Nothing More.

The price of entry is not free. Not for anyone. Just to access one of the many metaverses out there, you need to have the right technology (VR headset, smartphone, PC etc.) and you have to eb able to afford a reliable, high-speed connection to access it. Some metaverses like Roblox and Decentraland promote “free stuff”, but you have to make an up front investment just to get there. Therefore, it is not free.

The metaverse is a market. They’ve been created by businesses. The purpose of a business is to make a profit. That is what capitalism is. Nothing wrong with it at all. But that should be understood as the reality. Therefore, anything that is built or created in the Metaverse, must have a return on investment. Yes, you could host a concert there, but the cost of the data transmission and hosting must be covered and have a margin to it. Someone is paying that carrying cost.

For proof of this, just look at what immediately took place as consumer brands bought into the idea. WalMart, Burger King, McDonalds and others all piled in and spent huge amounts of their marketing budgets creating spaces designed to reach consumers to drive sales. They’re not there for social good. They’ll soon leave too, when they look at the ROI and it isn’t there. It’s a marketing fad. And a waste of marketing budgets. There’s simply not enough consumers using these various metaverses to justify the expenditure.

WalMart’s investment into the metaverse is very odd indeed. Given the cost to enter the metaverses and play there, it is not WalMarts demographic at all.

The Metaverse Won’t Create Stronger Human Relationships

This is one of the main pitches by Zuckerberg and Meta and his idea of what the metaverse will be. We already have the evidence of how social media and devices like smartphones make us feel more lonely. If you’re spending several hours using a VR headset, you are not maintaining kinship bonds with your family, friends, co-workers. You’re building illusionary “bonds” that are not anchored in reality with people you may never know, perhaps even bots.

To form proper kinship bonds, we need real-world connection and social time. We need to participate in the culture within which we live. Sharing experiences from a hike together to life events like weddings, funerals and family gatherings such as thanks-giving, Yom Kipur or Eid. These can be digitally simulated, but they can’t replace a hug, a pat on the shoulder, a high-five. A simulated hug is not a hug.

Our Relationship With Technology Is Changing

People spent a lot more time online during the pandemic than ever before. That hasn’t really held up as lockdowns go away and we can get back outside and go to events. People are looking at their devices differently and spending less time on them, and using them in different ways.

Concluding

The brutal reality is that Zuckerberg’s concept of the metaverse is purely capitalist. Meta is a business. A publicly traded one. It’s purpose is to make a profit and deliver returns (dividends) to its shareholders. Every decision made for Meta’s concept must result in profit. This isn’t bad or wrong, but it is reality.

And so it goes with Roblox and Decentraland and all the others. Ideas of NFTs, Social Tokens and such are arguments for a different model of capitalism. They are good and they are necessary, but they’re arguments for something than under the current model, do not work. For them to work, for there to be a singular metaverse accessible to all, then it would have to be approached as a public good. A social good. Servers, infrastructure, would have to be publicly funded and and democratically managed. Today, this model doesn’t exist. It certainly could. Perhaps someday, it will. But for now, we shouldn’t be deluded into thinking metaverses aren’t anything but centralized and marketplaces to be monetized. Nothing wrong with that at all, but let’s be realistic.

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Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Digital / Cultural Anthropologist | Featured in Wired, National Geographic & Forbes | Celt | Explorer | Intensely Curious