Look, I’ll admit it: I’m intensely suspicious of new technology. Back in the day, I held out for as long as I could before getting a smartphone. Although I did eventually give in, buy an iPhone, and grudgingly grow to love it, I’ve never stopped grumbling about how Steve Jobs claimed my immortal soul. There’s no telling whether the metaverse will one day be as indispensable as the iPhone. But, my personal predisposition to crotchetiness aside, can we all just acknowledge that right now the metaverse isn’t cool?
Any discussion of the metaverse has to start with the basic fact that no one can quite agree on what it is. The term was coined by novelist Neal Stephenson in a 1992 sci-fi book. It’s a slippery concept, but these days it is most often used to refer to some kind of immersive virtual reality environment where users interact with each other and with the computer-generated world around them.
The other thing we know for sure is that whatever the metaverse is, it’s not here yet. The massive totally immersive experience connoted by the term just doesn’t exist yet, even if smaller virtual worlds like Roblox or Decentraland and whatever it is the newly rebranded Meta (née Facebook) is cooking up could one day serve as its building blocks.
What we do have now, though, does not resemble a futuristic utopian playground where we can all expand our minds and seamlessly interact with others without biases and geographic barriers. It’s more of a new kind of corporate cash grab – and not just because Facebook really wants to use it to make you forget that the platform is now mostly associated with Russian bots, cute babies born to people you didn’t like in high school and your aunt’s unfortunate politics.
Mainstream adoption definitely hasn’t happened yet. So who are the early pioneers staking a claim to this brave new world? Brands, mostly.
Sure, lots of fashion brands are moving into the (virtual) space – from haute couture houses like Balenciaga to mall staples like American Eagle – and there could be some exciting creative possibilities there. But other notable brands that have made a big splash by launching themselves into the metaverse include JPMorgan, which garnered lots of headlines for being the first bank in the metaverse by opening up a “lounge” in Decentraland, and law firm Arent Fox, which brought BigLaw into the realm. You’ll forgive me if when I think of the cutting edge of hip, my mind doesn’t immediately seize upon a 222-year old investment banking behemoth and a white shoe law firm.
Even if all the brands congregating in the metaverse were the most forward-thinking and inspiring ones, they’d still be trying to sell you something.
Of course, it isn’t just about the brands, but who exactly is looking to take even more of our lives virtual? Surely, we all learned from our pandemic Zoom happy hours and birthday parties that social interactions mediated by screens don’t scratch quite the same itch as actually being in a room with other people.
And besides bankers, lawyers and Mark Zuckerberg, who else can you rub shoulders with in this new social landscape? It seems the metaverse’s current denizens are no more courteous than one finds on the rest of the internet. Which is to say that, just like the real world, the metaverse is apparently chock full of dudes who want to grope you. Meta has already had to implement a “personal boundary” in its virtual reality platform to keep it from happening after complaints poured in. If we’re going to take the opportunity to build a new world, can’t we at least make it a better one?
I do understand that the metaverse is still in its infancy. It’s entirely possible that there’s someone sitting in a dorm room somewhere (or even in a corporate boardroom) who is going to make the thing that makes the metaverse amazing – the thing that makes us all wonder how we ever lived outside the metaverse. But for now, count me out. If I have to live in a sci-fi-driven future, I’d rather it be one with flying cars than one where two avatars grabbing a drink in a virtual bar is considered a date.