For the last six months or so, gamers have been bombarded with claims from tech companies both in and out of the gaming industry about creating "the metaverse." Arguably, the biggest catalyst for this was Facebook's ill-conceived attempt at rebranding itself to Meta, an appellation which does nothing to wash away the pervasive stain of its contemptible conduct to date. The move was pronounced by Mark Zuckerberg to be a shift in the company's priorities, hailing the impending creation of a "metaverse" made possible through the auspices of Facebook's overwhelming reach and their ownership of virtual reality maker Oculus. Ubisoft jumped in with both feet, stating their new Quartz system of NFTs would allow them to bring genuine ownership of virtual items, perceived to be a key requirement of any metaverse implementation. And just recently, Satya Nadella gave an interview to Ars Technica, blathering how their staggering $70 billion USD acquisition of Activision-Blizzard "gives us the permission to build this next platform, which is essentially the next Internet: the embodied presence."
And every last one of these people are either trying to pull a con, or they are genuinely stupid enough to believe their own hype.
"Have you ever had a dream...that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?" --The Matrix
While William Gibson is generally credited with coining the term "cyberspace," Neal Stephenson is credited for the term "metaverse," which first appeared in the novel Snow Crash, when describing a common framework for virtual interactions in an immersive capacity. If Gibson's "cyberspace" was the foundational operating system, Stephenson's "metaverse" would be most accurately described as a GUI. Admittedly, a highly elaborate GUI, the engineering of which is covered more by handwavium than a sober appreciation of the challenges involved (Stephenson's particular hardware solution involved eye-safe lasers playing over the user's retinas to render the visuals).
The idea of physically interacting with virtual worlds, of making data not simply an abstraction but a tangible thing with effective physicality, is not new by any stretch of the imagination. Ever since the first crude VR setups were prototyped, there has always been the desire to be immersed in a virtual world. One could rightly argue the arms race of GPUs and game engines to create increasingly detailed visuals which more closely resemble the real world is a slightly different expression of that desire. But there is a sense of remove, even with a highly detailed environment, even with high quality hardware, that tells us we're not really there. Our eyes may be fooled for a while, but there's other senses telling us the truth. Even with a haptic feedback system, there's still enough to make the illusion a little blurry.
"When it's all said and done, the Wired is just a medium of communication and the transfer of information. You mustn't confuse it with the real world." --Serial Experiments Lain
In IT, there is a concept known as the OSI (Open Systems Interconnection) Model, a universal set of rules to allow interoperability between different hardware and software products. At its base is the physical layer, the integrated circuits and cabling that allow information to pass from CPU to GPU to memory and so on. At the apex is the application layer, the closest humans can ever come to interacting with data, whether that's through a mouse and keyboard or a controller. The ability to create and navigate virtual worlds moves through a cycle, where commands and values are entered through the application layer, passing through the intervening layers and back up. This cycle happens constantly, repeatedly, without interruption until we walk away or an error causes the cycle to break.
The OSI Model is not necessarily an organic creation, nor is it an emergent property as such of the Internet or computing in general. As a conceptual framework, it's a definition created by the International Organization for Standardization. It is not a programming language like Java or C#. It is not a specification like HTML 5. It's basically a consensual agreement about the basics of computing to let computers of different manufacture to communicate with each other with a minimal amount of friction. In fiction, there's a certain assumed level of OSI-like interoperability within the metaverse, that you're not dealing with the Disney metaverse or the Warner Brothers metaverse, but a universal framework which allows hardware and software to communicate with each other. If you're using a certain avatar, it should render the same on a Facebook system as it would a Google system as it would on a Microsoft system as it would on an Apple system.
And this is where the grift comes in: not a single one of these players are trying to create anything close to this idea.
Masters of The Metaverse
"Choice is an illusion created between those with power and those without." --The Matrix Reloaded
The concept which Facebook and their ilk are trying to create is not a universal GUI. It's not the next evolution of the Internet. What they're trying to create is a walled garden writ large, a branded theme park complete with cheap trinkets which you theoretically "own." Worse, it's a theme park which relies exclusively on the novelty of VR gear to keep you from seeing the cracks in the facade, a theme park where everything you do becomes data to be monetized and exploited. In the business world, there's a running complaint about the aggravation surrounding meetings being scheduled which could have conveyed the necessary information in an email. What Facebook and Microsoft are blathering about is the apotheosis of this complaint, brought about in pure perfect Silicon Valley techbro fashion. They will defend it to the death for much the same reason they would file a software patent for it: it's novel and different because it's on a computer with VR gear.
Adding insult to injury, a lot of what they are describing has already been done to some extent through environments like Second Life. There are unique creations of avatar, location, and other elements which have been around since 2003, almost twenty years at this point. And it is only now that the tech giants figure there's enough money to be made to commit to an effort. Yet Second Life, while not a game in and of itself, still operates on a centralized fashion similar to an MMORPG or live service game. It's still a walled garden, albeit with a lower wall than other environments. But now, Big Tech thinks they can throw seven or eight figures of money at the problem and it will magically come back tenfold, just like the good old days right before the Millennium. As they do, they ignore the central issue of any sort of centralized environment like that: it exists only as long as you've got people willing to pay for it to exist. In their lust to obtain Activision-Blizzard, one has to wonder if Microsoft took a look at World of WarCraft and thought, "You know, there's lessons to learn here." Likely not, given Nadella's comments to Ars Technica. And given that Facebook recently reported a $10 billion USD loss from the very division it created to lead the charge into this "glorious" new frontier, I'm going to take the position that Big Tech (once again) doesn't have the slightest idea what it's doing.
Islands In The Net
"This is not real, and the real world lies somewhere else...Reality can be a pretty scary thing for some people." -- "Kid's Story", The Animatrix
To really sell the grift, Big Tech types will blather on about "decentralized protocols" and "distributed computing." The theory they'd like you to believe is this: since there are a whole bunch of computers on at any given time which aren't using the full array of their resources, then there should be no reason why those computers can't do a little work on the side and help run a protocol to support the existence of the metaverse. Put that way, it's not much different than running Napster or Bittorrent on your computer.
Yet, if Napster and Bittorrent were any yardstick, it means that there's probably going to be only a small handful of constantly active nodes. Unless Facebook, or worse Microsoft, is prepared to force this abomination on their user base (all in the name of "improving the experience"), the actual scale and reliability of the metaverse is going to be incredibly spotty. That would be true even with the existing state of the Internet, with large swathes of rural areas which can't reliably get a decent amount of bandwidth. Which means, as a practical matter, major corporations will be running nodes of their own, essentially recreating the client-server model even as they proclaim that they aren't. And while Facebook might have a problem getting people to buy in, Microsoft's position as an OS developer and game hardware manufacturer (not to mention cloud environment provider) might very well tempt it into creating the same sort of "required" integrations which ultimately got them sued by the Justice Department years ago over their handling of Internet Explorer.
The Undesired Country
"No matter where you are, everyone is always connected" --Serial Experiments Lain
The underlying message about the metaverse in fiction has always been one of caution. It's used to highlight the awkwardness more than a few of us feel at having to deal with people face-to-face even as it subtly reminds to be ourselves. There's nothing wrong with having a digital persona which is different than your real world persona, but at the same time, we have to be cognizant of the artifice used to create it. Moreover, it's a cautionary tale that we, as human beings, have a responsibility to face the real world and deal with those problems in a realistic fashion. In extreme examples, such as The Matrix series of movies, it's a commentary on the over-reliance of people on their machines, and in the belief that computers are the end-all be-all solution to everything.
Mark Zuckerberg's ludicrous vision of where he wants to take Facebook seems to be deeply inspired by Ernest Cline's Ready Player One, which should make any reasonable person recoil in horror. It depicts a world slowly committing suicide by video game, a scenario even the most hardcore gamer would argue is going too far. Glittering vistas of an infinitely open world MMO full of pop culture references keep its users disconnected from the real world problems of social and ecological collapse, debt slavery, and countless atrocities, all because those things happen on the wrong side of the VR lenses. IP is both commodity and currency, and for all the promise of remote learning and established eSports leagues, the underlying premise of Cline's "Oasis" is providing a power fantasy to the powerless while the real power is bleeding away into the ether, the administrators of the virtual world unable or unwilling to do anything of significance in the real world.
What I think bothers me the most about the current push for the metaverse is that the minds behind it are willfully ignoring those lessons. Silicon Valley hubris has already forced "always on Internet" requirements in our games out of the grotesque blindness arising from their own highly connected campuses, a form of confirmation bias which assumes everybody has what they have. That hubris now assumes that everybody wants what they notionally want: a virtual environment which can be infinitely configurable. But there is also the unspoken reason that Big Tech thinks there's money to be made. "Sure, you can configure the environment, so long as you pick the options we give you. Of course, you can make yourself look like whatever you want, so long as you do it with the tools and elements we give you. We'll give you this wonderful utopian vision of a world without limits, but you'll have to pay through the nose to truly be beyond those limits. And oh by the way, we'll absolutely own the copyright on your personas, your creations, and all of the biometric data we gather in the course of your usage."
And in truth, what will we get? Virtual meeting rooms, layers of effort and abstraction piled on to what should have been a simple goddamned email. That and fancy VR interfaces for MMOs which we could probably cobble together ourselves if we were of a mind to do so. There's no grand "Web VR" vision here. There's nothing transformative or revolutionary here. The Internet happened once, and it came into the world much like a bastard child: half improvise and half compromise. Everything beyond that moment is an interface paradigm, how we choose to use the infrastructure and the data. And there's nothing here for us but empty promises and overly elaborate scales over our eyes.