The always-future revolution: on Matthew Ball’s The Metaverse

Silicon Valley loves the boom-and-bust cycle. The entire infrastructure of the industry is set up around identifying a new technology or even a seemingly novel implementation, getting the media to whip up some hype to make everyone believe it’s the next big thing, and pushing investors to pile money into a bunch of companies claiming they’ll be the one to corner the market, until it all collapses and the cycle begins once again—but not before some people at the top have found a way to make a return on their investments.

Remember when the internet of things was going to hook virtually everything up to the internet so it could be constantly tracked, or when all our cities were going to become ‘smart’, with every one of their systems algorithmically managed? Or how about when all our jobs—from truck drivers to baristas—were going to be replaced by advanced computers or robots, the same ones that were also going to start driving our cars? They’re just a few of the many big claims of the tech industry that didn’t work out anything like they led us to believe.

We’re now in the midst of a new cycle in which tools like ChatGPT and Midjourney are going to upend virtually every facet of our lives—or at least that’s what the companies behind them want us to believe. But just before generative AI took centre stage, we were being sold another set of futures. On one hand, the global financial system was going to be driven into the ground and replaced with cryptocurrencies; on the other, tech companies were going to create a virtual environment called the metaverse where users would be able to play games, sell things, and … go to the office.

It’s that latter of these visions that Matthew Ball makes the case for in The Metaverse: And How It Will Revolutionize Everything. In the book, Ball lays out a history of video games and the internet designed to position the metaverse as the natural outcome of decades of development, while acknowledging the work that remains to be done if that future is to be realised. In the process he makes the case to the industry and investors to get behind the metaverse as a concept and business opportunity, while trying to assure a general readership that it won’t be the dystopian environment it’s made out to be in the science fiction that inspired it—because we still have the power to shape its development.

The metaverse is a nebulous concept and Ball’s definition is expansive to capture many potential forms it could take. He calls it

a massively scaled and interoperable network of real-time rendered 3D virtual worlds that can be experienced synchronously and persistently by an effectively unlimited number of users with an individual sense of presence, and with continuity of data, such as identity, history, entitlements, objects, communications, and payments.

These 3D worlds could be anything from virtual environments experienced through a VR headset to a digital layer on top of the physical world that you interact with through your smartphone or some future smart glasses—if they can ever be realised. The companies in the space want you to believe they’ll all cooperate with one another so everyone can prosper. You will be able to control your data and any virtual goods you buy will be able to be transferred between the different worlds and experiences of the metaverse.

It might be easier to think about the metaverse in terms of how the major players are positioning it. While the company formerly known as Facebook has a broad vision, Mark Zuckerberg tends to talk about it through the lens of virtual reality: you’ll slap on a Meta Quest headset, and that will give you access to your virtual home, games, social experiences, and a workspace. Microsoft acknowledges its game applications via Xbox, but usually talks about it as a work tool: it has integrated ‘metaverse’ features into applications like Teams and has partnered with companies like Accenture to move meetings and training into virtual spaces. Finally, for Epic Games, the metaverse is an extension of Fortnite: access the 3D environment through whatever screen works for you (it doesn’t have to be a VR headset) and extend the experience by making your own worlds—but whatever you do, make sure to buy some virtual goods.

According to Ball, these 3D worlds open up a whole new plane of existence—and of economic opportunity. He writes that these worlds are essential ‘to make possible the transition of human culture and labor from the physical world to the digital one.’ But who is really asking for a transition from the physical to digital world in the way he imagines it? People enjoy playing VR games, there’s a niche community that hangs out in applications like VRChat, and these technologies have some commercial applications. But are people really demanding for more aspects of our lives to shift into virtual worlds that force us to spend even more time in front of (or inside) our screens? I’m not so sure.

The argument made by Ball is that new technologies from headsets to gloves to full bodysuits will enable us to feel like we’re really experiencing these worlds instead of just peering into them from afar—and that’s what will make people more open to spending more time interacting with virtual people instead of physical ones. Beyond the obvious use for video games and socialising, he discusses educational applications that would see learning shift into virtual environments, and predicts that even labour will be able to be able to be carried out virtually by using technologies from offshore ‘Metaverse call centers’.

While these can be cast as positive developments, the real outcome would be the deskilling and devaluing of teaching as a profession—something the tech industry has been heavily invested in for years through their charter school advocacy and other tech solutions—and setting up factories of poorly paid workers in the Global South plugged into VR tech for ten to twelve hours a day, making the dystopian world of the 2008 Mexican science fiction film Sleep Dealer a reality. And that’s without mentioning the increased potential for surveillance, something Ball acknowledges even as he positively describes a scenario where people could be banned across the entire metaverse—locking them out of this entire secondary world which he imagines will become essential to human commerce and existence.

Rather than offering a hopeful future, the industry’s excitement about the metaverse is the product of the pandemic. Some were toying with the idea long before 2020, but once billions of people had their movement constrained to minimise the spread of a deadly virus, the tech industry reaped the rewards. As our screen time spiked and more of our lives were mediated through tech platforms, tech companies’ revenues and profits soared, showing how they’re financially incentivised to maximize the time we spend actively engaged with what happens on our screens.

The metaverse hype peaked in the latter half of 2021, when Mark Zuckerberg renamed his company Meta, committed to hiring 10,000 workers in the European Union to build the metaverse, and made a $10 billion investment in the work that year alone. In the months that followed, plenty of companies made metaverse commitments of their own.

However, interest in the metaverse has waned as people have re-emerged from lockdowns. When it was time for an update, in 2022, the biggest headline from Meta’s showcase was everyone laughing at the promise that avatars would soon have legs. Around the same time, the crypto metaverse Decentraland was revealed to have just thirty-eight daily active users. Meta’s share price plummeted through 2022, and the company is in the process of cutting 21,000 workers, while it’s unclear if the 10,000 metaverse workers in the EU were ever hired. Having entered a ‘year of efficiency,’ Meta is following the herd and making ‘advancing AI and building it into every one of our products’ its biggest investment priority. Other major companies have also been pulling back from their metaverse plans.

In fairness, Ball admits there are challenges to realising the potential of the metaverse. The final chapters of the book feel like a break from his earlier optimism, possibly resulting from a shift in the industry narrative as publication neared. For example, in Chapter 8 Ball writes that crypto, NFTs, and blockchains are ‘likely to play a foundational role in our virtual future’—yet by the book’s conclusion he admits that blockchains ‘still have a fairly limited track record of success.’ It’s part of a much more honest assessment of where this is all likely to go—if it goes anywhere.

After all the talk of our power to shape the coming metaverse and the benefits of interoperability, Ball acknowledges the structure of the metaverse is ‘likely to be similar to those we see today—a handful of horizontally and vertically integrated companies will control a substantial share of the digital economy, with their influence even greater.’ Think of Epic Games, which has been challenging Apple’s power over its operating systems by forcing developers to use its own App Store. While Epic’s CEO Tim Sweeney frames himself as being on the side of creators, he also admits the company’s goal is to be ‘the leading service provider in every area, including the engine space, server hosting, asset marketplace, and first-party experiences.’ In short, he wants to break one monopolist’s power so his company can step in to take its place—and reap the associated profits.

Realising the metaverse has a whole range of hurdles. The amount of computing power, energy, and hardware that would be necessary to run all these 3D worlds would be immense, at a time when concern over data center construction is growing around the world. Meanwhile, porting virtual goods between worlds would require a level of standardisation that simply does not exist. It would significantly constrain the visual styles that developers could use when making games and experiences—and it’s not clear users or developers care to make that trade-off. And that’s not to mention the core problem: if people want to spend even more time not just looking at screens, but hooked into a set of technologies striving to achieve the ‘presence’ that Ball deems to be essential to wider adoption.

Ultimately, the story of the metaverse is the story of the tech industry. Executives and investors responded to a particular set of circumstances with a big idea: to increase screen time and fuel a wave of hype and investment in the hope of creating a new digital world to colonise and commercialise. But as much as some might still cling to that vision, it’s hard to deny the public isn’t along for the ride. Whatever impact the metaverse is likely to have, it will be much more marginal than companies predicted just a couple years ago.

Months before Zuckerberg’s big announcement in October 2021, Dave Karpf explained that virtual reality was the ‘rich white kid of technology‘: no matter how many times it failed to live up to expectations, it would always get another chance and more investment. Just as the VR hype has come and gone multiple times in the past, the metaverse looks to be following the same trend. I wonder how long until it rears its head with another set of inflated promises for how it will forever transform society.

Paris Marx

Paris Marx is a Canadian tech critic and host of Tech Won’t Save Us. He writes the Disconnect newsletter and is the author of Road to Nowhere: What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong about the Future of Transportation.

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