Dossier 13: The Metaverse

Introduction

The metaverse is having its cultural moment. In a video published in April 2021, Paris Hilton talked about her love of NFTs and her excitement about the metaverse, and it’s taken off since then. Both Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella think that the successor to the mobile internet will be the ‘metaverse’. The concept of the metaverse was coined in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 science fiction novel Snow Crash. In the novel, humans, as avatars, interact with each other and software agents, in a three-dimensional virtual space that uses the metaphor of the real world as its setting.

While the concept of the metaverse dates back to the early 90s, the term gained a lot of traction and growth during the pandemic. In a New York Times piece about the metaverse, John Herrman and Kellen Browning write that “as a buzzword, the metaverse refers to a variety of virtual experiences, environments and assets that gained momentum during the online-everything shift of the pandemic. Together, these new technologies hint at what the internet will become next.” Most often used to describe the concept of a future iteration of the internet that is made up of persistent, shared, 3D virtual spaces linked into a perceived virtual universe, the metaverse is still only a concept. While many game environments today resemble the metaverse, none of them are persistent (yet), which means that the environment is always present and never resets, pauses, or ends. 

The fact that the metaverse is ‘not here yet’ and still coming into being, makes it a space that is open for many possibilities, but also for being captured and branded by Big Tech (hi, Meta👋). With over $13 billion being poured into VR development by Meta, jokes were circulating about the legless torsos that populated Meta’s low-quality universe in the metaverse, Horizon Worlds. In our current state of tech, it may be the case that the metaverse will work better for more people if it looks worse, but there is also a strategic angle here. Meta wants to pull users into the platform as soon as possible and it seems that their ambition for VR is, as Siva Vaidhyanathan writes, to “monitor, monetize, and manage everything about our lives.

The definitions of what the metaverse is are always shifting, from the move to understanding a game like Roblox as ‘a metaverse’ (as opposed to ‘the metaverse’) to ‘metaverses’, ‘multiverses’, and even a ‘hybrid-verse‘. In his essay about the metaverse, Matthew Ball writes that “what’s important is to recognize the Metaverse isn’t a game, a piece of hardware, or an online experience. This is like saying that World of Warcraft, the iPhone, or Google is the Internet. They are digital worlds, devices, services, websites, etc. The Internet is a wide set of protocols, technology, tubes and languages, plus access devices and content and communication experiences atop them. Metaverse will be too.)” This perspective opens up space for those that argue that AR, not VR, will inherit the earth—with a ‘virtual metaverse’ in VR environments and an ‘augmented metaverse’ that merges real and virtual worlds into a single immersive and unified reality.

While the internet came out of public research universities and US government programs, the metaverse will most likely be developed by commercial platforms and companies, so it is crucial that we think carefully about the kind of world (or worlds) that we want to bring into being. Will they be open, privacy-secure, and decentralised? Or will the metaverse become just become another, even more embedded, way for companies to extract our data and sell it back in the form of advertising? Makers are already responding to these questions: Decentraland is a virtual world owned by its users; Vircadia is an open source engine to build virtual worlds; and Moving Castles resists the monolithic metaverse in favour of small, fragmented and yet cohesive online world-communities, organised and interconnected in a network of Castles.

With the metaverse slated to span social presence, labour, and entertainment, it’s no surprise that it will open up similar questions around governance, privacy, ownership, and ethics that we are grappling with today. As Casey Newton writes, “a thriving metaverse would raise questions both familiar and strange about how the virtual space is governed, how its contents would be moderated, and what its existence would do to our shared sense of reality. We’re still getting our arms wrapped around the two-dimensional version of social platforms; wrangling the 3D version could be exponentially harder.” When journalist Kashmir Hill spent 24 hours in the metaverse as an animated, floating, legless version of herself, she noted that the metaverse is a new frontier for trolling. So is the metaverse, as Dr.Courtney Cogburn asks, doomed to perpetuate real-world racial and social inequalities? Or can it open up possibilities to be a more equitable place?

In this dossier, which will unfold over the next two months, we will be sharing our foray into the metaverse and its many facets and tangents. Margarita Osipian interviews Marina Otero Verzier about her research on architectures to host the metaverse—looking at data storage infrastructures on a global scale—and how we can reimagine the metaverse, it’s architectural underpinnings, and it’s potentialities. Sjef van Beers speaks with Babusi Nyoni about building a decentralised African metaverse. Margarita Osipian’s essay puts into question who asked for the metaverse anyways. Well be sharing a glossary unpacking all the metaverse-esque terminology in our digital vocabulary, and much more.