Mark Zuckerberg’s keynote speech at Connect 2021 beamed the term METAVERSE into the mainstream, but – sorry Mark – the metaverse is definitely NOT your idea!
The word was first coined in the early 1990s and the notion of an immersive digital reality separate from the physical world can be traced back to early 1980s video games.
Since the late 1970s, those belonging to the technology community have imagined the internet and its futuristic successor – which is a conglomeration of all the digital worlds and objects built across the decades. Now, in 2021, the metaverse is finally coming into its own.
In many ways, Facebook and its competitors aren’t building or inventing the metaverse – they are discovering it, some say they are monopolizing it and I think this is true!
Early roots of the Metaverse
The word Metaverse derives from the Greek term Meta and the English word universe. Meta in Greek is popularly used as a prefix to mean after or beyond, a use that continues on in the English language. Terminology like metadata or metaphysics refer to something more than data or physics.
The first recorded use of the word metaverse is in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel, “Snow Crash”
Set in the early 21st century, “Snow Crash” imagines a dystopian future: The global economy has collapsed, and federal governments have lost most of their power to a handful of giant corporations. Given the dominance of internet giants like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and other large multinationals it is astonishing how precisely Neal Stephenson predicted today´s world in 1992!
Some ‘metaverse’ elements already exist
The metaverse is an escape, and the novel’s main character Hiro, a nearly broke computer hacker and pizza delivery driver spends much of his time there. He accesses the metaverse by wearing goggles and “earphones,” and appears within the digital world as his own customized avatar.
Once there, avatars can stroll down a single wide street, tens of thousands of miles long, and home to amusement parks, shops, offices, and entertainment complexes. People with lesser means often use public terminals to access the metaverse and are generally looked down upon by users with superior technology.
And actions in the metaverse can have severe consequences: Much of the plot revolves around the protagonist trying to stop a computer virus that causes metaverse users to suffer real-world brain damage.
Virtual avatars also exist: They’ve been in video games for decades, and users of large online communities like Roblox, Microsoft’s “Minecraft” or Epic Games’ “Fortnite” are well accustomed to exploring virtual worlds with avatars.
People spend billions of dollars each year on digital clothing and accessories for their avatars. That willingness to spend could be a key monetization factor for companies like Meta.
“Being able to basically have your digital goods and your inventory and bring them from place to place, that’s going to be a big investment that people make,” Zuckerberg said on an earnings call in July.
The metaverse in “Snow Crash” features an encrypted electronic currency, similar to today’s cryptocurrencies. And the novel explores the idea of spending real money on virtual real estate, which is already playing out on blockchain-enabled virtual reality platforms like Decentraland and The Sandbox, CNBC’s “Fast Money” noted in March.
Even if the idea fully catches on, it will undoubtedly take some time before millions of users are regularly exploring metaverses.
Even Zuckerberg preaches caution. Meta could need “to invest many billions of dollars for years to come before the metaverse reaches scale,” he said at the Facebook Connect conference in early December 2021, his company’s augmented and virtual reality conference.
Such technology could make future metaverses extremely addictive — one of the major flaws in Stephenson’s imagined world. In “Snow Crash,” some characters develop unhealthy addictions to the virtual world, never disconnecting and avoiding reality at all costs.
Further complicating matters, Meta already faces an ongoing wave of criticism over the negative effects of its social media platforms, like Facebook and Instagram, on its users’ mental health.
Predictably, Zuckerberg seems undeterred.
“Obviously, the book has this whole environment around [metaverses] that’s sort of negative,” he told The Verge, when asked about the influence of “Snow Crash” on Meta’s vision of the metaverse. “But I don’t think it has to be that way.”. Well, in the hands of Facebook, the Metaverse would most likely beneficial to, guess…Facebook, …oh…Meta I mean.