Have you heard of the metaverse? In April 2021, Fortnite maker Epic Games announced a funding round of one billion US dollars. According to company CEO Tim Sweeney, the money will be used to implement the company’s long-term vision of such a “parallel universe”. A few months later, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg also told investors that the social media giant would become a “Metaverse” company in the future. And Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has also announced that his company wants to build an “enterprise metaverse”.
Where does the term "metaverse" come from?
The term was first used in the science fiction novel “Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson, published in 1991. In it, the author describes the metaverse as a kind of global virtual reality in which people walk around as avatars. The whole thing is somewhat reminiscent of today’s massively multiplayer online role-playing games. Only there is no game, no high score, no set goal. Rather, the Metaverse is structured as a digital alternative to the physical world.
What does Silicon Valley hope to gain?
If you want to understand what Zuckerberg and Sweeney expect from the metaverse, you have to read the writings of venture capitalist Matthew Ball. Ball’s 2020 essay “The Metaverse: What It Is, Where to Find It, Who Will Build It, and Fortnite,” received high praise from both company leaders and was even made required reading for employees at Meta, according to media reports. While the text states that “the full vision for the Metaverse remains elusive, fantastical and decades away,” Ball nonetheless defines seven core attributes in his essay:
1. the Metaverse can never be ended or paused. It is always ongoing.
2. it is live. It is true that in the Metaverse, as in the real world, events run for a limited time. However, the metaverse as a whole takes place in real time.
3. there is no upper limit for the number of participants.
4. the metaverse has its own economy. Companies and individuals can invest, buy, sell, and get paid for work within the Metaverse.
5. the metaverse includes the digital world as well as the physical world. There are also open and closed platforms within the Metaverse.
6. digital objects are interchangeable within the metaverse. As an example, he cites objects from video games that can now only be used in that particular game. In the metaverse, however, there is always the possibility of using these objects in another context, according to Ball.
7 The metaverse is full of content and “experiences” created by individuals, private groups or companies.
How does the Metaverse differ from today's Internet?
Ball expects the Metaverse to generate even more revenue than the Web already does today. “The value of being a major participant, if not a driving force, of such a system is obvious – there is no ‘owner’ of the Internet today, but almost all of the leading Internet companies are among the 10 most valuable public companies in the world,” Ball said. It’s likely this forecast that is driving Zuckerberg and Sweeney to invest in the space so early. After all, just as Internet corporations have been able to knock many traditional companies off their thrones, future success could lead to “many top dogs falling” – at least if Ball is right.
A dystopia with good marketing
The fact that the Silicon Valley elite has agreed on the term is remarkable in that the future described in the novel “Snow Crash” is not actually desirable. The fictional novel world is ruled by large corporations and organized crime. Digital currencies prevent adequate taxation and the state is largely irrelevant. People can opt out of the metaverse described in the book, but the physical world is predominantly one of poverty outside of gated housing complexes for the upper class. In addition, the book also describes people who never opt out of the metaverse and become completely dysfunctional as a result.
Clearly, Stephenson has not imagined a nice place to live. But, of course, this is ultimately true of William Gibson’s novels as well, and yet the cyberspace term has caught on. Whether Metaverse becomes as commonplace a term also depends on how quickly technology can keep up with the visions of Ball, Zuckerberg, Sweeney and Nadella. Especially since Ball acknowledges that countless technologies still need to be developed to create the Metaverse. However, the investor doesn’t believe there is a clear point in time when it really comes into existence. “It will slowly emerge over time as different products, services and capabilities are integrated and merge.”
Ball compares the path to the transition to the mobile age. While the real breakthrough for this didn’t come until the iPhone, the Blackberry had been around for ten years before that, and a mobile version of the Web had been around for eight years with WAP. But it wasn’t until the introduction of the iPhone 3G and the App Store that the whole thing really became suitable for the masses. Just as this development has changed almost every industry in some way over the past 20 years, Ball believes the Metaverse will drive an ever greater transformation process over time, “changing the role of computers and the Internet in our lives.”