By Molly Roberts
Welcome to the metaverse.
That sentence may sound like the beginning of a techno-dystopian film — a jargony jumble of words fit only for science fiction. And yet in Silicon Valley C-Suites it’s very real: The movers and shakers of the Internet are planning for a future in which the digital and the physical are inextricably intertwined in an all-encompassing virtual reality that allows all of us to exist together, whenever and wherever. Hence, the metaverse.
The thing is, at least half the population will probably never understand it. That says a lot about where we’re coming from — and where we’re going.
The concept of the metaverse came into being before most people had ever sent an email: The writer Neal Stephenson coined the term in his 1992 novel “Snow Crash,” but any sci-fi nerd will recognize the notion in “Ready Player One,” where a whole other world is accessible within our screens, as full as the one we live in away from them. Any normie will recognize the same thing in “The Matrix.”
Recently, though, a newer version of the metaverse has entered venture capital vogue. Don’t believe me? Mark Zuckerberg said he wanted to help build it just last week.
This metaverse-to-be, explain its evangelists, is not just a “virtual world” or a virtual reality, or economy or theme park or space — and it’s certainly not just a game. No, the metaverse is more than that, because it will include infinite theme parks and spaces, and because all of those will integrate into a cohesive experience that serves not just a single purpose or human need but all of them. Remarkably, the essayist credited with reinvigorating the metaverse obsession chooses as the best metaphor … the Book of Genesis.
The easiest way, maybe, to think about the metaverse isn’t in the abstract but rather as a bunch of hypotheticals: Epic Games already let you buy Air Jordan 1s as part of a skin for your “Fortnite” avatar — and you could conceivably wear them to a battle royale in the morning before showing them off at an Ariana Grande concert in the evening. Now, say you could show up to an island in Nintendo’s “Animal Crossing” in the same attire.
Okay, now say you could show up to work in your Web-gotten costume, and head off after to a group fitness class. Say you could even give your clothes away to a friend on Twitter, or trade them for an artistic opus in non-fungible token form. You would carry your data, your possessions and yourself with you from place to place and platform to platform — sometimes in 3-D, sometimes in today’s 2-D, sometimes with the aid of virtual reality helmets or augmented-reality glasses, and sometimes with only our eyes.
Maybe this intuitively makes sense to you. Maybe it makes no sense at all.
A lot of people who grew up without the Internet view it, essentially, as a utility: something that enables experiences by helping them to, say, plan a picnic or reserve a ticket to a Bruce Springsteen show or buy a blender. They don’t view it as a place that provides experiences in themselves. Even social media sites, for these folks, exist merely to offer insight into the offline lives of those they care about — a way, every day, to get 1,000 Christmas cards.
A lot of people who grew up with the Internet view it as a place that does provide experiences. Yet they also view it as a place apart from the offline realm, a supplement to what happens when we close our laptops or put down our smartphones — which is the stuff that counts. Why else refer, as gamers and chat room occupants of old, to “IRL”: in real life?
More and more people, however, grew up not only with the Internet but on the Internet. Sometimes they interact with folks they know IRL the same way they interact with folks they don’t — and they talk to the folks they do know IRL as much online as they do off it. They’re in the digital world at one moment, in the physical one the next and in both at the same time. The Internet can’t be separated from real life. The Internet is real life.
So the value of a metaverse with all the trappings the rest of us associate with, well, the literal universe seems obvious: bridging two spaces between which we’re already constantly moving, and making them look even more alike. All this is more possibility than probability at this point — yet those with the most sway over our technological tomorrow are intensely devoted to an idea entirely unintelligible to the inhabitants of an analog past. Our minds have been transformed.
The metaverse, stressed Zuckerberg in an interview last week, will help us feel “present with other people” — to which many might reply that the way to feel present with other people is to be present with other people. They mean actually, physically, literally within reach. Those who live life online already might ask what the difference is.
- Ms Roberts is editorial writer with Washington Post.