From “The Daily” newsletter: One big idea on the news, from the team that brings you “The Daily” podcast. You can sign up for the newsletter here.
Google the word metaverse.
About 51 million results appear. Headlines announcing state-backed metaverse investments worth billions of dollars pop up, too. And next to all that, in Google’s description for the search term? “Fictional world.”
The algorithm is right. The metaverse doesn’t yet exist, beyond rudimentary versions in games. But that hasn’t stopped platform companies, including Google itself, from betting big that it will exist soon. These investments are dealing in speculation, banking on the prospect of an enormous, functional and interoperable virtual world where tech C.E.O.s promise we will soon work, shop and socialize as digital avatars. The pitch is essentially a technologically improved, personalized version of The Sims.
The problem is, the metaverse can’t be manifested with just wishful Silicon Valley thinking. While much of our lives have already shifted online during the pandemic, making those experiences truly immersive at scale is a knotty challenge. The metaverse is currently stalled by a lack of infrastructure (the hardware and software aren’t ready yet), a monopolistic approach to platform development (the metaverse is likely to require more openness and collaboration) and a lack of clear governance standards (some experts want to avoid reinscribing the pitfalls of social media).
So without a functional product, we wanted to know, what’s with all the hype and the headlines? Is the metaverse just marketing, as our tech columnist Kevin Roose asked?
Meta déjà vu
If this moment feels familiar, that’s because it is: A fictive metaverse future has been floated since the early 1990s by authors and technologists dreaming of an era when our virtual lives would be as important as our physical realities.
For the last few decades, the idea has remained fringe. But slowly, it has seeped into the collective consciousness.
The growing popularity of gaming helped introduce the idea of a digital second life to the general public, allowing people to have immersive social experiences in digital worlds. New technology, including virtual reality headsets, facilitated these experiences, and movies like “Ready Player One” helped viewers imagine the possibility of a metaverse.
When “Ready Player One” came out in 2018, the metaverse still felt like a distant, potentially dystopian possibility. Then the pandemic accelerated the digitization of nearly everything, including schooling, working, socializing and exercising. Now, one poll estimates that at the current level of technological consumption, the average American will spend up to 44 years of his or her life staring at a screen.
“These things that were very fringe and dismissed as kind of a crazy thing or ridiculed or ignored — now suddenly, at some point, they just start to seem like common sense,” said Nick Bostrom, the Oxford University philosopher best known for developing simulation theory.
Marketing and the metaverse
As the prospect of the metaverse has been dawning, slowly, on the general public, technology companies have been competing behind the scenes to realize it for years. Platform companies have been quietly racing to develop their own version of the metaverse, specifically by acquiring companies with useful hardware assets.
Facebook first bought Oculus, the VR gaming company, in 2014. Five years later, the company acquired CTRL-Labs, which developed a wristband capable of transmitting electrical signals from the brain to a computer. Then, amid a public relations crisis late last year, Facebook announced it would rebrand itself, renaming its parent company Meta, with some critics wondering whether the name change was just a strategic marketing move.
Matthew Ball, an expert on the metaverse, is less cynical about the name change. “I think it is significant, less as a marketing term and more as a signal,” he said. “I don’t really think it’s marketing because marketing is primarily oriented toward a product that’s available for sale,” which he argues the metaverse isn’t — yet.
If the brand shift was a signal intended to set trends, establish ambitions and allocate resources, it worked. Soon after the Meta announcement, Microsoft placed a major bet that people would be spending more and more time in the digital world, with its $70 billion purchase of Activision Blizzard, a social gaming company. Apple is reportedly developing its own consumer VR headset.
Now, founders, investors, futurists and executives are all trying to stake their claim in the metaverse, expounding on its potential for social connection, experimentation, entertainment and, crucially, profit.
The threats and opportunities of transition
Even if the metaverse envisioned by Mark Zuckerberg does not come to fruition by 2026, some argue a more immersive digital future is inevitable.
Mr. Bostrom expects that technological developments, such as “more realistic computer graphics” and advances in artificial intelligence, will continue to incentivize user engagement with immersive digital realities. “I think that’s what’s ultimately going to normalize it,” he said.
And while the metaverse is largely hypothetical, experts argue that now is the moment for the public to focus on another speculative prospect: what standards they might want to govern the next digital transition. According to Mr. Bostrom, this moment presents an opportunity for the public to consider “the future of humanity and existential risks and how new technologies might change the human condition.”
This is a question few were asking in the early 2000s. “We’re 15 years into the social media era,” Mr. Ball, the metaverse expert, said, “and there are a lot of problems from exactly that transition which remain unsolved. Data rights, data security, data understanding, radicalization, disinformation, platform power, platform regulation, unhappiness.” Without strategic reforms, he added, “those problems will become harder” in the future.
Specifically, many experts are concerned about the heightened prospect that misinformation will appear real in the metaverse, the omnipotence of companies controlling this new reality and the bias and surveillance concerns of a superintelligent A.I. tracking users every move.
But Mr. Ball believes any moment of transition also creates an opening for reform. “Every single time that we have these platform shifts, the dominant companies tend to change,” he said. “The fact that the companies can change means that we, as consumers, as voters and users, have an opportunity to affect that shift.”
What does love sound like to you?
“When you were around 16, what was the song that taught you about love?” Anna Martin, the new host of the “Modern Love” podcast, asks on the season premiere this week.
The episode is all about teenage love. “When you’re a teenager, you have a lot of feelings — it comes with the territory,” Anna explains. “You put on your headphones, and you sink into a song about heartbreak and loneliness and longing and love.”
What Is the Metaverse, and Why Does It Matter?
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The origins. The word “metaverse” describes a fully realized digital world that exists beyond the one in which we live. It was coined by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel “Snow Crash,” and the concept was further explored by Ernest Cline in his novel “Ready Player One.”
For Lisa Selin Davis, author of the essay “What Lou Reed Taught Me About Love,” the song “I’ll Be Your Mirror” became the soundtrack to her summer romance in the ’80s with a floppy-haired “rocker kid” who inadvertently helped her find healing.
Isabelia Herrera, an arts critic fellow at The Times, recalls how “Irreplaceable” by Beyoncé came out right before her quinceañera — a milestone in her womanhood. “I knew that I was going to go onto the dance floor and scream the lyrics by myself, and I just hoped that people would follow me,” Isabelia said. She hadn’t been in love yet, but the song became “a blueprint to kind of remember who I am and the power that I have, even in a relationship that makes you feel like you might not have anything.”
If the episode sparks a memory of a song from your teenage years, you can share it with the podcast team. Tune in every Wednesday for a new episode of Modern Love.