Rebranded Facebook’s proclaimed new focus on something called the Metaverse is fascinating because, unlike its other products, the concept seems psychologically unappealing and even likely to fail – except as a twist to the oldest profession.
Ever from the lofty heights of Start-Up Nation, a certain caution is advisable with tech prognostications. Most of us are so awed by technology’s scrambling of everything that we lean toward passivity as our lives and businesses are upended in waves.
With tech-related companies accounting for nearly 40% of the valuation of the S&P 500, there is a sense that they must know what they are doing. The innovations of recent decades are so logical and intuitive, yet the sages of tech were first to think them up. And once they did, the value was so obvious that adoption was on a planetary scale.
Consider how clearly this applies to the specific innovations below:
The web: The Internet is the original virtue (or sin), enabling one computer to connect to another far away, exchanging data. It eliminated the need for physical proximity for many of the use-cases of the human experience. This won’t kill bars or brothels, but the rest is up for grabs.
Email: Even before the web, certain industries and universities became linked in networks that enabled the sharing of files. It is a short path to sending letters instantaneously and with no need to fold papers, lick stamps or wait days. People exposed to it (including me, as a 1980s computer science undergrad at Penn) knew snail mail would be dead.
Flat screens: They were possible since the 1960s but only became widely visible with the spread of certain laptops (journalists often used the Tandy model sold at Radio Shack) two decades later. Those who used them then knew: it would soon be sayonara to the boxy, flickering TV.
Mobile phones: Why connect phones by a cable to a wall? The idea becomes absurd once you have walkie-talkies with range. Despite some strange early resistance in the United States, this was pretty clear by the early 1990s.
E-commerce: Instead of searching shelves for a hard-to-find edition, online stores can have everything ever published, let you read bits and enable user reviews. The economics may have caused Amazon some delays en route to profitability, but for the consumer, since the late 1990s, it was a no-brainer.
Smartphones: If you’re going to carry a phone with a flat-screen and processor, and the Internet exists, then why should it be just a phone? The usefulness of what’s possible was staggeringly obvious since the moment Steve Jobs presented the iPhone in 2007.
Social Media: Facebook gives you a personal news service to your friends; Twitter lets you send the world a searchable text; Instagram makes a global art gallery of your photo album; LinkedIn transforms resumes into public, mega-linkable yielders of professional relationship maps. It probably takes a genius to come up with these things – but not to identify the utility.
Streaming: Online audio-on-demand was widely possible since the late 1990s (Napster; torrents) but it so undermined the music industry that fusses ensued. With broadband and an adjusted business model, this extended to video and became legal. The 2013 release of House of Cards by Netflix made it clear: there’s no reason to be a slave to schedules anymore.
Virtual meetings: The modern economy connects workers from anywhere on the globe; you cannot congregate them all in an office. Nor is it needed when we have synchronous video calls. Offices are good for team-building and some tasks, but demand for them will collapse. COVID is just the accelerator.
All these developments were useful in immediately apparent ways (less apparent was the coming damage: the trashing of journalism; the amplification of dangerous lies; the exacerbating of humanity’s obsession with appearance).
Moreover, the network effect – whereby a service becomes better the more people use it – created an array of niche monopolies.
Now ask yourself whether you need to replicate our existing universe as a 3-D cartoon while wearing a headset. That is, essentially, Mark Zuckerberg’s Metaverse.
It may be useful for gaming – a huge business to be sure.
Mainly it has limitless potential related to sex – an area in which the real universe comes up short for many people (observe what this did to Tumblr, OnlyFans and even Instagram). Consider the failure of Second Life, an early version of what Facebook, rebranded as Meta, is trying to develop: its biggest success about a decade ago was probably the thriving kink scene in its virtual rooms.
Note the disappointing adoption of both virtual reality and 3D television. Most buyers of 3D TVs regretted the purchase about a decade ago, when there was a drive to market them. Analyses tended to focus on implementation – clunky glasses, extra costs – but the demand for the content itself was not there.
These failures are all related, and the reason is psychological. A 3D experience takes over your consciousness and invades your personal space; it literally cannot be kept at arm’s length. Even though many people turn to drugs to willfully lose control, most like their media and art experiences to be controllable. To be enjoyed, most art needs to be contained and contemplated. A 3D universe that takes over your brain may be immersive, but then again, a torture chamber is immersive.
Unlike Facebook, we do not need the Metaverse.
Some view Facebook’s rebranding as a ploy to draw attention away from its civilization-damaging algorithm embarrassments. But with the Metaverse gambit, one wonders whether the company is hoping to fail: to get the regulators off its back while its real business continues to dominate the planet like a digital Godzilla.
The writer, a technologist by education, is chief strategy officer at the digital engagement firm Engageya and managing partner of Thunder11, a communications firm with a tech specialization. Before that he was the top editor for the Associated Press in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. In the 1980s, he was among the first to develop and market multilingual words processors for personal computers.