Talking about the metaverse is all the rage. That’s because numerous pundits believe the metaverse is the next big thing. As most people are aware, Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, is so convinced the metaverse represents the future, he changed the name of his company to Meta. He’s even started calling his employees “metamates.” The term “metaverse” was coined in the 1992 science fiction novel Snow Crash, written by American science fiction writer Neal Stephenson. It is a portmanteau of “meta” and “universe.” Most people understand the term “universe,” but they are less familiar with the formal definition of “meta.” According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, meta means “showing or suggesting an explicit awareness of itself or oneself as a member of its category: cleverly self-referential.” Since Stephenson first introduced the term “metaverse,” it has become synonymous with virtual reality worlds.
It is interesting to note that the fictional world into which Stephenson introduced the term was a dystopian world that emerged after a global economic collapse. One might well wonder what would attract large companies to use a term associated with a dystopian scenario. In the book, countries and national governments are overshadowed by Franchise-Organized Quasi-National Entities (FOQNEs) controlled by big business franchises. Sound familiar? Today, big businesses, like Meta, are battling to lay claim to large chunks of the metaverse.
Defining the Metaverse
Radio host Audie Cornish (@AudieCornish) asked Vishal Shah (@vishalshahis), Vice President of Metaverse at Meta, “Does the company want the Metaverse to be a walled garden, an economy under its control?” Shah’s simple answer was, “No.” He didn’t think such a thing was even possible. Cornish continued to press him. She likened the metaverse to a mall. She said, “There are lots of different stores in the mall. They compete with each other, but someone owns the mall. It sounds like Meta will own the mall. Am I getting that right?” Shah replied, “Well, if we get this right, then there might be an infinite number of malls that might all contribute in different ways. … In fact, I hope we aren’t the mall builder because there will be someone who creates a really amazing mall world. We want to build the underlying infrastructure that helps people build those malls.” Cornish replied, “And that’s a pretty big land grab, right? Like that saying you own the city, you own the streets, right?” Shah tried deflecting that question by observing that analogies to the physical world in the virtual space are deceptive at best and inaccurate at worst.
Skeptics, who believe the metaverse is being overhyped, note that the metaverse primarily belongs to the realm of video games. Proponents of the metaverse, however, have a much grander vision. According to CNBC, “the metaverse is a digital world created using different technologies like Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), cryptocurrency, and the Internet.” Journalists Jess Yarmosky (@yarmosky) and Meghna Chakrabarti (@MeghnaWBUR) write, “The next iteration of the internet could be a vast, three-dimensional digital frontier that looks a lot like real life. Tech experts say the metaverse is coming — and fast.” Mark van Rijmenam (@VanRijmenam), founder of Datafloq, predicts, “Before the end of this decade, we will have converted the mobile, or social internet, to an immersive, omnipresent, persistent internet, where magic seems to happen constantly. As such, the metaverse will usher in a new age; the Imagination Age.” Van Rijmenam agrees with Shah that no single company can either build or control the metaverse. “Any company claiming that they are building a metaverse,” van Rijmenam insists, “is akin to companies claiming they are building an internet.”
The Metaverse and the Future
There have been a number of films depicting a future in which people spend most, if not all, of their lives in the metaverse. In films like “The Matrix,” humans have no life outside of the metaverse. In films like “Ready Player One,” people are addicted to a metaverse controlled by a single, large business enterprise. The metaverse, in most of these films, is characterized by an enormous dark side. Businesses, however, are betting there is an even greater bright side. Depending on your point of view, van Rijmenam’s description can be either exciting or frightening. He writes, “The metaverse will be the convergence of the physical and the digital world where all of our data — such as identity, personality, reputation, and assets, but also the entire history, feeling, and/or emotion of any (virtual or physical) place, organization or thing — can be interacted with, controlled and experienced in entirely novel ways so that people, and things, can create new, magical, experiences, interactions, and environments.”
Most pundits, including Meta’s Shah, believe the metaverse described by van Rijmenam is “five, 10, 15 [or more] years out into the future.” Others, like journalist Todd Wasserman, wonder if it will ever develop beyond video games and video conferencing. He writes, “My prediction is that over the next decade, videoconferencing will improve to the point in which we’ll log into virtual spaces so realistic that they’ll ‘seem as if we’re physically in the same room,’ according to The Wall Street Journal. This jibes with Bill Gates’ prediction that ‘most virtual meetings will move from 2D camera image grids to the metaverse, a 3D space with digital avatars.’ Whether this will take off anywhere beyond its work function is another story.”
Van Rijmenam is pretty sure the metaverse will blossom into the next big thing. He explains, “The convergence of the digital and the physical worlds will enable yet-to-be-developed applications similar to how the internet created completely new applications we could [not] impossibly foresee in the mid-1990s. The metaverse will change society as drastically as Web 1.0 did, and it will offer infinite opportunities for organizations, artists, and content creators to create value. The immersive internet will enable humanity to experience the real and the digital in ways we could never imagine before and unlock trillions of dollars in value for society.”
According to Azamat Abdoullaev, an ontologist and theoretical physicist, the technologies that will unlock the metaverse will be fifth-generation (aka 5G) telecommunications and machine learning. He appears to be as optimistic as van Rijmenam when it comes to the future of the metaverse. To show how the metaverse will grow and evolve, he published the following image created by Jon Radoff (@jradoff), CEO of Beamable and a self-described builder of the metaverse.
In the metaverse, businesses see the greatest monetary value at the three highest levels of Radoff’s infographic (i.e., creator economy, discovery, and experience). Shopping, whether its purchasing physical or virtual goods, holds a lot of potential for making money. Journalist Miranda Mazariegos (@mirimazariegos) explains, “Millions of gamers … worldwide buy accessories, clothing, and skins (graphics that change the look of an item in a video game) for their digital avatars. In fact, Ralph Lauren attributed some of its strong third quarter earnings to these virtual investments and the younger generation of shoppers it has attracted. The overall gaming market was valued at $173 billion in 2021. Other companies like Nike, Adidas, and Vans World are now betting there’s room for even more growth, and that gaming becomes just one component of a more far-reaching metaverse.”
If the metaverse does develop and evolve into something more than the world of gaming and online shopping, security and privacy concerns will be a big deal. Journalist Brandon Vigliarolo (@bviglia) reports, “Arkose Labs said that ‘master fraudsters,’ which it defines as those with the capabilities to build persistent attacks, invest capital and use fraud farms, are far more likely to target metaverse companies.” Cornish also raised the challenge of misinformation and hate speech with Shah. She asked him, “If you can’t handle the comments on Instagram, how can you handle the T-shirt that has hate speech on it in the Metaverse? How can you handle the hate rally that might happen in the Metaverse? You’re creating a scenario where I don’t see how it’s clear that you moderate that, or if you even see it as your responsibility in helping to create this infrastructure.” Shah responded, “I think these are exactly the right types of questions to be asking now. I think a lot of times some of the challenges that we have talked about as a company are not a question of whether something should stay up or should come down from a legal perspective or from a specific cost perspective but what is the right balance between freedom of speech and freedom of expression and something that is harmful. And the rules and the lines on where those are not something that we, I think, can define ourselves alone as a company. It’s why we’ve asked for more explicit regulation to be able to define what some of those rules are.”
Technology has always outpaced government’s ability to regulate it. We know, however, that the metaverse is being developed and politicians need to begin now to think about how it is going to be regulated. Van Rijmenam talks about the coming Imagination Age and regulators better have a good imagination.
 Audie Cornish, “Is The Future Of The Internet In The Metaverse?” NPR Consider This, 9 November 2021.
 Kanishka Sarkar, editor, “Explained: The history of metaverse,” CNBCTV18, 4 January 2022.
 Jess Yarmosky and Meghna Chakrabarti, “How the metaverse blurs the line between virtual and reality,” WBUR On Point, 22 December 2021.
 Mark van Rijmenam, “What is the Metaverse, and How Will It Change Society?” Datafloq, 14 February 2022.
 Todd Wasserman, “Just How Great Is The Metaverse? Not Very, According To Meta Super Bowl Ad,” Marketing Daily, 18 February 2022.
 Azamat Abdoullaev, “Machine Learning and 5G are Crucial to Scale the Metaverse,” BBN Times, 14 January 2022.
 Miranda Mazariegos, “Looking good in the metaverse. Fashion brands bet on digital clothing,” NPR, 16 February 2022.
 Brandon Vigliarolo, “Metaverse companies faced 60% more attacks last year, and 5 other online fraud statistics,” TechRepublic, 17 February 2022.