What is the metaverse, and of what use is it?

I am not aware of a consensus on the answer to the titular questions. This is in part because no man is more closely associated to the metaverse than the most disliked man in the United States, Mark Zuckerberg[1], but there is a deeper reason why nobody actually knows what the metaverse is: it is actually at least three pieces of technology that have been bundled by Zuckerberg for marketing purposes. Such technologies are largely orthogonal to each other, and their value seems to vary from incredible to pathetic.

Virtual reality. Central to the metaverse elevator pitch is virtual reality: what mockups exist depict Facebook employees holding meetings in a virtual office, and customers buying food in a virtual Wal-Mart. Though the latter example is blatantly overcomplicated (why not just type the name of the product into a search bar like on any other online site?), the former is an outright improvement over Zoom meetings: the greater presence of body language, virtual whiteboards, etc., allows one to capture far more of an in-person meeting experience than one can at present.

What excites me most, however, is the application to entertainment: video games that are indistinguishable from the physical world except inasmuch as one must equip a digital implement to play them. Though I can’t find the source at present, I recall that as a child that I was watching a futurist documentary whose narrator asked, “Can you imagine walking through your favorite video game?”[2] Walking around is one thing, but there are some rather more significant applications. I will probably never be able to experience Antarctica or Mars in the flesh[3], but it’s not implausible that I could enter a virtual, near-perfect replication of them. The gym will become antiquated, as we all get exercise dancing on a vocaloid stage. I would not have to carry around my viola everywhere, as I can practice in a virtual practice room, with a virtual orchestra and a virtual conductor who yells at me every time I slip by a quartertone.

One can take this reasoning to its extreme and deduce that either utility will blow up in finite time or that humanity will eventually become mindless slaves to virtual hedonism, but I see no reason to seriously entertain either possibility: The technology is incredibly far off. As much fun as I had the last time I played “BeatSaber” at a party, much of the experience amounted to tripping over cabling, struggling with the headset, and failing to control the lightsabers. “BeatSaber” is just a simple rhythm game! But once the fluidity needed to make “BeatSaber” feel like something other than a gimmick is achieved, a next good baby step would be to create a platformer of comparable complexity to “Crash Bandicoot” in virtual reality. Only then we can start talking about recreating body language to the point that the virtual space replaces Zoom and Skype.

Avatar. It is probably no surprise to anyone who has ever met me that as a child, my social skills were incredibly stunted. For this reason, my first friends, some of whom I profoundly value still a decade later, first appeared to me as white characters on an IRC terminal: messages broadcast from Brisbane and Providence, and beamed over thousands of miles to Stockton, California. They did not know me as Aidan Backus, but just as a false identity for several years.

Wait, false? I answer to “Kitty” even in physical space; my time wearing a mask allowed me to develop my social skills in a space that felt safe, so that my false identity profoundly influenced my true self; and I have accomplished enough with my mask on that I submitted some of it to the National Science Foundation as proof of my technical competence. My supposedly false identity is now such an integral part of who I am that it is anything but false.

Given how much I benefited from online socialization, I’m quite pleased that the metaverse has brought this phenomenon into the public eye: may every lonely or estranged person find friendship and happiness. We currently face a crisis of loneliness, that I hope will soon be stamped out. But UseNet and IRC go back to the 1990s, and by 2009 the epic comic “Homestuck” already starred four children who met in an online chatroom. My own online adventures began around 2010. So avatar is a wonderful piece of technology, but a wonderful old piece of technology, and nothing to give the metaverse credit for.

Artificial scarcity. What should Arista Records do when a cybercriminal steals their album? Well, if the year is 2010, the cybercriminal is probably not a notorious black-hat hacker, but a 12-year-old using LimeWire, and Arista responds by crushing Lime Group mercilessly in court. But the technology survives, and spreads: torrents, uploads to YouTube, and MP3 files traded on shadier sites all exist and are used prominently 12 years later. Sure, we have Spotify now, but one is really paying for the convenience of having all their favorite artists in one place when using Spotify; they are certainly not paying for the music, which can be acquired, and probably even acquired legally, for free elsewhere on the internet.

What should Elsevier do, when the University of California refuses to buy their journal bundles, Timothy Gowers publicly compares them to Adolf Hitler, and every researcher worth their salt publishes their preprints on a *Xiv and refuses to publish in any journal that forbids the use of *Xiv? Well, they can make a spyware PDF reader. No, but seriously, Elsevier has had about as much luck as Arista Records when it comes to stamping out the ability of the masses to access quality research for free using the internet. Some academic publishers rely on gimmicks, such as reordering all the problems in the back of the calculus textbook every edition so that the previous edition immediately becomes obsolete, but these are the dying gasps of a doomed industry.[4]

So I’m not going to take anyone who bills NFTs as the currency of the metaverse seriously. While virtual reality is a technology that does not yet exist, and avatar is a technology that has long existed, artificial scarcity is a technology that cannot exist. There will always be pirates, there will always be open source, we will always be able to right-click on NFTs, and DRM will always have holes. The only way to impose actual artificial scarcity is to impose it by law, as in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and even then, the DCMA is not nearly draconian enough to have its intended effect.

While there are honest criticisms of the morality of NFTs, not least because of their use in fraud and their expense in fossil fuel, one of the most common such criticisms is that it is evil to impose artificial scarcity. I am sure that the medieval gold miner also called alchemy evil. But there is no point in spending moral outrage on artifical scarcity, just as there is no point in spending moral outrage on alchemy, because both “technologies” are just fantasies, and anyone hoping to get rich quick in the metaverse using artificial scarcity is delusional.


[1] I hold an incredibly negative opinion of Zuckerberg’s business ventures, but I also hold in contempt the criticism of the man as inhuman. Some of us are born aliens, and some of us aliens do a better job of hiding our failure to adapt to social situations better than some of our other little green brothers.

[2] Apparently that question was interesting enough in the 2010s that many anime decided to ask the same question. The best, “Log Horizon”, proclaims that its protagonists are “LIVING IN THE DATABASE, WOAH-OH!” Most of the other such anime, however, are not worth wasting time discussing.

[3] Though if space tourism becomes accessible to the masses in my lifetime, I’ll be the first to buy a ticket out of our atmosphere.

[4] On the off-chance that one of my students is reading this, please pirate the calculus textbook if it is at all possible to do so.


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