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What is the metaverse, the alternative virtual reality from which we will never disconnect?

What is the metaverse, the alternative virtual reality from which we will never disconnect?

Zuckerberg’s metaverse is being heralded as the “next thing” after social networks, although it will have to compete for space.

The metaverse has been defined as the next frontier of humanity. If the leap from analog to digital and from offline to online has unequivocally changed people’s lives, the metaverse promises to be the next big milestone in communication and contact. At least so says Facebook, which will soon be launching its own.

What many see as an idyllic virtual paradise that will serve as a meeting point for people from all over the planet, others see as a dystopian backward step or the advent of hypervigilance. A problem that can affect digital trust, the parameters of which we analyzed in the Future Trends Forum’s report Trust in the Digital Age. Both considerations are probably partly right, since there is no such thing as neutral technology and, historically, digitalization has had winners and losers. And now?

What is the metaverse?

Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, announced to the world the upcoming launch of their metaverse, a virtual world superimposed on the physical world in which you can interact with objects, shop or play video games. Following that announcement, Facebook changed its name to Meta—as Google changed to Alphabet a few years earlier. However, Zuckerberg’s metaverse is not the first to be known, nor will it be the last.

A few weeks after Facebook’s announcement, Satya Nadella (CEO of Microsoft) announced that its Microsoft Teams tool would offer avatars or holding meetings in “virtual workspaces”. Sundar Pichai (CEO of Google) also talked about virtual worlds in the last results presentation, although Alphabet expects to go “step by step” developing tools such as Google Lens.

The word “metaverse” is the conjunction of the prefix “meta-“, which usually takes the meaning of “beyond” or “after”, and is often related to abstractions (metaphysics, metalanguage, metadata, metadiscussion); and “verse”, lexeme of the word “universe” and which, in Latin, had the meaning of “turned” or “turned”, but here speaks of “world”. The metaverse is “the world beyond” [the physical world].

Literature and games have played with this concept for more than a century (in Frederik Pohl’s novel Gateway these virtual worlds are frequent). In fact, the term metaverse was first used in the 1992 novel Snow Crash and more actively in environments such as Second Life, the virtual community launched in 2003 in which users considered themselves residents and there were even weddings, or Habbo Hotel, a place for people to meet each other.

The difference between the initiatives of the past and the current metaverse lies in the technological capacity available. Today it is possible to virtualize or render a digital world to go to, to enter, as demonstrated by video games such as Ingress Prime or Pokemon Go. And, much in the same line, companies can be created within this environment. Before jumping into these worlds, let’s look at some precursor ideas. And dystopias.

The metaverse in science fiction 

The metaverse has been a frequent theme in Western dystopian science fiction, under a different name. Year 1999 was prolific in this regard. That year saw the publication, within a few weeks of each other:

  • Matrix, a reality built by machines to trap humanity;
  • eXistenZ, a simulation environment that can be accessed to play games;
  • and Level 13, a look into the ethical side of experiments that simulate electronic lives.

The idea of a completely virtual world loomed in films since the 1992 release of The Lawnmower Man, a cult film in which an evil corporation designed a virtual environment by testing people unable to defend themselves. The idea was based on a 1975 Stephen King story. It’s not particularly new.

Nearly twenty years later, Ready Player One (2018) picks up in this vein by offering a virtual gaming world that looks a lot like VR and AR mobile games. Of course, the movie is ruled by another evil corporation. The Western approach to technology tends to be dystopian. The same year saw the release of ANON, which looked at the issue of humans living in a mixed world where augmented reality places virtual objects in our field of vision.

In it, a hacker tries to escape from a totalitarian government using as weapons the tools it develops to control the population, raising questions about the reality we live in. If you can’t trust what you see, how can you make decisions? Do you have free will? Are you free to live your life, or are you just part of the simulation? Reminiscent of The Matrix.

In science fiction, the metaverse has brought forth great philosophical and existentialist questions. As philosophers such as Byung-Chul Han, author of Not-things, Upheaval in the Lifeworld (2021), point out, “digitalization dematerializes and disembodies the world” and “the world empties endlessly”. But it is also filled with virtual objects.

It often does both. In fact, the tokenization of the virtual world is opening up new markets. Buying virtual items in games has been possible for years, a type of purchase that could explode with virtual and augmented reality.

‘Ingress’ and ‘Pokemon Go’, virtualization of metaverses and surveillance capitalism.

Pokemon Go is one of the most famous mobile video games today, and one of the first to be able to effectively monetize offline data and online services. Its mechanics are based on the maps developed for the video game Ingress (now Ingress Prime) a few years earlier, which allows layers of virtual information to be superimposed on the physical world. The fact that two video games incorporate virtual layers that overlap, but do not interact, offers some clues to the unlimited potential.

Facebook’s metaverse will enable superimposing as many universes or layers as desired. A portal at Ingress is a PokeStop for Pokemon Go, and for Zuckerberg’s metaverse it could be any other characteristic point on the map (or none in particular). Therein lies the magic of ANON-style virtualization. And of its challenges, of course.

Both the PokeStops and the portals of both games have underlying advertising-driven mechanics, the same that Facebook has: Google sells virtual spaces to merchants, who, by acquiring them, see how more people come to their store. Given the recent controversies of Facebook and other companies in the GAFAM/BATX pack, the reluctance to the metaverse is not surprising.

In the words of Byung-Chul Han, “information capitalism constitutes an intensified form of capitalism”. That does not mean that the idea of the metaverse should follow the precepts set by Zuckerberg’s company. Facebook’s metaverse aims to translate offline life into the company’s controlled online universe, but there is life beyond this brand.

From metaverse to metaverse: how far will technology go?

At the time, the Internet was a military and academic invention that passed into civilian and corporate hands, and has recently been revisited to be transferred to the public sphere as a universal right. Facebook may be the precursor of a metaverse as SixDegrees (1997) was the precursor of social networks, but technological applications often change hands.

The current demand for digital rights, contemplated in documents such as the Spanish Government’s Charter of Digital Rights, is increasingly present, as well as the problems derived from a digital system based on advertising and hypervigilance. Or who owns whose data, how and until when. These are issues widely discussed in public.

The current metaverse is an invention of Facebook, a commercial launch aimed at revitalizing the great loss of users following the scandals and not being able to reach young people. But metaverse is a technology much bigger than just that, although the one it had already made systematically ended in announced failures.

Now there are technologies for virtual worlds, and the questions to be asked are who will be the architects of this world, who will populate it or what kind of relationships will take place within it. Questions that will be resolved in a few years’ time.

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