Recently, I read an article on Hacker News called “The Metaverse is Bullshit”. The author goes on to detail various ways on how the metaverse is bullshit and while I respect his views, I do feel like there is a tinge of biased pessimism and cynicism in his article. I attempt to refute his points fairly to show that no, the metaverse is NOT bullshit.
The author’s rhetoric sounds eerily similar to Newsweek’s 1995 article about the Internet.
However, to continue reading the rest of the article, I encourage putting your optimism glasses on. It’s really really hard to see progress on something that seemingly doesn’t matter with deep-rooted biases and cynicism.
The Metaverse IS the Internet (kinda)
The author’s first point is that: “the metaverse is bullshit because it already exists, and it’s called the internet.”
He isn’t wrong here.
It’s helpful to first define what exactly the “metaverse” is. For all the hype about it, it’s really not explained well and honestly, most people have different visions of what the “metaverse” really is. It helps to open your mind up to different definitions of the metaverse. Here’s my favorite definition:
The Metaverse is an evolution of the Internet that spans VR, AR, online, and physical worlds.”– Packy McCormick on Twitter
Yeah, the metaverse is the Internet (kinda). It’s an evolution of the Internet with various ways of access with more immersion, layers, and interoperability. Mediums of access will evolve. We will be able to access the metaverse through our phones, browsers, desktops, gaming consoles, along with our AR glasses, VR headsets, and more.
Who will own the Metaverse? Nobody. No one single entity. That’s like asking: who owns the Internet? No, really? Who owns it?
The Metaverse is not some centralized virtual world, and if that’s what you got out of Meta’s presentation, you need to really re-watch it. Just like the Internet is full of technologies and experiences, the Metaverse will also be full of decentralized experiences. Sure, Meta will own a “part” of the Metaverse, but there is no “winner take all” of the Metaverse.
Here is what the Metaverse is NOT: “virtual reality” or a “virtual world” or a “game”. It’s a space that, like the Internet, that has endless virtual connected communities where people can work, socialize, or play. Think of it like Minecraft servers. You can hop on a Minecraft server to PvP against other players. Or you can hop on to a “farming” server to farm. Your name (can) stay the same throughout each server, but the people, identities, and virtual space you’re in changes. And you can access these servers on any operating system: Windows, Mac, PlayStation.
Past gaming, even websites can be considered decentralized through links. Each link leads us to a completely different space with its content and purpose. Some links are meant for people to read news on, others are meant for people to connect with others on, while others allow people to play games on.
So how does VR/AR come into play? Why is Meta investing so heavily into it? VR/AR is just the next step towards immersion. Why is FaceTime or WhatsApp video calling so popular? It gives you a more immersive way of connecting with others. Since Meta considers itself the “social technology company,” they see VR/AR as the next pathway to immersive connections. Good stories are immersive. Good experiences are immersive.
Let’s take off our cynic hat and put on our optimism hat with some kiddish imagination mixed in.
We watch movies right now on a screen, in front of us. Surround sound takes us a step closer to feeling like we’re in the movie. Some theaters have gusts of air or water droplets during certain parts of the movie to increase immersion. Now, imagine watching a movie around you, instead of in front of you. It’s the same reason the Harry Potter rides at Universal Studios are so popular. The feeling of a Quidditch ball racing at your face while you barely dodge it is just thrilling. Now imagine you’re able to experience this with your mom, who lives across the world, and you guys are able to share awesome experiences like these together. FaceTime has taken a huge step forward in connecting people and the next logical step is something like VR. (Teleportation is the end-goal, I guess)
Don’t worry. This is not a winner-take-all, zero-sum environment. Video, text, images and other forms of media will not die as a result of a new form of media coming into play. Each has its respective place. As new media forms and new mediums of access (web, mobile, PCs, AR, etc.) are explored, it just sets the stage for greater diversity in creation and connection.
Is the Metaverse Dystopian?
Many found Meta’s presentation dystopian. The examples the author cites include things like “some poor soul being paid .00000000001 bitcoin an hour to virtually dress up like a carnival barker and shout about the latest horrible news out of Syria on some virtual street corner” or that “there’s no way for any massive tech company to build the metaverse without becoming the villains.”
Honestly, this is cynicism that goes past the “metaverse” argument and rather argues against capitalism. But the metaverse actually (theoretically) allows for more fairness due to the decentralized nature of it. Think about how no one Minecraft server was the “most popular” server for long. As new games were created and Minecraft experiences were created, other servers got to feel a rise to fame until the next trend came along. It’s the same way YouTube and TikTok have enabled people from unprivileged backgrounds to make money from providing value, whether it’s entertainment or educational.
But that’s not to say that the metaverse can’t be dystopian. It’s prone to similar problems that the Internet faces. A key point to remember though, is that You Are What You Consume.
The Cross-Compatibility Problem
The author here presents a view about game objects and how items are extremely hard to carry between games. He cites MMO veteran Raph Koster who breaks down how game objects work and the difficulties that come with cross-compatibility. What the author also does though, is exaggerate Koster’s own words to the point of “it’s impossible”.
As a technology optimist, it’s hard not to rage at this. I don’t see hard problems as a valid argument of “bullshit” or limiter to technological progress. Hard problems are meant to be solved by people (or corporations, but yes, corporations are made up of people), whether they are social, technical, or political. I enjoyed this Hacker News story by ladyanita22:
Back when Google was absolutely not this huge, they were a company whose main products were a search engine, a web mail client (which wasn’t even the most popular), and a video content provider. They had to fight against powerful and big Microsoft, who controlled all the spectrum of computing (back in 2007, even IIS was popular) in a closed and proprietary manner, who applied the rules of EEE as a means of survival and who made sure nobody ate its cake.
But then, Google built a platform based on open source software that was beyond what anybody had to offer back then (except for the iPhone, which was better but restricted to Apple), and now we know how the story goes (Alphabet has significantly higher revenue than Microsoft, and controls the web, the majority of phone devices and is gaining substantial market share in Microsoft’s territory, the PC).”https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=29046791
These problems will be solved. As Koster says in the article himself, object portability isn’t entirely hopeless. Standards will emerge. They will evolve. Collectively, we developers will build a “HTML of VR”. And it will be owned by no one person or corporation. No, not even Meta. There are both technical and social problems to deal with here, but the metaverse WILL overcome such issues, just like the Internet did.
I would even argue further to say that Meta knows frameworks, especially cross-compatibility frameworks, really well. They after all, did create React Native, which is by far the most cross-compatible mobile development experience on the market today. They’ve pushed far enough where apps like Coinbase rely mainly on React Native for their mobile experiences. They know cross-compatibility.
The author also absurdly points out “Decentraland, a Second Life for crypto fans that was barren when we explored it last year.”
It apparently has enough life in it to hold an in-game festival with Deadmau5 and Paris Hilton DJing just this month, which this metaverse-focused blog put it, the festival “really showcased what amazing feats can be achieved within Metaverse spaces.”
“It looks like a real party,” the author says sarcastically. Somehow, the author twists this amazing virtual experience into a bad thing. Yeah, it may have been rough around the edges. No, it doesn’t beat experiencing the thing in real life. But the fact that there were close to 10,000 people attending this thing tells you that there’s an audience.
My conclusion and refutation of this point is that cross-compatibility is not bullshit. Saying that it is both cynical against what humans can achieve, both socially and technologically.
Is the Metaverse better?
The author ends off by noting how he is unconvinced how the metaverse is better. “We’ve been playing games and chatting for decades!”, he says. This simple statement simply ignores progress. Games today look and play a LOT different than games did a decade ago. Just try it. Try playing The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind and play The Elder Scrolls IV: Skyrim today. It’s a difference of a mere 9 years, not even a decade. Yet we went from a rich, text-based world to an immersive experience with modding capabilities that today has rendered Skyrim as one of the most played single-player games of all time. Chatting also has evolved from instant text messaging to real-time, high quality video calls, without killing the previous predecessor. We still text today, but we still video call too!
So yes, progress is a good thing, first of all. Second of all, let’s take a few imaginative looks into how the metaverse and VR/AR can make some portions of connecting better.
The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated a trend of remote work. Remote work is great! It introduces a lot of flexibility in one’s life. But it can feel lonesome to some. There is a certain level of personal touch and camaraderie that comes from working together in-person that remote work cannot replicate. VR can help change that.
Logging into Zoom and seeing a bunch of faces on-screen can feel impersonal. But imagine logging into a conference room, and you see your coworkers sitting at the table. You can feel their presence as they change expressions, chat with others, and in general, replace the loneliness of a Zoom call. And of course, you’re not FORCED to render yourself there. Make yourself invisible! Change how you look! Mute your mic! You’re not forced to do anything here.
Another thing that COVID-19 has done is restrict travel. I personally haven’t seen my extended family in India for years. I know many that miss their loved ones but cannot go see them as a result of the pandemic. I love video calling them. It would be amazing to take this a step further. I would love to go on a walk in Italy with my cousin, just chatting about life. Or go on a boat ride through the Amazon or fly through space. I can do these in a game or I can be fully immersed within a whole new universe.
These are simplistic anecdotes, and I’m positive there will be experiences in the metaverse that nobody has even thought of right now. But I’m keeping an open mind
It’s really, really easy to be a pessimist.
I loved this story in the HN comments by namelosw:
David Brevik did a post-mortem on Diablo on GDC. He first mentioned they accepted the contract for developing Diablo for Blizzard for $300000 which was extremely underpriced for a team of 15, so they have to look for other revenue such as accepting other contracts developing lame football games for $1 million.
As they were busy shipping Diablo, Sabeer Bhatia came to them with an idea of “making the email over the Internet”, he replied, “dude this is the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard! What’re you talking about – I’ve already had my email over the Internet!”. Sabeer insists this is a big idea, and offer them 10% of the company, only for an empty office in the back which they’re not using in return. But David was stressing out because they were about to ship Diablo, so he turned him down because he want no distraction, ..plus “it’s the stupidest idea ever”.
And the company of Sabeer was called Hotmail. 14 months later the 10% would become $40 million…”– nameslosw
And I admit, it’s very, very possible for all of this to fail. The Metaverse could actually be nothing, Meta will fail miserably, and everything I wrote will be laughed at in two decades as crazy, childish dreams.
On the flipside however, there are whole case studies of technophobia and pessimism of technology. A prime location is the Pessimist’s Archive on Twitter. Reading the Hacker News comments of full-on pessimists can be demoralizing. I’m sure Drew Houston felt the same when BrandonM’s pessimistic comment was voted to the top of his posting of Dropbox’s YC app.
My favorite comment I read:
This thread feels like 1860’s consilium on what future will look like 500 years later. The shape of the metaverse will be formed by a new generation, not by older guys (and not by fortnite addicts who play by the rules of the former) who know nothing better than drive a fancy “car” on the “road”, as if roads or a concept of physical movement or the euclidean rule would still be there for common use and not for museums. Virtual worlds up to date, like second life, were mostly just stupid copies of “real life”, which was designed after some physical limitations, or fantasy worlds of parallel earth-likes with a limited magic.
If the only limitation of metaverse is Code and Content, and if that would be much easier to create, then in a blink of an eye it will turn into something absolutely inconceivable to mercedes benz drivers. What really is bullshit, is lack of imagination in people and a shitload of thought inertia. Personally, it feels like the article author has never ever been in the internet, confining themselves at a small circle of “social” networks bs. Those will live in an exact copy of their current environment, paying to bigcorps with their work hours to achieve “expensive” toys, to impress similar narrow-minded guys. I’ve seen second life at its peak, and this is exactly what they were doing there.”– wruza
Overall, I just hope to provide a technology optimist’s view on what the metaverse is. No, the metaverse is not bullshit. It’s very real. It won’t be here tomorrow and might not be here in 5 years either. But I think it’s coming whether it be 5 years from now or 20.