A high-tech plan ‘metaverse’
GS Paper - 3 (Science and Technology)
Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg recently announced the tech giant will shift from being a social media company to becoming “a metaverse company”, functioning in an “embodied internet” that blends real and virtual worlds more than ever before.
What is “the metaverse”?
- The term “metaverse” isn't new, but it has recently seen a surge in popularity and speculation about what this all might mean in practice.
- Words like “the internet” and “cyberspace” have come to be associated with places we access through screens. They don't quite capture the steady interweaving of the internet with virtual realities (such as 3D game worlds or virtual cities) and augmented reality (such as navigation overlays or Pokémon GO).
- Facebook's announcement speaks to its attempts to envision what social media within the metaverse might look like.
- It also helps that “metaverse” is a poetic term. Academics have been writing about a similar idea under the name of “extended reality” for years, but it's a rather dull name.
- “Metaverse”, coined by science fiction writer Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel Snow Crash, has a lot more romantic appeal. Writers have a habit of recognising trends in need of naming:
- “cyberspace” comes from a 1982 book by William Gibson; “robot” is from a 1920 play by Karel Capek.
- Recent neologisms such as “the cloud” or the “Internet of Things” have stuck with us precisely because they are handy ways to refer to technologies that were becoming increasingly important. The metaverse sits in this same category.
Who benefits from the metaverse?
- If you spend too long reading about big tech companies like Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft, you might end up feeling advances in technology (like the rise of the metaverse) are inevitable.
- It's hard not to then start thinking about how these new technologies will shape our society, politics and culture, and how we might fit into that future.
- This idea is called “technological determinism”: the sense that advances in technology shape our social relations, power relations, and culture, with us as mere passengers. It leaves out the fact that in a democratic society we have a say in how all of this plays out.
- For Facebook and other large corporations, determined to embrace the “next big thing” before their competitors, the metaverse is exciting because it presents an opportunity for new markets, new kinds of social network, new consumer electronics and new patents.