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How we describe the metaverse makes a difference: today’s words could shape tomorrow’s reality and who benefits from it.

Quick, define the word “metaverse.”

Coined in 1992 by science fiction author Neal Stephenson, the relatively obscure term exploded in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly after Facebook changed its name to Meta in October 2021. There are now countless articles about the metaverse, and thousands of companies have invested in its development. Citigroup Inc. has estimated that by 2030 the metaverse could be a $13 trillion market, with 5 billion users.

From climate change to global connectedness and disability access to pandemic response, the metaverse has incredible potential. Meetings in virtual worlds have a significantly lower carbon footprint than in-person meetings. People spread all over the world can meet in virtual spaces. The metaverse can enable people with disabilities new forms of social participation through virtual entrepreneurship. And during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the metaverse not only provided people with ways to connect, but also served as a place where, for example, those who shared a small apartment could be alone.

There are also no less monumental dangers, from surveillance and exploitation to misinformation and discrimination.

But discussing these benefits and threats remains difficult due to confusion over what “metaverse” really means. As an anthropology professor who has been researching the metaverse for almost 20 years, I know this confusion is important. The metaverse is at a virtual crossroads. The norms and standards established in the coming years are likely to structure the metaverse for decades to come. But without a common conceptual foundation, people can’t even debate these norms and standards.

Unable to distinguish innovation from hype, people can do little more than talk to each other. This leaves powerful companies like Meta literally setting the terms of their own business interests. For example, Nick Clegg, former UK deputy prime minister and now chair of global affairs at Meta, attempted to control the narrative with the May 2022 essay “Making the Metaverse.”

Categorical prototypes

Most attempted definitions of the metaverse include a bewildering list of technologies and principles, but they always include virtual worlds: online places where real people interact in real time. Thousands of virtual worlds already exist, some gaming-oriented, like Fortnite and Roblox, others more open, like Minecraft and Animal Crossing: New Horizons.

Beyond virtual worlds, the list of metaverse technologies generally includes avatars, non-player characters, and bots; virtual reality; cryptocurrencies, blockchain and non-fungible tokens; social networks from Facebook and Twitter to Discord and Slack; and mobile devices such as phones and augmented reality interfaces. Also often included are principles such as interoperability: the idea that identities, friendship networks, and digital items such as avatars’ clothing should be able to move between virtual worlds.

The problem is that humans don’t categorize by laundry lists. Instead, decades of research in cognitive science have shown that most categories are “radial,” with a central prototype. One could define “bird” in terms of a long list of characteristics: it has wings, flies, etc. But the prototypical bird for North Americans looks like a sparrow. Hummingbirds and ducks are further from this prototype. Further afield are flamingos and penguins. However, they are all birds, radiating from the socially specific prototype. Someone living near Antarctica might place the penguins closer to the center.

a graphic of a sparrow-like bird in the middle of a ring surrounded by a hummingbird, duck, and chicken in a second ring, with an ostrich, kiwi, penguin, and flamingo outside the second ring
This radial category representation shows that the prototypical bird for most Americans is a sparrow, and that while ostrich feet are parts of birds, they are not parts of all birds.
Tom BoellstorffCC BY-ND

Human creations are also usually radial categories. If asked to draw a chair, few people would draw a dentist’s chair or a bean bag chair.

The metaverse is a human creation, and the most important step in defining it is realizing that it is a radial category. Virtual worlds are prototypes of the metaverse. Other laundry list items radiate outward and will not appear in all cases. And what is involved will be socially specific. You’ll look different in Alaska than you do in Addis Ababa, or when you’re at work or at a family gathering.

Whose idea is essential?

This is important because one of the most insidious rhetorical moves currently under way is to claim that some optional aspect of the metaverse is prototypical. For example, many experts define the metaverse as based on blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies. But many existing virtual worlds use means other than blockchain to confirm ownership of digital assets. Many use national currencies such as the US dollar or metaverse currencies pegged to a national currency.

Another similar rhetorical move appears when Clegg uses an image of a building with one base and two floors to argue not only that interoperability will be part of “the foundation of the building”, but that it is “the common theme on these floors”.

But Clegg’s warning that “without a significant degree of interoperability built into every story, the metaverse will fragment” ignores how interoperability is not prototypical for the metaverse. In many cases, fragmentation is desirable. You may not want the same identity in two different virtual worlds, or in Facebook and an online game.

The 13-year-old computer game Minecraft allows players to build virtual worlds, making it a prototypical fixture of the metaverse.

This begs the question of why Meta, and many experts, are obsessed with interoperability. What isn’t mentioned in Clegg’s essay is the “underpinnings” of Meta’s revenue model: tracking users through the metaverse to target advertising and potentially sell digital products with maximum effectiveness. Acknowledging the “metaverse” as a spoke category reveals that Clegg’s claim about interoperability is not a statement of fact. It is an attempt to turn Meta’s surveillance capitalism into a prototype, the foundation of the metaverse. It does not have to be.

Lock Definitions

This example illustrates how defining the metaverse is not an empty intellectual exercise. It is the conceptual work that will fundamentally shape design, politics, profit, community, and the digital future.

Clegg’s essay optimistically concludes that “time is on our side” because many metaverse technologies won’t be fully realized for another decade or more. But as virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier has pointed out, when definitions about digital technology lock in, they become difficult to dislodge. They become digital common sense.

Regarding the definitions that will be the true foundation of the metaverse, time is emphatically not on our side. I think now is the time to discuss how the metaverse will be defined, because these definitions are very likely to become our digital realities.

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