When Winston Churchill was speaking, in 1939, about Russia as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”, he was at least talking about a real place. His purpose was to acknowledge the reality of the country as being equally menacing and inscrutable and, eight decades later, those adjectives have lost none of their force. The nouns – riddle, mystery, enigma – can equally be applied today to another manifestation of “otherness”, albeit that the inspiration is not to frighten the daylights out of people, but to sell them stuff. The spur to breathless wonder now is the “metaverse”: its qualifying variants on the imputed reality – alternative, virtual, augmented – all play on shadings of substantiveness that are so absurd it’s unreal.
Too little thought has gone into understanding what’s being talked about. There’s far too much glib confidence that we all mean the same thing and seek the same objectives in talking about this thing that is not, in fact, indeed, meaningfully, a “thing” at all. This non-thing features large in the dreams of the teenagers who play the games that drive so much of the technology in this self-imagined world; and it is making careers for breezy marketers with their fantasies about what can be sold to all those teenagers, real and superannuated.
There is a long tradition, in the history of our credulous species, of people who believe something to exist on no greater evidence than their own appetite for it. Do we cheer the legend or the fact; sell the sizzle or the steak? Is the essence of our greed that we want this latest bauble or is it the wanting itself that we want? Paraphrasing Hamlet, we hang on our expectations “as if increase of appetite had grown by what it fed on.”
Behind the marketing and the insistence that we sell the dream and not the product, the quality of the product remains vital: it matters. NIKE may promote athletic fitness over the fit of its trainers, but the shoes must still be good. Apple may promote the aspirations of genius over the efficacy of its computers, but those computers must still be good. And at a time when we want to market something as existentially significant as a version of Reality itself, we need to be good and certain that we have a grip on what we are doing.
Are the metaverse minions of the future psychically sound and together, capable of moving without tremor between Noddy’s Toytown, a Viking battlefield, and a Second Life in which their boss In Real Life has just fired them? How “real” is their experience of going to a role play in fancy dress set in Roman times but on Mars? Especially if they go there and find it peopled by settlers running from Real Life on our beautiful Earth . . .
Consider how much of the metaverse malarkey is driven in the face of sobering reports about the mental health issues arising from all those Red Bulled gamers struggling to maintain civil interoperability with the humans delivering their pizzas. Look around the world and see the acuity and grace with which we are tackling the challenges of reality as it is. And given what genius and energy has driven innovation over the lifespan of our species on this planet, Earthbound, here: ask this. Given what will deliver the metaverse when it does come, as it will, what are its architects doing today? Are they working with swagger and whimsy, or with data?