Metaverse is a helpful term. It encompasses a wide range of related, emergent technologies in a way that – in theory – can help someone visualize what the output of “connected 3D worlds accessed through specialized hardware that allow users to interact as avatars and participate in a global economies for fun and for play.” In most instantiations of the metaverse in science fiction, the metaverse appears largely like our own world, copied into a digital form, except that there’s more crime, a digital mafia, people can change their appearance at will, and a few other video game elements appear (if our metaverse(s) don’t include Rocket League-esque play, I’ll be very surprised).
These stories help illustrate the benefits and challenges of enmeshed technological layers to the world our brains sense and experience, but they’re often grounded in the premise that the physical world has fallen; we are moving into a virtual world out of desperation to avoid a desolate, post-capitalistic reality.
Debating how to define “metaverse” doesn’t get us closer to solving the problems that it faces in a direct sense, but a useful phenomenon emerges when we do – we start to talk about the different technical ways that the metaverse(s) might operate and the jurisdictions of power within, which are critical to understanding how it will materially emerge in our society.
There are many differing opinions and schools of thought on “metaverse” today, but one common theme that emerges is the question of whether or not “The” metaverse can exist at all. On one side, people compare “the metaverse” to “the internet”, viewing it as one singular entity that will connect, through protocols and standards, many independently governed and operated virtual worlds. On the other, people say that the metaverse itself is an inherently flawed concept, and that there will exist many “metaverses” that operate alongside each other.
While I used to fall squarely in the “multi-metaverse” category myself, I’ve recently started to more closely consider the social implications of each school of thought. I’m not sure that my opinion has been fully swayed in one direction over the other; in fact, I hold an opinion even more loosely today than I have in the past. It’s increasingly clear to me that we just don’t know yet.
For myself, at the root of this debate, I’ve found myself considering the differences in definitions, and it’s occurred to me that, in some capacity, I believe both to be true.
How can we have both “a” metaverse and “multiple” metaverses? Isn’t that mathematically impossible? If it were explicitly possible to quantify something like the metaverse (or the internet), then yes – it would be. But when we talk about multiple or single entities, we are generally presuming that the entity itself can be concretely countable. Is the internet… countable?
If you count the internet by the connected protocols for serving content… maybe it’s a singular entity. It is technically correct that there is only one conceptual system for serving and delivering content types from a remote machine to a local machine, that you access through a browser. Or is it? What about intranets, which use the same protocols on closed networks? What if we choose to count “the internets” as the number of different ways that one can experience the internet? I guarantee that my internet looks different than yours – increased capabilities for personalization of the browsing experience, monopolies pushing their ecosystems onto users, and the prevalence of individual ad targeting means that I’m not getting served the same content, accessing the same sites, or seeing what you do.
So while there may, in fact, be “one internet” in reality, there are also many different experiences and realities of “the internet” for everyone – and we don’t have a good term to really articulate the differences beyond “your internet” and “my internet”, so we just say “the internet” as if we hold the same picture in our minds of what that word means. And such is the imprecision of the human language.
And while I know, mathematically, that may not make a lot of sense, it’s not the first time that I’ve come to a conclusion that – in order to hold in my head both of these conflicting views – I’ve had to accept a truth that 1=2 (or, in this case, 1 = ∞). Granted, the first time that I came up with the idea that 1=2, I was underwater in my combinatorics class, so I do still take this way of thinking with a grain of salt. I’m aware that it’s technically incorrect, but it’s a fun idea to muse on. Maybe 1 = Σ∞, if we’re to create a mathematical model of a metaverse. I digress.
What I think is so interesting, given that the very concept of the metaverse(s) is a drive to define multiple realities that we can experience selectively and simultaneously, is that we still so often do not consider the multiple realities that we can experience selectively in our physical world. We usually don’t consider our choices within a fabric of realities. But in practice, where we live impacts our concept of reality. Who we interact with impacts our concept of reality.
The challenge of “one metaverse” or “multiple metaverses” isn’t inherently in how we count the connected virtual worlds, any more than we can accurately count the number of sites on the internet with concrete certainty. We can certainly put criteria in place to define evaluations of such a concept, but at the end of the day, it’s a moot point.
What matters is that we focus on the problems that need to be solved. It doesn’t matter if there’s one metaverse or many, if they aren’t safe; if they do more harm than good to the people who use them. Ultimately, when users experience a virtual world, it will be their perception of what it connects them to and enables them to do that will define their version of the metaverse. The protocols that connect these worlds are already in place; we have connected virtual worlds already. Whether each of those is part of a metaverse, or is a metaverse in and of itself is not the question – the question is how we prevent the technology from becoming monopolized and governed tyrannically.
As we think about these problems for our virtual worlds, it is critical that we also turn our eye back to the worlds we exist in, physically. The ways that we are developing reality-altering digital worlds are the ways that the laws within our societies are created and defined, except that we get more control over things like “object permanence” and the laws of physics in the metaverse. The implications that come from our governance models and policies in our online spaces are increasingly impacting the laws of our physical world – in some ways for the better, but in many others, for the worse. The metaverse(s) will not solve those problems without intention.
It is what we choose to observe and accept as our reality that we experience as our reality. That – more than anything else these days – is what matters. If we spent the time as an industry talking about how to collaboratively solve the problems of the metaverse instead of what to call it, perhaps we’d be in a much different place.
Special thanks to Kavya Pearlman, Founder of the XR Safety Initiative, and Elgin-Skye McLaren, Sr. PM for Mozilla Hubs, for their insight into the nuances of this discussion.