The tech industry has always lived on the narrative of the next giant leap in development. Again and again, it is about the breakthrough into a new era of undreamt-of possibilities – and thus also about new dimensions of economic desire creation and fulfillment. Artificial intelligence (AI) took over this function most recently, and now a new buzzword is claiming pole position: the metaverse.
The term “Metaverse” comes from Neal Stephenson’s 1992 science fiction novel “Snow Crash”: In a dystopian future, people flee from the dreary reality into a vast, spatially designed virtual reality parallel universe. In this metaverse, they can reinvent themselves with avatars’ help, their own cultures, rules, and economies. After Web 2.0 and the mobile Internet, the metaverse is traded as the next excellent networking paradigm. The vision is a kind of “over-network” that unites all of the online worlds that are still separate today.
On The Way To The Meta-Net
We are already spending more and more time in virtual and simulated worlds – significantly since the Corona crisis: In the face of social distancing, the inhibition threshold for virtual experiences has fallen, and digital work environments have become an integral part of everyday life. Above all, however, online gaming worlds in which people interact with each other via avatars have experienced enormous growth. Games like Among Us, Roblox or Fortnite form their social universes for tens of millions of people – and are therefore considered natural precursors to the metaverse.
All big tech players are now dreaming of a metaversal future, which is why Facebook is now called Meta. And just like the previous evolutionary leaps of the net, the metaverse also leads to the question: How can a “next internet” be designed constructively and humanely? A look at the utopian and dystopian potential of metaversal visions helps search for answers.
Utopia: An Open World That Belongs To Everyone
The long-term perspective of the metaverse is the expansion of today’s Internet into a completely permeable network in which data from different providers can be exchanged easily. This elimination of technological silos would eliminate the need to log in and out of different accounts – and avoid monopolistic strategies à la Apple, which actively prevents open standards. A metaverse based on interoperability could be a kind of commons owned by all humans together. A space of possibilities that brings together diverse experiences and cultures – and thus even a chance for democracy.
Virtual and simulated worlds are always domains for meaningful human experiences and needs: Virtuality is also about connections (millions of Fortnite users meet on the platform for concerts by real stars) and friendship (long-term relationships in game worlds ). Like Animal Crossing ), about the commitment to shared values (BLM activists cover cities with virtual protest art) – and about the unfolding of creation. That’s Robloxalso, a development platform on which millions of people are constantly building new worlds for others to join. According to the utopia, a porous network of networks could open up new, meaningful possibilities for shared experiences – politically, culturally and ethically, online and offline.
Dystopia: Social Decoupling And Hyper consumption
However, the metaversal vision of connecting everything with everything also runs the risk of creating pull effects in the direction of pure virtuality, a decoupling from objective reality and physical fellow human beings. And experience with social media shows that the more social interaction shifts to digital space, the more communication threatens to drift into the unrestrained and ruthless. At the core of this is a cognitive conflict: between the claim to the reality of virtual reality and the deep human longing for a clear, reliable and physically present reality.
Added to this is that the big tech players in the metaverse primarily sense a new cosmos of value creation in which they can sell all sorts of virtuality, be it avatar products, events or company-owned sub-worlds. Today’s game universes clearly show this potential. Fortnite made more than 9 billion dollars in in-game sales in 2018/2019. A metaverse designed for full commercialization would provide material for an episode of the dystopian Netflix series “Black Mirror”.
Rules For The Next Net
Even if a first form of the metaverse could exist in a few decades at the earliest: The big tech platforms will push the construction of a three-dimensional parallel world with all their might – while we are still trying to get the problems with the two-dimensional platforms under control. It is, therefore, increasingly important to find conclusive answers today to the central questions of hyper-networking, which are now being asked with renewed urgency: How will the new virtual space be managed? How is its content moderated? And how can our shared sense of reality be preserved?
At the same time, the focus is shifting toward state regulations: the metaverse demands clear ethical framework conditions that must be enforced politically. Politicians are tasked with creating a counterweight to the purely commercial Big Tech efforts, for example, by working with the open source movement, expanding competition and transparency and enforcing the principle of interoperability.
The topics of inclusion and diversity are also of particular importance: How to represent gender, ethnic origin or specific skills in a virtualized world? Which avatar designs do not force users into stereotypes? More than ever, it is essential to actively include marginalized perspectives and communities that have remained structurally underrepresented in the digitization discourse.
A Second Chance
To ensure this, the metaverse will need an alternative future narrative: a narrative that focuses on the human without demonizing the technological. The basis for this can be found in the hopes that shaped the beginnings of the Internet: cyberspace as an open space that allows everyone to participate equally and promotes and protects human needs.
Even if the signs today tend to point to the implementation of the “Splinternet”, this circumstance could lead to another evolutionary loop that reactivates the narrative of the porous network of networks. At best, the idea of the metaverse would then be like a second chance: a new opportunity to reinvigorate that utopian spirit from which the Internet was born.