Quick, define the word ‘metaverse’.
Created in 1992 by science fiction author Neal Stephensonthe relatively obscure term exploded in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemicespecially after Facebook was renamed Meta in October 2021. There are now numerous articles on 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 marketwith 5 billion users.
From climate change to global connection and disabled access to pandemic response, the metaverse has incredible potential. Meetings in virtual worlds have a significantly lower carbon footprint than face-to-face meetings. People all over the world can come together in virtual spaces. The metaverse can allow disabled people 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 sharing a small apartment could be alone.
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Not less monumental dangers also existfrom surveillance and exploitation to disinformation and discrimination.
But discussing these benefits and threats remains difficult due to the confusion about what “metaverse” actually means. Like a professor of anthropology who has been researching the metaverse for nearly 20 years, I know this confusion matters. The metaverse is at a virtual intersection. Norms and standards set in the coming years are likely to structure the metaverse for decades. But without common conceptual ground, people cannot even debate these norms and standards.
Unable to distinguish innovation from hype, people can do little more than talk past each other. This literally allows powerful companies like Meta to determine the conditions for their own commercial interests. For example, Nick Clegg, former UK deputy prime minister and now president of global affairs at Meta, tried to control the narrative with the May 2022 essay “Making the metaverse†
Most attempted definitions for metaverse encompass a mind-boggling laundry list of technologies and principles, but always included are virtual worlds – places online where real people interact in real time. Thousands of virtual worlds already exist, some focused on gaming, such as Fortnite and Robloxothers more open, like Minecraft and Animal Crossing: New Horizons†
In addition to virtual worlds, the list of metaverse technologies typically includes avatars, non-player characters, and bots; virtual reality; cryptocurrency, blockchain and non-fungible tokens; social networks from Facebook and Twitter to Discord and Slack; and mobile devices such as telephones and augmented reality interfaces. Also often included are principles such as interoperability – the idea that identities, friendship networks and digital items such as avatar clothing must be able to move between virtual worlds†
The problem is people don’t categorize by laundry list. Instead, decades of research in cognitive science have shown that: most categories are ‘radial’, with a central prototype† You could define ‘bird’ in terms of a laundry list of properties: has wings, flies and so on. But the prototypical bird for North Americans resembles a sparrow. Hummingbirds and ducks are further away from this prototype. There are also flamingos and penguins. Yet they are all birds, radiating from the socially specific prototype. Someone who lives near Antarctica can place penguins closer to the center.
Human creations are usually also radial categories. If asked to draw a chair, few people would draw a dental chair or beanbag chair.
The metaverse is a human creation, and the most important step in defining it is to realize that it is a radial category. Virtual worlds are prototypical for the metavers. Other elements of the laundry list radiate out and will not appear in all cases. And what’s involved will be socially specific. It will look different in Alaska than in Addis Ababa, or at work than at a family gathering.
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This matters because one of the most insidious rhetorical moves going on right now is to claim that some optional aspect of the metaverse is prototypical. For example, many experts define the metavers 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 linked to a national currency.
Another rhetorical move appears when Clegg makes a image of a building with a foundation and two floors to argue not only that interoperability will be part of “the foundation of the building”, but that it “the common theme on these floors†
But Clegg’s warning that “without a significant degree of interoperability baked into each floor, the metaverse will become fragmented” ignores how interoperability is not prototypical of the metaverse. In many cases fragmentation is desirable. I may not want the same identity in two different virtual worlds, or on Facebook and an online game.
This raises the question of why Meta – and many experts – are fixated on interoperability. Not mentioned in Clegg’s essay is the “base” of Meta’s profit model: tracking users across the metaverse to Sell targeted advertising and possibly digital goods with maximum effectiveness. Recognizing ‘metaverse’ as a radial category shows that Clegg’s claim about interoperability is not a statement of fact. It’s an attempt to render Metas surveillance capitalism prototypically, the foundation of the metavers. It doesn’t have to be that way.
This example illustrates how defining the metaverse is not an empty intellectual exercise. It is the conceptual work that will fundamentally shape design, policy, profit, community and the digital future.
Clegg’s essay optimistically concludes that “time is on our side” because many metaverse technologies will not be fully realized for ten years or more. But as VR pioneer Jaron Lanier pointed outWhen definitions about digital technology get stuck, they become hard to break free. They are becoming digital common sense.
As for the definitions that will form the true foundation of the metaverse, time is emphatically not on our side. I believe now is the time to debate how the metaverse will be defined – because these definitions are very likely to become our digital reality.
Article by Tom Boellstorffprofessor of anthropology, University of California, Irvine
This article was republished from The conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article†