A Metaverse Primer

Written by Mark Evilsizor
From his column Tech

Facebook recently changed its name to “Meta” and has started flooding TV and social media with advertising to shape our view of a potential “Metaverse” and their role in it. While this idea has been around for decades in science fiction and video games, for many folk these words are perplexing gibberish. So, let’s take a look at the concept of a metaverse, and why we would do well to take an interest.

What It Is

The term metaverse was coined by Neal Stephenson in the 1992 book, Snow Crash. But the concept dates back at least to the 1984 novel Neuromancer by William Gibson, and more recently popularized by the movie The Matrix and the 2011 book Ready Player One, which was given to new Facebook hires as far back as 2016. All of these depictions portray an always available world which a person may enter and interact with directly using some form of technology. Once a person dons the electronic gear, physical surroundings are shut out and the senses are filled by a virtual world.

Imagine putting on a headset and finding yourself at a café in Paris. Moments later a few close friends arrive at your table, one who lives in your hometown, one from across the country, another from the other side of the globe. This is your Tuesday night mountaineering club, and this evening you are going to scale the Eiffel Tower together. Once you reach the top, you can jump off and fly around Paris, cruising through the Arc de Triomphe and perhaps visiting the Louvre before the evening is over. Throughout this gathering you see your friends and talk and laugh with them in a manner much like “real” gatherings in the physical world. The goal of the technology is to be so immersive that interactions come natural with no need for a video game controller. You turn your head, move your arms, speak, and the environment responds intuitively.

If the metaverse becomes as stimulating as smartphones or video games have become, we will need to be on guard to ensure we don’t abandon our tangible world for a virtual one.
Why It Matters

Consider how this technology has changed our world. By carrying a video camera, we are able to easily share our story and make it more difficult to turn a blind eye to events around us. By carrying a highly stimulating entertainment device, we can fill idle moments with mindless entertainment and gossip rather than conversation or contemplation. As with most powerful technology, smartphones have been a mixed blessing.

Will it Catch On?

It appears we may soon see the introduction of the first metaverse product. If so, this could start the usual 10-year transformation timeline, which might be shortened if the technology is embraced. Technology companies (Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Roblox, Epic, etc.) are sensing this and clamoring to get in on the ground floor to define and shape this new world. Trying to imagine the implications of the technology early may streamline upcoming changes and provide guidance to their unfolding.

What Could Go Wrong?

With current technology it is easy to limit or eliminate encounters with people and information that challenge our perspectives. We can create a narrow bubble in which we watch or read only information which affirms what we already believe, which makes it difficult to enlarge our perspective and extend and grow in grace and understanding. With the metaverse it may become possible to make our bubbles even more exclusive as we restrict shared experiences and spaces.

Have you ever searched the internet for shoes and then noticed that all the ads popping up on your screen feature shoes? It is easy to imagine a metaverse where landscapes are tailored to specific individual or tribal predilections much like this. Where one person theologically might visualize an image of John Wesley, another might see John Calvin or Mahatma Gandhi.

While it might be affirming and comfortable to control our own universe, it could also result in missed opportunities to view life through different lenses. Such tunnel vision can be harmful, causing us to focus only on ourselves and our own needs rather than those of others. Stepping into someone else’s shoes to view life from their perspective is almost always a beneficial experience.

If the metaverse becomes as stimulating as smartphones or video games, we will need to be on guard to ensure we don’t abandon our tangible world for a virtual one. If we are able to spend hours exploring cities, oceans, mountains, or planets in the metaverse, will we lose interest in everyday surroundings, like parks, rivers, beaches, or other places? It sounds outlandish, but we already struggle with this. In 2020, an estimated 174 billion gallons of water were used to cool internet data centers. If such resources are being consumed to enable current technology, what will it take to build and maintain virtual worlds? Such considerations should be part of the discussion in the push to create a metaverse.

During the pandemic many churches created the ability to worship from home, and businesses scrambled to enable employees to work remotely. This change made it possible for a person to participate from almost anywhere. While most churches have resumed in-person gathering, many persons continue to participate from home. If the metaverse takes off and experiences become more immersive, will this trend continue? What does this imply for how we do church or experience community? What types of buildings will we need? What could we gain? What could we lose?

Lastly, what type of governing structure do we want for the new world of the metaverse? Over the last few years internet users have struggled to retain privacy, and debated what are reasonable boundaries for free speech and misinformation. In the metaverse everywhere we gather or glance and everything we communicate will be part of the data. What can be done to reduce the risk of abuse of all this information?

And Finally…

The metaverse has the potential to change how we learn, travel, work, entertain, and experience community. It could bring great benefits to those who are no longer able to physically gather with friends, and it might allow teachers to take their students on fantastic journeys like Ms. Frizzle, but there will be challenges. Facebook has done us a favor by bringing the concepts of science fiction to our attention. We would do well to get this conversation started and begin carefully shaping this brave new world.

Mark Evilsizor has worked in Information Technology for more than 20 years. He currently serves as head of IT for the Linda Hall Library in Kansas City, Mo. Opinions expressed are his own.