The metaverse is simply the natural evolution of the internet. And that’s why we need to ensure these new worlds are built with open standards using all the Web3 tools at our disposal
In late 2021, talking about “the internet” seems strangely old-fashioned. Our digital lives meshed so inextricably with the rest of our existence that the implication that the internet is somehow a separate space conjures visions of bulky desktop computers, AOL, and magazines that were once sold in newsagents with titles like Internet or World Wide Web.
Instead of thinking about the internet as another country, one with different rules and conventions from our daily lives, with a rigid divide between our online and our offline life, we should focus on the liminal zone where virtual worlds blur with irl - and this becomes even more important now that we are entering the age of the metaverse.
Who are you, really? In the physical world, we present different images to different people. At a bricks-and-mortar workplace, we may be a more groomed, polite and professional version of the self that sprawls on the sofa at home in front of the TV. Our partner may see a different version of us than our friends.
Why should our digital selves be any different? While catfishing is common on social media, it is difficult to obliterate all details of our personality, even if the outer person appears different. Victims are sometimes confused by the real connection that sometimes happens during a convincing catfish operation. And what of avatars? Who is to say that your avatar is any less a representation of you than a Snapchat filter that takes 50lb off you and shows you in the latest designer outfit, with a professional make-up job?
The truth is that as the tech becomes more immersive and we spend more and more time hanging out with our friends and colleagues in surroundings that become more and more like the rooms and malls and bars where we meet our irl friends, the more important it is that we enjoy the same freedoms in the virtual world that we enjoy in the physical world.
In the old days, when “the internet” was a service like a telephone line or the electricity supply, it mattered less that there were gatekeepers and not much in the way of choice.
In the Nineties, and even the early 2000s, we consumed this service in a different way. It was a hobby: something that you went into a separate room to do. You sat at a table, fired up a clunky desktop computer and connected a modem, which would normally be an either-or-choice between being online or having a functioning telephone. Even if you sat at the computer for hours (which most people did not), you disconnected the computer eventually and went to bed.
Always-on broadband and universal mobile devices changed all this. For today’s digital natives, being connected is like breathing. And we have learned from them. For most of us, our world is a twilight zone, where we are always somewhere between the physical world and the invisible one, permanently connected to their friends elsewhere.
The dotcom boom (and subsequent bust) and the rise of what we now call Web 2.0 changed our lives in practical terms, but did little to transform the way we perceived business and social structures.
Newspapers in particular were slow to adapt to the new era. Instead of welcoming the tsunami of possibilities offered by real-time news and citizen journalism, they clung stubbornly to the idea of selling their existing product: “newspapers, but digital”.
Editorial staff and publishers in the Nineties shared something like Paul Krugman’s view of the internet (“By 2005, it will become clear that the Internet’s impact on the economy has been no greater than the fax machine’s”). They - justifiably in many cases - resented the implication that their research, carefully honed words and painstaking fact-checking was merely seen as ‘content’, like any other content on the internet, to be given away free in the hope that new revenue streams would eventuate from somewhere else.
Meanwhile, technology behemoths quietly built empires, just as the coal and electricity giants had done decades or even a century before. The tech was new, but the business model was traditional - and governments used the same anti-trust laws that were applicable to any consumable product.
Google traded heavily on their ‘Don’t be evil’ mantra, while Facebook was an innocent new networking tool for students. Perhaps if we had foreseen then the way these giants would permeate every facet of our lives, we might have been less eager to cede to them the principles of decentralization on which the internet was originally built.
The slick videos that accompanied Facebook’s announcement of their Meta rebrand presented the Zuckerberg-flavoured metaverse as just another productivity tool or communication channel. But to believe this is to ignore the fact that the metaverse is not a standalone service, like a carwash or a telephone company, but a significant part of our lives and our whole way of being.
Our digital world will become more real in the next five to ten years, with augmented, virtual and mixed reality adding new layers of immersive interaction in these real-yet-unreal worlds.
We will meet our friends there, go to concerts, go to work, go shopping. We will no longer distinguish between ‘real’ life and virtual life: it will all be just ‘life’.
The Web 2.0 giants hold such sway over us now, with our every interaction scrutinised and aggregated in order to influence our opinions at some later point, whether that is to convince us to buy a particular fridge or vote for a particular politician, that our real lives now are the only place we can escape to that is not filtered and presented in a way that benefits brands and politicians more than us.
When we walk down the high street, we are not confronted with a filtered and curated set of shop fronts based on our previous activities. When we walk inside a shop, we do not see the products that have been selected especially for us. And when we serendipitously bump into a friend in the local cafe, we do not expect that this interaction has been engineered in some way.
Yet in a metaverse where the gatekeepers are the Web 2.0 giants, this is exactly what we are signing up to.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
The publication of the Bitcoin White Paper 13 years ago and the previous work done by the cypherpunks who made it possible set in train the creation of technological toolkits that can be used to create our own vision of a decentralized metaverse that finally fulfils the original vision of the internet as a peer-to-peer network, not dominated by monolithic corporations.
Decentralized identity systems, crypto-native payment networks and decentralized commerce systems give us the tools we need to build our own version of this reality. Sure, the technical hurdles to interoperability and common standards are high. But they are not insuperable.
In short, as our digital lives mesh with our physical reality, and the metaverse becomes not just an occasional destination but somewhere we spend a great proportion of our lives, it becomes ever more important that we put in place a robustly decentralized version of the internet fit for the third decade of the 21st century.
If we do not, the price we pay will be unthinkably high.