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2021.9.2 / Blog
A rebuttal to the Metaverse as a dystopia

A group of researchers here at PL recently indulged a tirade of mine about the notion that a metaverse is not something that we should want. It seemed worth the time to improve and condense the logic I presented there.

This article presents the claim that The Metaverse has always been a dystopia. Maybe, in fiction, it has – I don’t think it’s important to debate that point. But that absolutely doesn’t mean that we can’t have a future where nearly all people’s lives are made better by the presence of a metaverse.

I don’t dispute that fiction shapes the future. In fact, I think that science fiction from the 1950s-1980s, from the Jetsons to Star Trek, accelerated topics like robotics or aerospace science by glorifying technological improvements in the same way that unsettlingly fervent fascination with zombies in the last decade probably stunted progress in chemistry or biology. If you capture or terrify the interests of young aspiring scientists, you’ll change the perception of what their futures will hold.

chart of zombie film popularity

zombie film popularity over time, from Vox.com

Sufficiently well-written science fiction can seem indistinguishable from prophecy. Questioning forecasts can be arduous, and believing predictions that reinforce our biases is seductive. But this is a trap that we as empowered futurist readers must avoid! Science fiction is sometimes written as a warning of future trends, which would be impractical if it couldn’t include self-fulfilling prophecies.

However, a society making technological progress is not unlike a watershed collecting the potential energy of precipitation at higher altitudes. That water can be guided into canals and reservoirs, or it can flood towns and wipe out villages. It has power for creation or destruction, but it can’t be completely stopped. To be constructive, that power has to be harnessed with effort and foresight.

If you’ve thought that ending rampant hate speech online or cyber-bullying would require rebuilding the Internet from scratch, THIS IS YOUR CHANCE.

If you’ve thought that we could create a more global community of meaningful connection and empathy, THIS IS YOUR CHANCE.

We could have a system where you can find a community who accepts you for who you are. One that lets you protect yourself from interactions you don’t want to have. One that is designed with all of our interests in mind.

Technological process is too fast for the shape of the future to be determined ad hoc, one design decision at a time, by people who aren’t looking at the big picture. The Metaverse is generally portrayed in a way that’s consistent with the fantasies of a narrow subgroup of the population because it’s often only taken seriously by members of that subgroup. I’m writing this partly to convey that technology providing an immersive digital world is a near inevitability. And it’s time that we all decide if we want to design that world together with intent, or let it be presented to us by the tech giants designing their own versions.

In the above-linked Vice article, Brian Merchant astutely points out that:

But as usual with such amorphous concepts and platform aspirations, there’s very little there. None of these luminaries, from Zuck to Nadella to Boz, seem capable of painting a coherent vision for what their particular metaverse will look or feel like, beyond gesturing at “presence” and a collection of apps, keywords, and old science fiction tropes. It is an odd vision built from a compendium of juvenile fantasies, perceived market opportunities, and overt dystopias. Hypereditorialization aside, I think the technical point is valid. The user experience has yet to be fully specified. But shouldn’t we view that as an opportunity?

Protocol Labs is part of the current effort to assemble experts and develop an open, permissionless forecast of goals, milestones, and metrics that would let us track progress toward a Metaverse that would benefit humanity.