September 24, 2022

What, exactly, is the metaverse?

That’s an excellent question. “Metaverse” is undoubtedly a significant catchword in the worlds of technology, company, and finance, and its definition, like all buzz phrases, is hazy, hotly debated, and molded by the ambitions of those who use it.

One thing is certain: Neal Stephenson coined the term in his 1992 novel Snow Crash to define a virtual world in widespread use in his imaginary future, a 21st-century dystopia. The metaverse is a virtual-reality world illustrated in Snow Crash as a surface of the mars industry where simulated housing stock can be purchased, and where VR google glass users inhabit 3D avatars of their design.

These three components —VR functionality, digital possession, and avatars — are still prominent in current metaverse conceptions. However, none of them are necessary to the concept. In broad terms, the metaverse is defined as a graphically rich virtual space with some degree of realism in which people can work, play, shop, socialize — in short, do the tasks that people like to do together with in real life (or, perhaps more to the point, on the internet). Proponents of the metaverse frequently emphasize the concept of presence as a decisive feature: feeling like you’re there, and that other people are also really there with you.

In the form of video games, this edition of the metaverse may already exist. Even so, there is another description of the metaverse that ends up going beyond the imaginary spaces we are familiar with. This definition does not describe the metaverse in any way, but it does describe why everyone thinks it is so important. This definition isn’t about a future vision or a modern tech. Somewhat more, it looks to the history and to present technology such as the internet and cell phones, and presumes that to replace them, the metaverse must be invented.

The metaverse is described as a sort of successor state to the mobile internet by influencing venture capitalist Matthew Ball, who has written several books about it. Mark Zuckerberg, who named his company Facebook Meta and stated that the metaverse would be its concentrate last year, used an almost exactly equal phrase; clearly, Ball’s essays have had a huge influence on Silicon Valley thinking. Remember how smartphones transformed technology, the economy, and society? The metaverse is anticipated to be a similar watershed, and many businesses are racing to get ahead of it.

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