Why the Metaverse could make Zuckerberg the most powerful man in history
Two cut-out paper dolls with supplementary clothes and accessories; ca. 1917.
Why the Metaverse could make Zuckerberg the most powerful man in history
One of the oddest things of our times is how in a large part of the Western population two opposite behaviors coexist: on the one hand, the average inhabitant of the rich world – be it American, European, or Japanese – is increasingly moving from a material environment to a digital one, while, on the other hand, our houses are plenty of physical objects more than ever.
Here, I’ll try to explore these two apparently contradictory phenomena and then analyze the possibility that Mark Zuckerberg, though its Metaverse, is trying to eliminate this contradiction.
Between immaterial and material
The dematerialization of our private and social space – which progressively unfolded together with the introduction of personal computers in the 1980s, the internet and e-commerce in the 1990s, and social media and smartphones in the 2000s – transferred to the web and the digital realm a progressively large amount of time that people used previously to physically relate to their social context.
Web news instead of newsstands, Amazon instead of local shops, video calls instead of chats at the cafe or meetings in the office; in the rich “western” world we are all hikikomori today, somewhat.
This replacement of physical space with digital space also led to a substantial dematerialization of many of the things we use, from newspapers to games, from photographs to money. Sometimes many of us complain about it, for example for the inconsistency of “cyber” interpersonal relationships compared to in-person ones; yet, I guess nobody would really accept to go back to when we had to queue up at the bank to pay a bill or drive for an hour just to get a medical prescription.
When I saw the video in which Mark Zuckerberg presented the Metaverse for the first time, I found myself questioning whether the personal items on the shelves behind him were real or digital. Yet, would it really matter?
Yet, as mentioned, it looks like the Western need physical goods today as never before. For example, in 2000 goods loaded worldwide amounted to 6 billion tons, in 2019 they reached 11 billion tons (source: United Nations Conference on Trade and Development data), almost doubling in less than twenty years. It is as if human beings needed to reassure themselves, to compensate for the dematerialization and virtualization of a part of their life, through an uninterrupted flow of goods. Especially short-lived items – food, clothing, and electronic gadgets – that are small, easy to ship, and relatively modestly priced. The combination of the two phenomena – the virtualization of social space and the demand for large quantities of low-cost goods – has made Amazon and the Chinese manufacturing what they are today.
However, maybe we are just seeing two sides of the same coin. That is, that people are reacting to the lack of physicality of their daily social experience by increasing the physical quantity of goods entering their private space. Therefore, the made-in-China clothes purchased online, the sixty-inch TV, and the brand new smartphone just arrived in the smiling cardboard box would subconsciously substitute the loss of physicality of the social relationships, and perhaps even that in the perception of oneself. Are physical objects meant to alleviate the absence of physical relationships?
The pandemic has clearly shown how the apparent concreteness of the physical social space can become ephemeral and unattainable and yet, that people quickly find an alternative that gives them the illusion that their daily life didn’t change.
If, because of the lockdown, I can no longer go to a pizzeria with my friends (an activity that I previously considered as eminently social, and of which pizza was just an accessory) then I get a pizza delivered to my home and share the experience of eating it with my friends on my social media page in order to evoke that social experience I miss (haven’t you noticed too that, between May 2020 and May 2021, the number of posts on Facebook showing people eating food or drinking an aperitif at home, often in solitude, literally skyrocketed?).
It is true that, at the end of the lockdown, people have returned to crowding bars and restaurants, but that experience of adapting to isolation made us understand that it is possible to cope with that kind of isolation and that there are instruments to do so, from teleworking and remote schooling to food delivering and even live-stream TV Mass. And someone has begun to see this as an opportunity; for example, thanks to teleworking, to repopulate now-abandoned mountain villages with former citizens fleeing from the urban stress.
In the Metaverse presentation video, Zuckerberg jokes about the possibility that, in the future, his avatar in the Metaverse will buy the digital version of the same physical clothes and shoes his physical counterpart uses today.
Zuckerberg’s Metaverse as the triumph of the immaterial
This is the situation to date. But let’s try to imagine a plausible future scenario. Is it possible that, with the increase of the virtual part of our daily life, the physical objects that identify us socially (and also privately) will be replaced by completely digital ones?
If we spend a large part of our time in a metaverse, or in a predominantly digital environment, that overlaps (and replaces) the physical environment in which we live and within which most of our social interactions take place, do we still need to own physical shoes and clothes? Or paintings, chandeliers, carpets, and TV sets?
After all, thanks to augmented and virtual reality, in a largely digital world what the others see of us, and partly also what we ourselves perceive of us and the place we live in, can be effectively represented by intangible digital objects. Indeed they are probably even better than corporeal ones.
Furthermore, with cryptography and blockchains applied to NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens, i.e. those objects that must be identifiable as unique or in a limited series to have value, for example, a work of art numbered and signed by the author), the possibilities, also commercial, disclosed by this scenario are truly unlimited.
Apart from food (really apart?), in a metaverse where people rarely go out of their houses, a lot of physical goods (e.g. garments, electronic devices, and home accessories) could easily be replaced by digital counterparts.
A digital-only dress, superimposed in augmented reality on a real model, by the London-based brand Auroboros. The clothes produced by the company will be sold exclusively through online auctions. Image courtesy of auroboros.co.uk
In part, this is already happening today, for example with NFT digital art, or with the possibility we have to purchase virtual estates on Upland or avatars on IMVU. After all, many things that were once exclusively physical – musical supports and photographs, for example – are now largely immaterial.
What if this is Zuckerberg’s brilliant (and terrifying) insight? That the current bulimia for physical products is only a temporary reaction (which explains the ephemeral nature of many of those products), and that humanity may no longer need them. That soon people will be ready to virtualize even this aspect of their life. Whoever will control the metaverse and its huge virtual market (of “virtual goods” as Zuckerberg calls them) will be ten times more powerful than Google and Amazon combined. It can potentially become more powerful than any national government.
In fact, in his Metaverse preview video, Zuckerberg makes no secret of his ambitions and gives several examples in this sense, for example by hypothesizing digital marketplaces for virtual clothes (“You gonna have a wardrobe of virtual clothes for different occasions designed by different creators” ), fashionable avatars and even digital homes in which “to invite people over, play games and hang out”. There will also be virtual travels and the opportunity to “teleport anywhere you want” (within the Metaverse, of course). Developing platforms to design homes and landscapes already have their names
The Metaverse is therefore not a simple three-dimensional graphic interface or a video game but is designed to be a complete ecosystem, with its rules, economy, law, and forms of governance. It can’t be clearer than that.
I don’t know if Zuckerberg’s project will be successful; in the past, attempts to create virtual worlds aimed at the general public – from Second Life to Google Glass – didn’t succeed. But here we have Zuckerberg, and I suspect he has a much better idea of the real potential of virtual and mixed reality environments. And that does not reassure me at all.
One of the “socializing spaces” of the Metaverse, where a group of friends (are they all real or is some of them created by AI?) play cards in a zero-gravity environment.
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