Separating the metaverse from dystopian narratives

With so many headlines and news articles focused on painting the metaverse with a dystopian brush, we take a closer look at what could be behind the juxtapositions.

18 October 2022
Abby Beckley

“The metaverse is dystopian – but to big tech it’s a business opportunity” — The Guardian, January 2022

“The Metaverse could become an oppressive dystopia.” — Newsweek, March 2022

“The Metaverse: dystopian society or reality?” — Forbes, March 2022

These are just a few of the many fear-ridden news headlines that come up on search engines connecting the metaverse with a totalitarian-style future. Where is this interrelation coming from and why is the link persistently being made? 

What’s behind the worrying headlines?

If we look at etymology, the word, “meta” comes from the Greek meaning “after” or “beyond” while “verse” is a shortening of “universe”. The meaning can therefore be understood as a realm or world beyond what currently exists. No frightening visions of the future here. 

It requires a slightly deeper investigation in order to ascertain a possible answer.  Let’s take a look at when the word was first used.

As every Meta-head (we’re owning that word to describe anyone who is rightfully obsessed with the metaverse) knows, the word “metaverse” was originally coined in a now legendary science-fiction novel by Neal Stephenson called Snow Crash. In the book the Metaverse, while not specifically defined, refers to an alternate and persistent computer-generated universe that connects, interplays and affects the real world to its detriment. In his book, The Metaverse: And How It Will Revolutionise Everything Matthew Ball references Snow Crash as well as a few other novels or short stories such as Isaac Asimov’s The Naked Sun and The Trouble with Bubbles by Philip K. Dick that have created visions of a future in which technology dominates, and they all share the same idea of humanity living within virtual worlds. 

In Stephenson’s story the Metaverse is a place of escape and hope, providing refuge and opportunity but with an adverse effect on life in reality. What’s interesting to note is that in the world of the novel much of the governance has been split across several for profit, self governing city-states. We’ll circle back to this later.

The notion of a technology controlled, virtual reality fuelled future doesn’t exist only in novels, but in movies and TV series as well. The Matrix, Ready Player 1, The Peripheral to name but a few. In these shows as well as the novels the recurring similarity is that the virtual worlds the characters visit provide them with a means to escape and enjoy better experiences than the real world which has inevitably suffered some sort of collapse. Ironically enough, Web 3.0 is, itself, a backlash against the idea of big technologies controlling or dominating the space.

With these sorts of narratives repeating themselves over and over again in fiction it’s a small wonder that there is a sense of trepidation in some quarters when it comes to the metaverse. 

There are, in fact, some genuine concerns that aren’t necessarily borne out of watching too many sci-fi movies. According to Pew Research Center in their paper titled “The Metaverse in 2040” there were two overarching themes that many of the experts’ predictions aligned with, one of which was the argument that the metaverse would “magnify all human activities, including problems associated with the current Web 2.0 environment.” The immersive nature of the metaverse was also called into question with the possibility of new threats being raised to human agency and rights should any authoritarian entities manage to control and take advantage of the technology. Other barriers that research has shown create less willingness to embrace the metaverse are based around data and privacy concerns. Statista actually carried out a survey, which was published in July 2022, researching the top perceived dangers of the metaverse from a worldwide audience of internet users. Privacy issues were in the top three along with addiction to a simulated reality. 

Let’s all calm down, shall we? Context is everything

So, we have the headlines, we have the sci-fi visions, we have the research all of which are signalling a cause for alarm when it comes to the metaverse, however it is always important to put some context around these reactions. When we think back to the introduction of the telephone in the late 1800s, Graham Bell’s invention was attacked by the New York Times over fears of how it would create an invasion of people’s privacy – sounds familiar? Television received a similar wave of adverse reactions in 1927, with critics insisting it would hurt the art of conversation, cause people to read less and negatively impact family life. The internet of Web 2.0 is not without its detractors as many argue that people’s lives have been influenced negatively as a result of social media but few could state that the internet is in and of itself harmful to society when so much awareness has been raised, and incalculable advancements have occurred through its use. The internet has brought benefits such as:

  • Providing an avenue for independent creators and artists to find the audience for their work
  • Enabling individuals to make a living from their creative pursuits without being beholden to big publishing firms
  • Allowing innovation to flourish within the creative industries
  • Giving audiences the conduit to find the things or spaces that they really connect with and want via their own agency

We can thus appreciate that there is always going to be some scaremongering about the changes that major technical innovations will cause. Big tech too may be worried because the entire concept of Web 3.0 is going to force a reinvention of their business models. It will open up avenues of opportunity for smaller, independent and agile operators to set up shop and even take on the previously well-established brands who may be too slow to adapt.

Ultimately, one could safely speculate that in the same way that these technological innovations became universally accepted and immersed themselves conveniently into our everyday lives, the metaverse is on course to do the same thing. 

Getting to the good part – Meta-heads rejoice! 

And why wouldn’t it? The metaverse offers as much potential as the internet, quite likely even more. It can build on the lessons learnt from the trajectory of Web 2.0 in order to amplify the positive aspects and create improved safeguards against the negative.  There are opportunities to harness the power of Web 3.0 to make great leaps in science and medicine — running simulations to predict how contagion spreads in order to learn how best to control it, as Hadean did with The Francis Crick Institute when we collaborated with the organisation during the height of the pandemic, and provided the tools that enabled their experts to develop more accurate predictions. Creating highly realistic synthetic training environments for education, defence and commerce to mitigate risk and better prepare candidates ahead of real life trials. As mentioned before, the expert responses from Pew Research Center’s survey had two overarching themes, the second of which was that “the next generation networked-knowledge ecosystem can be built in ways that better serve people than the current web does. They also predicted that people would find the advances “appealing because they would expand on real world experiences and improve users’ daily lives by making reality more understandable and interesting.”

However, if we are going to spend as much of our lives in the metaverse as multiple sources such as Accenture have predicted, a caveat remains. In the same way that no one “owns” the internet, the metaverse must also be an open, decentralised and inclusive space. Circling back to the recurring themes in the dystopian stories mentioned above, should a company manage to monopolise the metaverse it could, potentially, have more power than any single government. 

Metaverse: the Hadean way

This is not the future we foresee at Hadean, as we wholeheartedly support a decentralised system which ensures that power and control is not left in the hands of any single or authoritarian entity. This is much more preventable with Web 3.0 compared to Web 2.0 where governments and social media companies currently have the power to block urls and take down sites. 

Our vision is to the contrary in that we believe the success of the metaverse and its ability to flourish requires universal access, a welcoming and inclusive space without the closed off, exclusive areas, siloes or walled gardens that currently exist. We are here, for the individual creators and brands, to provide the toolkit that will enable them to craft worlds and immersive experiences limited only by their imaginations. 

We are not far from this as we already have the infrastructure in place to support creators and meet the distributed computing demands of Web 3.0 including increased cybersecurity measures to protect user privacy and data. 

Consider the possibilities: 

Travelling across geographies in seconds to attend meetings, inspect a site, monitor progress on a project, oversee an operation, watch a concert, discover a new world. With these and countless other ways in which this next generation technology can add greater value to our lives perhaps it is time to put away dystopian fiction and embrace the very real benefits that extended reality and the metaverse will bring. 

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