Liner Notes: Will the Metaverse be a Digital Ghost Town?
Stray thoughts on my latest essay
I have a new essay at WIRED.com, “Virtual Reality Is the Rich White Kid of Technology.”
I’m proud of this one. I think it’s a fun read. Please take a look.
There are three stray thoughts that came up for me while writing the piece — ideas that are big “ah hah!” moments in the context of the broader History of the Digital future project, but are pretty tangential to the essay itself.
I’m still working out what this Substack is going to be for/how it will mesh with my other writing. (I know that I want to use it to work out a bunch of ideas for my next book. I don’t yet know what that looks like in practice, though.) One option I’m toying with is a “liner notes”-style post, where I riff on and extend ideas related to an essay that I’ve just published.
So, yeah. Here goes…
Mark Zuckerberg messed with my lede!
I spent a couple weeks fiddling with this essay. It began as a cranky twitter thread. I talked with an editor from WIRED about it. We agreed it could work as a longer opinion piece. That led me to dig deeper into the rise and fall of VR-as-the-digital-future in the late 80s and early 90s (thank you Howard Rheingold), which was a fun rabbit hole to lose myself in. I intended the article as an evergreen, snarky commentary on how VR’s scifi roots are the tech equivalent of being born on third base and thinking you hit a triple. No matter how many times the tech doesn’t live up to its hype, VC firms and tech executives will always gush about its potential.
I was happy with the piece. I was even happy with the lede! (I hate writing ledes. I am the worst at it. It is the bane of my writing existence.) And then Mark Zuckerberg came along and made the piece a bit more timely. In an interview with Casey Newton, Zuckerberg explained why he thinks, over the next five years, Facebook’s next chapter will be as a Metaverse company instead of a social media company.
I have a lot of thoughts about Zuckerberg’s big Metaverse push. Few of them directly relate to the article, so I ultimately decided to save it for another day. In short:
-This is going to be one hell of a test of my skepticism. Zuckerberg isn’t just blowing smoke — he is staffing up the already-huge AR/VR division, and putting the weight of a trillion-dollar company behind this vision. There’s a real chance that people will one day point-and-laugh at my published skepticism. The Metaverse is either going to become a reality in the next five years or it is going to be a huge, costly mistake for one of the biggest companies on the planet.
-But Zuckerberg’s big pivot is, I think, at least as much about Facebook’s present chapter as it is about Facebook’s next chapter. When was the last time Facebook had a good news cycle? There’s the vaccine misinformation story, the FTC antitrust investigation, Facebook shutting down access to Crowdtangle, Amy Klobuchar gearing up to make life harder for the Big Tech giants, not to mention Cecilia Kang and Sheera Frankel’s new book, An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination. The past five years have been terrible for Zuckerberg’s and Facebook’s public image. Zuckerberg would much rather have a public conversation about how Facebook will contribute to the digital future than about how Facebook has contributed to the digital present.
-Also, there are just a ton of unknowns in Zuckerberg’s announcement. He says Facebook is going to help build interoperability into the Metaverse. I’m skeptical of how that is going to work out when you have a few industry giants competing for what they see as the future of their business models. There are trillions of dollars on the table and Facebook is suddenly going to morph into a team player?
-He also doesn’t even hint at how Facebook intends to monetize its role in the Metaverse. Are we looking at an extension of microtargeted ads and invasive surveillance, or is Facebook going to become a hardware manufacturer with monetized apps, like Apple?
Returning to the Field of Dreams Fallacy
For me, the big “ah hah” moment in this piece is where I tie VR back to the Field of Dreams Fallacy (“If you build it, they will come”).
I first wrote about the Field of Dreams Fallacy in 2012, in a piece criticizing the colossal failure that was AmericansElect.org. The article was posted to TechPresident, and doesn’t appear to exist on the web anymore (Link rot: it’s the worst.). I spoke about it on the Personal Democracy Forum mainstage in 2012 as well though, and that’s still on YouTube (Thank you, Google Overlords!)
Americans Elect was a $35 million attempt to build an online, centrist third party in the 2012 election. People like Tom Friedman predictably loved it. Friedman thought that Americans Elect was about to disrupt politics the way Amazon and the iPod were disrupting bookstores and music. Instead, the website turned out to be a digital ghost town. There simply wasn’t much public demand beyond the pundit-class for a centrist party that stood between those two well-known extremists, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney (simpler times… simpler times…).
The thing that made Americans Elect interesting was how its supporters were immediately insistent that it only failed because it was an idea ahead of its time. Surely, the Internet would eventually disrupt the two party duopoly! Surely, since most Americans express moderate positions in opinion surveys, there must be a massive well of untapped support for radical centrism! Surely, if the right foundations and major donors commit enough money to the right startup, we can revolutionize civic life online.
My (drenched in web 2.0) retort was: the internet does not create our social preferences; it reveals them. Every election cycle—before 2012 and after 2012—civic-minded techies drum up funding from rich donors for another wave of nonpartisan websites and apps. Every election cycle, these new products go basically nowhere. Each one is basically a retread of the last, learning nothing, declaring that this time will be different.
The disconnect is that they are offering a supply-side solution (“we just need the right app to make deliberative civic participation fun and easy!”) for what is actually a demand-side problem (The vast majority of Americans primarily do not want to pay attention to politics. Making it easier for them to do something they didn’t want to do in the first place… doesn’t accomplish much.).
Through the first iteration of the WIRED archival study, I paid close attention to the Field of Dreams Fallacy showing up when the magazine covered the digital future of politics. But I wasn’t thinking about it beyond the confines of civic tech, the subject area where I’m most fluent. Fiddling with this VR essay has me thinking about other contexts where the Field of Dreams Fallacy can help explain why the digital future never seems to turn out the way we predict, and why our predictions are so frequently wrong in the same ways.
Are We on the Verge of Web 3.0? And Does There Have to Be One?
This is still just the germ of an idea. Stick around and you’ll eventually hear a lot more from me about it.
It seems like there is a lot of chatter right now about the next-generation technology that is about to change everything. Silicon Valley is getting bold again. There’s the Artificial Intelligence crowd, who are convinced that major breakthroughs in generalized AI are just a few years away. There’s the cryptocurrency/blockchain fanatics, who are convinced that bitcoin is going to transform banking, bring freedom to the oppressed, and somehow even bring about world peace. And then there are the Metaverse proponents, who are sure that Mirrorworld is right around the corner.
These aren’t mutually exclusive categories — The metaverse could run on the blockchain and use AI in interesting ways. But they are distinct projects. The Metaverse isn’t Libra or Dogecoin, which aren’t Deepmind or Open AI. You have different startups, different pitchdecks, different utopian hopes, different dystopian fears.
It’s possible that we’re hearing more about these developments because hard technical hurdles are suddenly getting cleared at an accelerated pace. But it’s just as possible that the uptick in vocal techno-optimism today is a reaction to the techlash.
It reminds me of the lull years in WIRED magazine. When I was reading the WIRED archive, the years 2000-2002 are just dreary. The dotcom bubble burst. It took awhile to come to grips with that. Then 9/11 happened. The big tech breakthrough was Napster, but the recording industry was hitting back hard (and a magazine like WIRED couldn’t get too pumped about people stealing intellectual property anyway…).
When the Web 2.0 era begins, you can just see the tech press get excited again. It’s as though they had found their way back to believing the Internet was magic. They had lost their mojo, they wandered for awhile, and then they found it again.
The Techlash has lasted four years. It has been a bummer. Big Tech has gotten bigger, but it has also been villainized. Technologists have stopped being credited with creating the bold new future and started being blamed for the dreary present. The tech press (including WIRED!) has gotten much more critical of Silicon Valley. Venture Capitalists and tech billionaires have really not liked that at all. (Hell, Andreessen Horowitz just launched their own publication, The Future, so they could provide properly optimistic takes like “Technology Saves the World.”) They want to go back to being the heroes of society. They want to be the brash change-makers who receive raucous applause for “moving fast and breaking things.”
The techlash was brewing before Trump, but it is fair to date its beginning with the 2016 election. In an alternate universe where Hillary Clinton is narrowly elected President, I don’t think we have the same Cambridge Analytica scandal, or the same public questions about social media polarization, disinformation, etc. Now that the Trump era is over, there is a hunger among Silicon Valley influentials to bookend the techlash and move on to the “next chapter” of the Internet revolution. Thought-leaders promoting the Metaverse, Artificial Intelligence, and the Blockchain are all offering their own spin on Web 3.0. It feels like a new era is about to begin, at least partially because they would like the current one to end.
But what if we aren’t on the verge of another breakthrough? What if Internet Time is slowing down?
Well that, my friends, is a topic for next time.
Thanks for reading. More soon.