The metaverse: the next phase of the internet?

In 1992, Neal Stephenson penned the cult classic “Snow Crash” in which a pizza delivery man, Hiro Protagonist, exists between two worlds: the sunny streets of Los Angeles and the mind-bending “Metaverse,” where virtual people and villains run abound. Throughout this action-packed thriller, the distinction between physical and virtual realities becomes blurred, with Hiro being a linchpin of this liminal existence. 

According to Vanity Fair, Stephenson’s futuristic fantasy is now becoming an actual reality, as Silicon Valley vies to create the next iteration of the internet. Paying homage to “Snow Crash,” the up-and-coming web has been dubbed  “the metaverse,” in which users will be able to shop, work, socialize, connect and convene in digital spaces through the help of Virtual Reality and augmented reality technologies. 

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is pioneering this new frontier. “You can kind of think about this as an embodied internet that you’re inside of rather than just looking at,” he was quoted saying in a recent article. Users will simply grab their glasses, log onto the internet and enter a cyber-community in which their avatars will move from one thing to the next. 

While VR technologies currently exist, they are primarily utilized among niche groups such as gamers who wear headsets to play Fortnite, Beat Saber and more. As of now, VR goggles have a steep price tag — for example, the popular GOOVIS Pro is $999. In efforts to drive down prices, Zuckerburg acquired Oculus Quest Ring in 2014. With some Oculus headsets now in the $300 range, Zuckerburg hopes that more and more users can begin to enjoy the nascent metaverse, which he believes is full of promise and opportunity. 

During an interview with The Verge, Zuckerburg said he foresees robust economic systems emerging within the metaverse. People will not passively romp around like in The Sims. Rather, users will be able to purchase homes, attend concerts and galleries and use cryptocurrency to exchange goods. He and his team are actively working toward transforming a 2-D Facebook into a 3-D metaverse-based company, where people from all over the world will be more interconnected than ever before. 

As groundbreaking as Zuckerburg’s vision might be, his plan to reconfigure the face of the internet is coming at a time when his company is under high scrutiny by President Biden. Since the onset of the pandemic, Facebook has been called into question for allowing misinformation about the virus and the vaccine to disseminate. Additionally, the company has been assailed for allowing groups to organize on the platform before storming the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. 

This all begs the question: should social media companies like Facebook be involved in shaping the future of the internet? Would private interests get in the way? What regulations will exist to ensure public safety and prevent the spread of misinformation? Moreover, in an industry primarily dominated by white men, how will diversity measures be addressed so that this new digital frontier will truly be inclusive and representative?

VR headset
An HTC Vive virtual reality headset. With the help of virtual and augmented reality technologies, a new, immersive iteration of the internet — informally dubbed the “Metaverse” — is becoming increasingly achievable. COURTESY OF STEPHAN SORKIN VIA UNSPLASH

The answers to these pressing concerns will slowly unfold if — or when — the metaverse develops into the fully realized cyberspace that Zuckerberg and other tech giants hope for it to be. As of now, it is too early to say whether the metaverse will have legs or if it will remain a niche hobby amongst gamers and tech aficionados. Given how the pandemic accelerated our dependency on technology, the internet will undoubtedly evolve to meet new demands and needs. How that may exactly pan out remains unclear.

The metaverse brims with possibility. But economic barriers to access VR may further widen wealth divides and perpetuate systems of oppression already deeply baked within our country’s institutions, including Big Tech. By passing the reins to Zuckerburg and other tech moguls, one might ask: will the metaverse resemble Silicon Valley and reinforce late capitalism? Or will it be an opportunity to pilot a new system that unites rather than divides us? Is such an opportunistic mindset dangerous or constructive? 

“Snow Crash” ends with Hiro navigating a new world order, where readers are left with more questions than answers. The novel winks at how uncertainty and ambiguity beget breakthroughs and innovation. Hiro undergoes an epic hero’s journey filled with twists and turns but ultimately, he comes out the other side. In so far as the metaverse goes, Stephenson might have been on to something.

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