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The Future Is Not the Metaverse of Silicon Valley. It’s the Multiverse of Distributed Systems.

Photography by Michael Chichi

Thanks to Facebook’s now eponymous focus, everyone is talking about building the metaverse—a 3D world of virtual shops, clubs, gyms, work spaces, and events. Which reveals an embarrassing lack of imagination. New ways to buy stuff? New ways to increase “productivity”? New ways for corporate owners to extract even more value for themselves? Really? Meanwhile, the technology of distributed systems such as blockchain, DAOs, and cryptocurrency —what we might call Web 3.0—offers a radical reorganization of civilization itself, proliferating digital nation-states powered by their own economies created, organized, and run by their communities, redistributing both wealth and power while side-stepping state intervention. The future is not the metaverse of Silicon Valley. It’s the multiverse of distributed systems.

More Ways to Shop and Work Is Not Innovation

The vision of the metaverse seems to focus on immersive ways to extract more from people. To extract more money through virtual visits to the Playboy Mansion, browsing the Nike store, going to the gym without leaving home. And to extract more labor as employers seek to “increase productivity” of their workers via virtual conferences, events, and factory floors. In other words, the metaverse is more of the same—only amplified, optimized to extract, and hoard, even more value from as many people as possible in as many ways as possible.

This repeats the dominant mode of innovation that Silicon Valley has spear-headed for decades: innovation that focuses on new ways to extract value in order for a few funders to accumulate and hoard even more wealth.

The metaverse shows a conspicuous lack of imagination. Yes, 3D technology may very well have its benefits—offering pleasures, ease, and opportunities. But it avoids the problems that Web 2.0 have created and amplified such as massive wealth discrepancy and digital divide—not to mention helping forge a world in which, thanks to delivery apps, neighborhoods are going extinct; in which small business owners are systematically erased from our landscape; in which privacy is breached as a basic function of this economy (look at how upset Facebook is about Apple’s minor privacy allowance); as privately held for-profit social network companies are charged with verifying “facts” and censoring communications.

The problems abound. And yet the best Silicon Valley can come up with is the metaverse? Really?

No doubt, thanks to NFTs, the metaverse will provide opportunities and new ways for independent artists—writers, musicians, visual artists—to earn money. And there will surely be a bevy of clever applications and business models. But, fundamentally, it’s all just more of the same. Meanwhile, the problems of the world are amplified.

Meanwhile, Radical Innovation Is Already Here (if Maligned and Ignored)

What’s so frustrating about this is we are living in the time of radical innovation. The technology of distributed systems—blockchain, IPFS, DAOs, cryptocurrency, smart contracts—is in the process of rewriting civilization itself.

This is Web 3.0, a world in which users of technology become owners. A world in which we are paid for our information, attention, creativity, and engagement. A world in which we don’t need permission to open a bank account. A world in which information and its value is not controlled by a few private corporations, or by the state, but by a series of interlocking, collectively owned networks. A world in which we have the ability to point the tremendous value generated by the internet’s social platforms at solving real problems such as poverty, homelessness, climate change. A world in which the interests of banks no longer drive foreign or domestic policy.

Suddenly, we have the tools to write our own economies with their own currency, their own incentives, their own assignations and distribution of value. We are no longer tethered to the state’s monopoly on money and its entrenched economic mechanisms which are designed to maximize extraction, accumulation, and hoarding. We —you, me, anyone—can write new rules, assign value to things like cleaning up the oceans, housing those without homes, letting people profit from their everyday information, attention, and engagement while online. And anyone anywhere in the world with a phone can access it.

This technology has made economic systems fundamentally plastic—malleable, able to bend to the needs of a community. We don’t need to continue to use our national currencies and its wildly inefficient and cruel banking system. Taxes—but not for the very wealthy or their corporations. Having to show “proper” ID to get a bank account (KYC or “know your customer”) when nearly two billion people lack that piece of paper (the unbanked). Banks getting rich off your literal money and sharing so little, if any, of it. The Federal Reserve “printing” money at will with no accountability (we don’t vote for them) while driving inflation up. Regulations that prohibit most people from investing in private companies (all in the name of “consumer protection”). The list goes on.

Rather than innovation focusing on new ways to sell things or make human beings more “productive,” Web 3.0 innovation is focused on ways to create new economic systems. And, thanks to governance modules, these systems can be determined by their participants. We can vote on the inflation and distribution models; we can vote on features and functions; we can vote on how we want funds used. And if you don’t like one economy, you can join another. Or create your own.

Enter the Multiverse

Distributed systems are creating something so much more profound than a metaverse. It’s creating the multiverse. There will be tens, hundreds, thousands of economies of varying scale interacting with each other (or not, I suppose), each engineered for the needs of that community. We will choose which economies align with our values, with our interests, with our needs.

Each of us will traverse multiple economies all the time. Just as we exchange currency as we travel to other countries, we will exchange currencies all the time as we move between these digital nation-states and their local currencies (the technologic and experiential components of exchange will move to the background, becoming infrastructure of this Information Age economy).

The question we should be asking is not, Do you want to buy real estate in the metaverse? It should be, What economy do you want to create?

Which begs the real question at hand: What world do you want to live in? One where we don’t see people in real life as we sit in chairs, headsets strapped to our heads, while our overlords hock their wares to us in kind of cool, kind of ridiculous animation? Or a world in which finance itself is constantly being engineered to serve human needs?

Do you want to support innovation that amplifies the same old problems? Or innovation focused on deep, systemic change?

Visit Anatha to sign up for our newsletter, The Practical Idealist, and join the conversation about creating tangible solutions to systemic global problems.

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Fairness and prosperity for all: this is the power and possibility of decentralization.

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Daniel Coffeen

Daniel Coffeen

Former Cal Rhetoric prof. Philosophy, film, pleasures. Wrote this, too: https://www.amazon.com/Reading-Way-Things-Towards-Technology/dp/1785354140

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