ILLUMINATION
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ILLUMINATION

The Difference Between Metaverse and Reality That Zuckerberg Won’t Tell You

Photo by Richard Horvath on Unsplash

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Meta, according to Zuckerberg, means “beyond.” The term “metaverse” was coined by Neal Stephenson in his science fiction novel “Snow Crash.” It refers to a virtual world that coexists and overlaps with the real world in which people can use their online identities to interact with fake or real objects around them.

You may find this definition familiar: I just spent the last two hours discussing the pros and cons of moving to Texas in an online forum with several people whose very existence I could never confirm. Could it be that I just made a trip to the metaverse?

Congratulations! You did. The internet is the archetype of the metaverse, and we have long lived in a world where virtual and real worlds coexist and overlap. Only by heroic effort can we wrestle a few minutes from the grip of Facebook, TikTok, WeChat, or Amazon. Our social interaction, consumption, work, and entertainment are all tinted with virtual influences. Infused with righteous indignation or immense joy, many people are more alive in the virtual than the real world.

At this very moment, product managers in Silicon Valley are working overtime to insert the word “metaverse” into product descriptions, as they did with “machine learning” and “blockchain” not long ago. The initiative is not as absurd as it sounds since all of their products are indeed about metaverse.

Some are more so than others, though. Among the existing products and applications, the ones that most resemble the metaverse described by Zuckerberg are online games. A good example is “Second Life.” The user logs into a virtual platform, creates an avatar, and instantly gets another life. All the sorrows of the first life are left behind. The unfulfilled dreams of the first life can still come true in the second one. After Second Life’s spectacular success, more online games employing even fancier technologies emerged. Facebook, or shall I say Meta, recently launched its version “Horizon Worlds.”

Meta is a relative newcomer in the field of online games. “Horizon Worlds,” currently available in beta, is only accessible by invitation. But it has Oculus Quest, the most advanced virtual reality headset, which is indispensable for a fully immersive virtual experience. When Zuckerberg declared that metaverse is his focus from now on, my initial reaction was that he was staking a claim on something other people had built. But on second thought, I have to admit he is somewhat justified to covet a seat at the steering wheel of the metaverse.

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But Zuckerberg’s announcement is about the future rather than the present. The existing online games are only fragments of the metaverse Zuckerberg envisioned. The current internet is just a pre-historic metaverse.

The future metaverse, as opposed to today’s internet, is completely visual and immersive. In addition to texts, images, and videos, all imaginable forms of media can be used to communicate. Instead of entering the virtual world by typing on the keyboards, we enter it by wearing virtual reality headsets, haptic gloves, and electronic skins. One day we may even interact with it through thoughts. We no longer look at the virtual world on screens. We enter and experience it and soon forget it is not real.

All the spaces in the virtual world will be inter-operable. Metaverse is not a product of a particular company but an ecosystem formed by connecting many products. We can enter one space from another effortlessly. Virtual products bought in one space can be used in another space.

The massive endeavor to create such a metaverse requires a leader. Zuckerberg, of course, is the best choice. Jokes aside, Zuckerberg’s influence cannot be underestimated. Thanks to his announcement, the metaverse concept suddenly became red-hot. Billions of dollars have already been made on the stock market. Ex-technologist who only talks about technology occasionally eagerly joins the metaverse conversation.

The metaverse can be fun. You are transported into a virtual home as soon as you put on the virtual reality headset. It is more likely than not spacious and bright, with birds chirping and flowers blooming just outside the window, lakes and mountains all in sight, a far cry from the dingy little house many metaverse builders in Silicon Valley have to endure. You can invite friends to a party at your virtual home, just like you do at your actual house.

A friend is attending a cool concert in Japan. At her invitation, your hologram arrives at the scene. When your favorite star appears on the stage, you cheer and scream and sing along with the excited crowd. That your physical body is tens of thousands of miles away doesn’t seem to make a difference.

Work can also be “metaversed.” Sitting in front of a desk at home, you can feel as if you are in the office, surrounded by co-workers. You can have face-to-face conversations with them, without having to take a shower or change into presentable clothes. Of course, you don’t have to worry about catching their germs.

In a word, all the things we can’t do, all the places we can’t go to, and all the people we can’t meet, suddenly become accessible. Metaverse can indeed enrich our lives.

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That Neil Stephenson coined the term metaverse in the science fiction novel “Snow Crash” is a bit of obscure knowledge that all of sudden becomes an everyday conversation topic. But you probably don’t know that “Snow Crash” takes place in a dystopia. It is to escape the crumbling societies that people in his novel flock to the metaverse.

Do you want to go to metaverse? I asked someone I know. His immediate reaction was, but why? On second thought, perhaps to demonstrate he was giving adequate attention to the question, he added that maybe he would go there to play games or attend meetings. But not to live, he emphasized. My life is interesting enough.

It is not difficult to lure Stephenson’s protagonists to the metaverse. But with a perfectly good real universe at our disposal, why should we go to metaverse?

Zuckerberg started his career in social media. Although social media is purported to promote human connection, I realized a long time ago that its popularity rests on the human weakness of narcissism. As it turns out, although my insight is not wrong, it preys even more on our vulnerability to angry and fearful emotions. As sensationalized stories and fabricated news spread like wildfires, social media became a hotbed for rumors and played a critical role in tearing societies apart. As a result, when Zuckerberg claims that the ultimate purpose of the metaverse is to promote human connection, which is in the company DNA, I have to roll my eyes.

Zuckerberg’s metaverse video showcased numerous fascinating technologies. His vision will surely drive technological developments on multiple fronts that can potentially change the world. But the thought also flashes in my mind from time to time: we can already do this, say, move a mug around, easily in the real universe. Why should we spend so much effort to re-invent it in the metaverse?

In the end, the biggest difference between the metaverse and the real world is not how many marvelous features the metaverse can offer, or what are the remaining functional gaps. The biggest difference is that the real world is free, and the metaverse is expensive. It will not be cheap to build and run the metaverse, and Zuckerberg certainly has to make money, either via a cryptocurrency-based metaverse economy, or, as it is today, by selling data and advertisements.

There is no doubt that the makers of the metaverse will exploit certain weaknesses of human nature to lure us into their world until we all wear headsets or sensory skins, or are soaked in a jar of liquid bestowed with interface capabilities. If 5 minutes of our days are not yet spent in the metaverse, the algorithm will surely notice and try its best to squeeze it out as the remaining juice of a dried lemon so it is contributed to the metaverse.

Then, the metaverse is no longer the icing on the cake. Instead of enriching our lives, the metaverse replaces the universe.

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Victoria Z.

Victoria Z.

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Technologist turned essayist, Victoria writes about books, movies, travel, politics, technology, and the Silicon Valley lifestyle.