Metaverse: a bridge between the material and immaterial world
The metaverse has been a trendy concept in the last couple of years, with movies like « Ready Player One » and « Free Guy », Facebook’s rebranding as « Meta », or the bubbling Metaverse projects in the Web3 space. But many are already denouncing it as a form of digital escapism into a virtual wonderland, to avoid looking at and dealing with the « ugliness » of the « real » or physical world. Physicality is no picnic. In the material world, to build a house, it’s not as simple as instantiating it via a line of code, or via a couple of key strokes. Nor is it easy to deal with the maintenance or destruction of existing things. If you build a house, and you don’t like it, you can’t just « erase » it from the physical reality. Materiality is sticky.
The metaverse seems to address all of these challenges, by creating a world which is specifically designed to remove frustration, and boost creativity : no more waiting in line with smelly people to listen to your favorite musician or singer. No more walking miles inside a vast museum to contemplate paintings and works of art hidden behind glass screens and security ropes. No more delay between the moment you imagine something and the moment you get to experience it. In the metaverse, you can get what you want faster and without the pain. Giga cities have been built on Minecraft over night. That was just the beginning. But at the same time, what happens when you take off your VR headset or turn off your computer ? Reality hasn’t changed much. In fact, the dishes still need to be washed, the dinner needs to be prepared, and the kids aren’t ready for bed. Physical reality comes back with a vengeance.
But what if there was a way to bridge these two worlds ? What if the metaverse could serve as the consensus layer or sense-making layer for collective creativity, decision making and manifestation in the physical world ?
So far, creation in the physical has taken two main forms : individual or personal creation, and collective creation via the intermediary of private companies or public authorities. In the first case, creation is slow. If you want to build your own house, you’ll need to work very hard and very long, or hire someone else to do it for you, but you’ll still have to work very hard and very long to pay him/her. In the second case, creation is quicker, but with a high imbalance of power, either via money (the richest or most powerful at the head of a private company), via the tyranny of the majority (in the case of public authorities in representative democracies) or just tyranny (in the case of authoritarian governments). It is very rare to find examples of collective creations which respect a process of consensus building and sense-making, which respect and take into account each person’s point of view. Some examples include crowdfunding, where people can delegate their « power » to someone who will be in charge of creating something they all, collectively, support ; or collective creations such as the building of an Amish home, where the entire community is involved.
It is not easy to build consensus, especially via archaic tools such as written proposals, drawings, debates and other verbal communication. Words can be interpreted in many different ways. If a group of 20 people decide they need to buy a table, the image of a table that pops into these 20 people’s minds is likely completely unique and different. And so even when everyone seemingly agrees on a course of action, there is much left to be ironed out, and settling these varying points of view via an exchange of words is time consuming, frustrating and possibly useless, since even if the people try to zero in on the table they want to buy via descriptors like the shape, color or material, even those are still too vague (round, blue, wooden…)
And it is there that in my view, the metaverse can achieve its highest potential : becoming the bridge between the immaterial and the material world, helping humans to coordinate and facilitate the sense-making process, via quick iterations and experimentations, for reaching collective decisions to be manifested in the physical reality.
The first pre-condition for this is to create collective spaces of co-creation in our physical world. At present, there are two main models of property : private property (ownership by a private individual or company) or public property (ownership by the state). With regards to private property, co-creation can happen, but with certain conditions, like having been granted a right to vote on what should be co-created inside a cooperative structure, where your voting weight typically depends on your financial weight in the cooperative. With regards to public property, co-creation takes the form of intense lobbying campaigns to convince elected officials to do something. Both of these models thus have limitations.
Nowadays, a new form of land ownership is emerging : collective stewardship. In such a model, people are no longer owners of a land but stewards. There are many different collective stewardship models, but I will focus on the ones close to the « regenerative land » movement. The basic idea is to give the land back to its rightful owner (mother Earth), and create some form of structure or strategy to ensure that the land is used in accordance with certain basic principles, notably environmental considerations. It is as if the Earth was considered to be a living person, the land being a part of that person, and so anyone that wishes to create anything on that piece of land has to respect the best interest of the land and planet Earth. The « best interest », in this case, typically means that the Earth wants to thrive, be healthy, have balanced ecosystems etc, in just the same way as your bodies want to thrive.
In this article, I will refer to a specific collective stewardship model, currently being explored by COHERE. The idea behind cohere.network, is to buy various pieces of land, to place them in trusts or equivalent legal entities, which ensure that the land is being used according to a series of principles (regenerative land etc). Then, COHERE plans on building co-living, co-working spaces on a portion of that land, and grant the people from the local community the right to co-create on the rest of the land, so long as they abide by the principles.
COHERE is currently building the DAO (decentralized autonomous organisation) governance tools which will be used to make decisions on how these pieces of land should be managed, what should be built etc. The metaverse could be an integral part of the sense-making and consensus building mechanism which would facilitate the decision making process.
Here is how this could work :
1) Every piece of land that COHERE acquires would have its metaverse equivalent, with a transposition of all the elements present on that piece of land into a virtual equivalent (terrain, trees, water surfaces, existing buildings etc). Above the metaverse equivalent, there would be a city in the clouds. There would thus be 3 layers : the physical layer, the metaverse layer, and the ideation layer or ideaverse.
2) Any member of the local community who has integrated the local DAO or « regional bionode’s » decision making body would have access to the metaverse and ideaverse.
3) The ideaverse would be a kind of giant warehouse for exposing various ideas in their early stages and proposals put forward by the community. Think of a giant museum, with various « sections » (food and nutrition, entertainment, buildings and infrastructure…), and rooms for exposing rough 3D models or drawings and sketches inside canvases hanging on the walls. The ideaverse would be the place where ideas gain support and traction, as well as receive early feedback from the community, to iron out major problems or issues, and determine where exactly the idea should be placed in the metaverse.
4) Once an idea has received a certain amount of support, it descends from the clouds of the ideaverse into the metaverse, and takes a more « tangible » form, allowing people from the community to experience the idea as if it were built. At that stage, the community can work out the details of the idea’s exact placement on the piece of virtual (and in the future, physical) land, and delve into the details of the idea’s realisation : fleshing out the technical specifications and schematics for the idea, deciding on who would build it, agreeing on budget etc. In the metaverse, people can easily make modifications and propose variations around the core idea, which would facilitate the consensus building process to settle on a refined and final version of the original idea.
5) As the idea garners more and more support, the idea can then descend into the physical layer of reality via augmented reality as an intermediary step, before building the actual physical version. This would allow the community to experience such an idea directly in the physical reality, see how it would look like in a physical context (as opposed to the virtual metaverse), and put the finishing touches on the idea.
6) Finally, once the idea has gained enough support, it can be built in the physical.
The metaverse, virtual reality headsets and augmented reality, could have many more use cases besides consensus building for co-creating in our physical reality. For instance, augmented reality could serve as a bridge between the metaverse and the physical reality. While the metaverse version of a piece of land would continuously be updated to reflect any changes made on the physical land, virtual avatars or ideas being tested, can be brought into the physical reality via augmented reality, thus further blurring the lines between digital and physical reality. For instance, a renowned expert in permaculture could visit the metaverse version of a physical piece of land, and appear and interact, via augmented reality, with people that are actually physically present on the physical piece of land, sharing advice or walking them through a project they are building. Via augmented reality, people could be present simultaneously in the metaverse and in the physical reality. Augmented reality can help superimpose new things on top of existing things, like testing new pieces of furniture in a building, or a new arrangement of plants in a greenhouse. People from outside the community could also visit the metaverse to get an idea of what the physical piece of land looks like. And these use cases are just the tip of the iceberg.
Why would this facilitate decision-making ? Simply because it creates an interactive and intuitive system for manipulating abstract ideas, concepts and thoughts. After all, humans started painting pictograms long before they came up with written language. Directly manipulating a visual representation of an idea may be much more intuitive than manipulating words. It also turns co-creation into a fun and engaging process, as opposed to a dry paper-pushing exercise. That is not to say that there is no room for text or talk ! But one must recognize that certain humans are at an advantage when it comes to manipulating language, abstract concepts and thoughts. On the other hand, it could be argued that all humans are equal when it comes to interacting with things that people can see and touch. From the earliest age, all children manipulate physical objects and interact with ideas which have taken a physical form (any toy is essentially an idea which was converted into a physical form). Ultimately, I believe that the three layers of reality presented above are simply a manifestation, in a tangible form, of something which already exists in every human. The creative steps discussed above happen within the brain of each individual human whenever they seek to create and manifest something « new » into the physical reality. It first takes the form of a basic idea, thought or concept, much like in the ideaverse, where an idea pops into your head, still raw and fuzzy. In the case of creative individuals, they will typically have hundreds of ideas, and will have to decide which ones they want to flesh out (which reflects the process of building support for an idea and bringing it into the metaverse). Once a human has opted for an idea, he or she spends a lot of time imagining how such an idea would manifest in physical reality, via visualisations and a gradual planning process of how to manifest this idea (an equivalent to what would happen at the metaverse level). And finally, comes the time for action, bringing the idea into a material or physical form. The metaverse and ideaverse have always existed, inside each and every human. On top of having the possibility of exploring these realms in a visual and intuitive way, we can now explore them in a shared way, allowing us to co-create directly by sharing these spaces, where before, people had to try and « sync » these brain spaces using imprecise and clumsy tools such as language. You can’t invite people into your mind. But through the metaverse, one can invite others into your outward projection of your inner imagination. It will become even easier in the future, given advances in AI which will be able to generate anything you ask it to (see for example stable diffusion). What is clear, is that the metaverse idea is, as of now, focused more on creating new spaces for mass consumerism to overcome the physical limitations of our planet : a very poor use case in my opinion, but inherent to a capitalist world, where any new technology has to be profitable.
The real revolutionary potential of the metaverse resides in its ability to help humans manipulate and interact with ideas, concepts and thoughts, improve our process of iteration, and testing new things, to build consensus and sense-making as a collective, to serve as the bridge between the immaterial world and the material world, the invisible and the visible, and facilitate co-creative processes to allow humans to co-create in our shared physical reality in a harmonious way.