When Facebook renamed itself “Meta Platforms” in 2021, it was poaching from sci-fi author Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash” who first proposed the idea. Forget that Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta reported its first losses this year and no, Sheryl Sandberg. Not because the euro was devalued, or the countless lawsuits levied against you in the UK, or even your $90 billion payout for data privacy violations when you continued to track your users long after they’d logged out.
It’s because, very simply, no tech company however big will ever rule this planet.
In futurism and science fiction, the Metaverse is a hypothetical iteration of the Internet as a single, universal and immersive virtual world that is facilitated by the use of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) headsets. In reality, the Metaverse will be a network of 3D virtual spaces wherein the people of the world will share a single passport.
A fully functioning Metaverse will be a confluence of Multiplayer Games; where consumers develop strategy, construct resources, and coordinate activities. Virtual Travel; particularly extraterrestrial travel, based on imagery constructed from spacecraft sensors, in which virtual craft are flown, driven or sailed through distant galaxies. Remote Work; there are 3 billion people in the global workforce today and roughly 45% of full-time U.S. employees work from home, according to a Gallup poll in September 2021. That number is projected to increase to 70% by 2040. Education and Training; virtual surgeries, for instance, will enable medical school's to train surgeons from home. Finally, Video based Social Media; in which the social rules of engagement evolve from the current lawless state into a regulated, stable and humane social environment designed to support the Metaverse-at-Large.
The integration of these developments will be episodic, driven by technical innovation, commercial opportunity and nation states.
WeChat and Alipay, for example, has almost completely replaced cash in China, meaning the nation’s billion-plus potential users are already intimately familiar with the kind of seamless digital transactions that Western Web3 mavens envision as the foundation of a virtual world.
South Korea’s Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning has announced a $177.1 million package thats among the first investments in the nascent industry to be made by a national government, a cautious first step into a Metaverse ecosystem.
But the real player, at present, of a forthcoming Metaverse is the United States Military.
In terms of industry progress towards the cloud-supported, scalable Metaverse, no organization has come further than the U.S. Army. Their Synthetic Training Environment (STE) has been in development since 2017. The STE aims to replace all legacy simulation programs and integrate different systems into a single, connected system for combined arms and joint training.
The STE fundamentally differs from traditional, server-based approaches. For example, it will host a 1:1 digital twin of the Earth on a cloud architecture that will stream high fidelity photo-realistic terrain data to connected simulations. New terrain management platforms like Mantle ETM will ensure that all connected systems operate on exactly the same terrain data. Trainees, for example, in a tank simulator in the Royal Navy will see the same trees, bushes and buildings as the U.S. pilot in a connected flight simulator, facilitating a combined arms operation simultaneously.
Brave New World
Despite its advanced terrain rendering, STE won’t precisely represent the popular conception of the Metaverse. This is because the Army designed it in light of specific goals. STE allows soldiers to better train, experiment with systems, and rehearse missions. Accurate representations of large sections of the earth are needed to accomplish these goals. Therefore, developers are creating a high-fidelity, digital twin of the entire planet.
Commercial Metaverses' created for entertainment or commercial use may not require an accurate representation of the earth. They will likely be more aesthetic, fantasy worlds that allow users to perform actions, such as flying or teleportation, that don’t represent real life. Training Metaverses' designed for industries that do not require the full extent of the planet (like healthcare) could look different as well. Commercially speaking, there may not be a single Metaverse at all because enterprises will create and rely upon different digital environments for specialized purposes.
The military Metaverse, therefore, is a microcosm of what may soon be a large-scale, open-source digital world that is not controlled or dominated by a few commercial entities. STE will be a reality used in daily training by 2030, a relatively short timeframe compared to the level of needed innovation. STE success will pave the way for any cloud-based, open-source worlds that follow, proving that the Metaverse is foundational to nation-states.
Duty of Care
Neal Stephenson’s 1992 book "Snow Crash" was set in a dystopian world; a real world so awful that people were driven to escape into virtual video games in their free time.
Are we escaping into gaming universes or into a parallel world; where a single Metaverse of dystopian social networks like Facebook or Apple can control its own metacoins, currency, goods and services along the World Wide Web? Would society ever allow it?
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act provides immunity to website platforms with respect to third-party content. It reads:
No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.
However, two new laws are coming down the pipe and promise to change how Meta’s algorithms show content to its 3 billion users. The UK’s Online Safety Bill will “regulate internet services in connection with communications offenses,” and the EU’s Digital Services Act will “create a safer digital space in which the fundamental rights of all users of digital services are protected, establishing a level playing field to foster innovation, growth, and competitiveness — both in the European Single Market and globally.”
For now, Meta’s $10 billion initiative called Reality Labs has imposed a hiring freeze, lost 2.8 billion in Q2, and is being sued by the FTC from acquiring a VP app, Within. “We’re in a very deep, philosophical competition with Apple to build the Metaverse,” says Zuckerberg, a man who flunked out of Harvard and into an Orwellian world.
The Metaverse — a virtual platform on which creators and businesses sell products and services with Meta’s currency — will forever yield at every turn to formidable nation-states who live in the real world. Who understand that freedom falls by the sword “and when you wrestle for that sword,” Stephenson wrote in Snow Crash, “the man with the handle always wins.”