Post Modern is a podcast contemplating the future of technology. Listen to the episode above or read the transcript below.
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Today’s episode is about the metaverse, a virtual world we could potentially live in. If you’re a millennial, you probably first interacted with the idea via a computer game called The Sims. Players could built virtual houses, for virtual characters, and even help them get married and have kids.
The concept has taken on a life of its own since then, popularized by films such as The Matrix, Ready Player One, and even an unusually heartwarming episode of Black Mirror. Then in 2020, the concept exploded, driven by a wave of crypto optimism.
“This idea of crypto was a world that existed separate from the state, separate from governments, separate from our physical world because crypto could be transferred across borders, across time zones, easily. And so I think that pointed people's imaginations to a world that existed outside of our own geography, which is the metaverse.”
Adam Sidwell had a front-row seat. As the founder and CEO of Future House Studios he builds metaverses for the film and gaming industries. But when the crypto boom arrived, brands were suddenly clamoring to get involved. Facebook changed the name of their parent company to Meta, imagining a world in which we work together inside our VR headsets, and the fast food chain Wendy’s even opened WendyVerse, a virtual world hidden behind an online refrigerator.
“We had so many companies inquiring, ‘hey, you build metaverse stuff. My boss says I need to get a metaverse strategy for the company for this year.’ And I would look at them and say, ‘You're a hamburger stand. Why do you need a metaverse strategy?”
So much of that metaverse was built on hype. Wendy’s saw 650 million media impressions about their Wendyverse, but that didn’t translate to daily active users. And almost no one wanted to get into a VR headset, especially not to work. When the crypto crash happened in 2022, it had a crippling effect. Crypto darlings like Decentraland and Sandbox that once sparked a world of possibility, quickly fizzled out in reality.
“Decentraland and Sandbox had so few users. Nobody was interested in hanging out there. These were the things that were all the rage—that were talked about. And if you ever went in them you realized there's not really much going on here. So it's kind of sad. It's kind of boring. So the metaverse people saw was tied to that.”
But if the metaverse envisioned by brands was on the brink, the one envisioned by sci-fi was on the rise. A 2016 episode of Black Mirror titled “San Junipero” imagined a future where the dying and quadriplegic could escape the burden of their bodies by placing a small tab on their temple, transporting them to a virtual beach town where they could live out their lives.
“In the case of Black Mirror, it's a social objective right? Can you go meet friends there?”
That’s already happening right now. Our social lives increasingly have an online component. We create online profiles and interact with our friends via social media, Tiktok or Instagram or Facebook. We chat with one another via text message, Facetime, Slack, or Discord. The gaming industry has even created 3D worlds where we can even walk over to a friend’s virtual house and speak to one another through voice chat channels.
“Gen Z right now is spending less time on social media than before. They're spending more time in gaming.
Because for them gaming is social media—it's how you go to interact with your friends. It's how you go to learn about the world.”
There have been some initial successes—events that made many think we were heading for a virtual existence. Ariana Grande played a 15-minute concert in the game Fortnite that had 1 million viewers. Lil Nas X performed in the gaming platform Roblox, which was attended by 33 million people—far more than any stadium could hold. Sidwell’s Future House Studio helped Justin Bieber put on a virtual concert in WaveXR. While Beiber was performing somewhere in a motion capture suit, his Belieber’s were online in their avatars, sending emojis his way.
“Most of the gaming doesn't occur through VR headset— , through our phone, through web browsers—there are so many different ways to get into the metaverse. I think if we're going to open up that definition of the metaverse and I think we should because the true Metaverse things that are happening right now are not happening as much in virtual reality as they are in so many other places.”
Even if you’re not into gaming, so much of our world has already moved online. We shop online, we order food online. During the pandemic, I loved when my favorite museums made their collections available virtually. If I couldn’t jet off to Paris to see the new exhibit, now I could scroll through the Louvre online, and even click on writeups about each piece. Were I there in person, I’d have to look everything up on Wikipedia, wandering the museum with my phone.
“But imagine when it’s that much easier in your VR headset—you're traversing the Louvre and you just tap on something that gives you all the information in the video and everything you'd want to know. and you can go down the rabbit hole right there.”
The VR headset was definitely the hope of the metaverse—something that would make access to that online world three-dimensional. Maybe we wouldn’t have to try on our clothes in the store, but could put on a VR headset and try it out. Maybe we could attend a concert and feel like we’re standing in the audience. But adoption was been sluggish at best. As it turns out, no one really wants to spend their time in a VR headset, not even Sidwell.
“Phones have become such a part of our lives over the last two decades, and they were adopted en mass because it made sense—because we wanted it. Nobody wants VR headsets right now. It's so funny because we have something like seven VR headsets, and I love VR but they sit on the shelf day after day. I go, ‘Oh, when's the last time I played that? It’s been months and yet I will pull out my phone every hour to look at it because there's something I need—it's so convenient.”
Right now, apart from within the context of gaming, we don’t really care about the metaverse. But that’s because there is no current way to meet online as seamlessly as we meet on our phones. Science fiction has a solution for that: Couldn’t we one day access the metaverse using smart glasses, or even contract lenses? Would a chip inserted into our brains give us unfettered access to a virtual world?
“ is going to be a part of our lives. Because we're going to want that information right? It's like, ‘ah, do I have to pull my phone out of my pocket again to find this information? No, I'm able to look through my glasses or look through my contact lenses or see that in Neuralink and it'll be that much easier.”
If we can’t imagine plugging our brains into the internet, we also couldn’t have imagined needing an iPhone, but that convenience made it impossible to do anything else. Sidwell says that when he first bought an iPhone, his he and his wife thought they would only need one for the family, they imagined it as a way to avoid downloading directions before leaving the house. After only a few days, they realized how revolutionary it was for their lives and they bought another one. He wonders if chips in our brains will feel the same way.
“ . But when you have access to so much information and enhances everything you do, it's going to be hard to not plug yourself in.”
“Then on weekends, I'm just going to want to unplug it and like go up into the woods.”
Here, Sidwell hints at the thing that rises in tandem with the rise of technology: our need to unplug from it. On the one hand, we have access to so many wonders that we wouldn’t trade for anything in the world. On the other, there are so many perils to that access. Social media has connected us even as it has alienated us. Email has made our work easier even as it has given us so much more to do.
My own career relies on my ability to record this podcast and share it with you via an online platform. And yet sharing it this way exposes my voice in equal parts to those who might enjoy it, and those who might hate it. As grateful as I am for the internet and how it has allowed me to share my writing, I frequently find the need to separate myself from it, to put my phone in a drawer and ground myself in a world without it.
The rise in screentime has mimicked our rise in active time. The rise of gaming has tracked the rise of playing sports. The rise of the steampunk movement has given rise to the solarpunk movement. The more we go online the more we need the offline. Because of this, Sidwell doesn’t think we will plug our brains into the internet and live virtually—a real-life rendering of Disney’s animated societal critique Wall-E. We just wouldn’t want that.
“ —the very strong contrast of being plugged into a VR headset, and being able to ride my bike down the canyon at 50 miles an hour and feel the wind through my hair and that incredible rush of having really gotten your heart rate pumping. It's just it's an incredible thing. I think we as humans know that. And so, the Wall-E example is so extreme that I just don't even think we would let ourselves go there.”
If we don’t want that world, it won’t go that way, he tells me. Humans can be trusted to know what feels good to us. We didn’t like the VR headset so it didn’t catch on. But maybe something else will. When we find the right version of the metaverse we’ll adopt it. If we don’t, we won’t.