22nd February 2024 5:20 pm
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The metaverse obsession will cost us innovation elsewhere

If you ask the people that put together the Oxford Dictionary, 2022’s word of the year is Goblin Mode. Those over at Merriam-Webster opted for Gaslighting, but I’m of the opinion that it should actually be metaverse.

While the concept of a metaverse has existed for some time now, a persistent, digital, online world truly came into the zeitgeist this year. This on the back of Facebook announcing a name and branding change to Meta late last year, as it pursued the creation of its own metaverse.

To date those efforts have returned Horizon Worlds and the desire for avatars with legs – not really what one envisions when it comes to the metaverse.

Meta is not alone its pursuit of moving all experiences into a virtual world. We have seen locally for example, digital real estate being sold for future projects in the metaverse. There have also been some tangible developments too, with MTN recently putting on a music festival via Ubuntuland.

Priorities straight?

It is here that I need to ask the question as to who these kinds of projects benefit? As we have seen with other digital developments, namely the proliferation of cryptocurrencies and NFTs in particular, that much of the rhetoric focuses on how these “futureproof” technologies equal the economic playing field or democratises accessibility.

Whether that is indeed the case remains to be seen, but looking at things anecdotally and the number of times where crytpo and NFTs are used to scam unsuspecting people, or plummet in price, do not leave one with much confidence.

Will the metaverse head the same direction? Only time will tell, but for now, it seems to be one area that big tech companies are fixated.

Reports from research firms like McKinsey highlight just how much money is being pumped into the metaverse. Here it notes that that more than $120 billion in investment has poured into this digital area in 2022 alone, with the likes of Meta responsible for much of the spending, even choosing to double down in some respects.

Even in these early stages, while it may not be accessible to all, of those actively exploring the metaverse, 79 percent of them share said to have spent money within these digital platforms in some sort of guise. Perhaps more concerning is that more than 15 percent of corporate revenue is expected to come from the metaverse within the next five years.

And this is where my disdain for the metaverse comes in. I am not against a virtual world where humans live their lives, akin to something out of Ready Player One or Summer Wars. In fact, I very much look forward to those days. My issue is that the metaverse seems to be a useful distraction for companies obsessed with Web3 and the real problems that exist in the world today.

Big tech must step in

Having just had to deal with a global pandemic that saw misinformation spread like wildfire and division between people being sewn even deeper, there is an economic and energy crisis on the horizon as Russia continues to invade the Ukraine. For South Africans, access to energy is an all too real experience, with 2022 resulting in the highest amount of loadshedding to date.

How can we truly be asked to get excited about the metaverse when we can barely keep the lights on, put fuel in our cars or indeed pay for essentials.

These are the areas that technology companies are needed to step up to help humanity. Once that is addressed, I’m all for having fun in the metaverse.

If I sound particularly negative, I apologise, as I do see interesting applications of this technology, albeit against the backdrop of tragedy. The island nation of Tuvalu for example is turning to the metaverse to ensure that it can carry on existing digitally, as global warming will all but lead to island falling below rising sea levels.

Should technology companies be interested in exploring the metaverse and its potential? Undoubtedly, but not at the cost of innovation that is sorely needed elsewhere.

[Image – Photo by Jens Kreuter on Unsplash]

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