Opinion: The metaverse is the scariest and the most exciting development in years

A fuzzy picture of a man wearing a VR headset
Do you trust big companies to make good decisions for humanity's future? Photo credit: Getty Images

OPINION: Facebook's pivot to focusing on the metaverse has attracted its fair share of attention over the last few weeks, including the nation of Iceland ruthlessly mocking CEO Mark Zuckerberg over it.

But there's a big difference between what a gigantic corporation sees as the future of human interaction and what form the metaverse could - and should - take.

Of course, the metaverse is already here, albeit in limited form. You just need to spend a few minutes in Roblox or Fortnite, or with one of Facebook's Oculus headsets on to understand what it could look like.

Heck you could even argue that Second Life, a game so old that Dwight and Jim made jokes about it in The Office, is the metaverse.

However, as technology progresses and crises like COVID-19 and climate change force us to really look at how and where we work for the first time, we're heading towards a crucial development point.

That's why the metaverse is both the scariest AND most exciting technological development in years.


I first encountered the term 'metaverse' while reading Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash a few years back.

Due to me being a geek and a bit of a misanthrope, the concept appealed immediately, particularly the ability to escape from a dystopian reality.

But Stephenson's creation proved to be less than idealistic and that's where I fear we are heading if we allow massive companies to build the infrastructure for our metaverse.

To be truly functional it has to be based on open standards that allow everyone access and not proprietary technology that allows people to be shut out.

Those standards are one of the main reasons the internet has become ubiquitous and why everyone got used to seeing http:// in their browsers.

To be frank, we simply can't trust big corporations to make those kinds of decisions for Web 3.0, expecting they will benefit the majority.

Their mission is simple - to make as much money as possible. You don't have to look too far to find evidence that such companies are willing to profit from real-world harm in order to satisfy shareholders' demands for more and more returns.

It also doesn't take a science-fiction writer to imagine what a metaverse controlled by those companies would look like.

It's a privacy nightmare, full of adverts that use terabytes of information collected about you to get you to purchase virtually worthless in-world items for premiums.

The metaverse could be where you spend all day, every day; working in virtual offices to earn enough cryptocurrency to buy upgrades for your VR headset or new wallpaper for your virtual house.

Your employers will have access to an unprecedented level of information about you, because you'll be tracked from the moment you enter your virtual workplace until you log off. Taking your eyes off your workscreen could trigger warnings.

There might be no more gathering in the kitchen, virtual or otherwise, for a chat - your authorised 15 minute break isn't for another hour and no-one else is off at the same time.

You may even spend most of your time with friends in the metaverse as non-monetised real world interactions get bypassed for online gaming sessions and streaming marathons with headsets and yet more adverts.

Of course, I'm being hyperbolic, but I don't think my nightmare vision of the metaverse is too far off what could actually be delivered if we leave it to the select few.


But there is a vision of the metaverse that could be very different, one that helps reality rather than hides reality, and delivers equality of opportunity rather than monopolosing it.

That's the metaverse I want to see and one I can get really excited about.

It offers the very best of hybrid working, allowing you to interact with photo-realistic avatars of co-workers on the days when you can't be in the office.

You won't be denied access to core functionality because you're not willing to give up every semblance of privacy that should be yours by right.

It will also give you choices rather than mandates on your actions. If it's raining outside you might decide to bypass that actual round of golf for a virtual round.

Or if money's tight, a virtual concert might be a good way to destress after work insteading of heading to Spark Arena to see Justin Bieber.

You'll also be able to cheaply and quickly set up your own area in the multiverse, whether it's to host a virtual art exhibition of your works, to sell digital and non-digital goods or to gather together with friends to talk about your favourite football team.

And it's not just me either. That version of the metaverse is also exciting some of the Kiwi businesses I've spoken to lately, including Invivo, which creates wines in partnership with chat show host Graham Norton.

They talk of a future where you could walk into a virtual shop and be served by an avatar of the comedian - then purchasing a bottle in the shop would trigger it being sent to you in real life. 

That's taking the current way of buying online and elevating it with a new experience that is likely to appeal to many. It certainly sounds fun to me.

Importantly, however, you'll still be able to pop out to the local bottle shop and buy it that way too, if that's your preference.

So give me the metaverse which makes life better rather than the Metaverse (™) that controls every aspect of life and actually benefits a tiny few.

The future is coming, whether we like it or not. It's up to us to decide which one we want and, more importantly, who we want and trust to deliver it.

Mike Kilpatick is Newshub's technology editor.