We are sitting, legs dangling, on the precipice of the metaverse. What was once the daydream of tech-heads and gamers, and concepts in science fiction, is now emerging through the mist. It’s blurry, and while we can make out the rough shape of things to come, the details are obscured, but it’s there and it’s coming. The excitement of anyone who has willed this future is fizzing because blockchain has brought forward the timeline by decades. But it isn’t all ray traced sunshine and rainbows. We at MyMetaverse want to create what we as gamers want, but we won’t be the only cowboy at this saloon; there’ll be other cowboys, there’ll be outlaws, and most worryingly, there’ll be familiar sheriffs who like to self-govern. Big tech already controls you more than you may realize, and if they own the metaverse, you won’t just be a citizen in their digital world, they will have complete control over your digital life.
One of the most discussed areas of modern society, particularly in the tumultuous era of COVID, is how much of our daily lives has moved from the physical to the digital. While most of the globe has been in lockdown, everything from work and socializing, to learning and playing, has been online. There is incessant chatter on whether working from home permanently is the future of a healthier work and home-life balance, but one area of this conversation has drifted into the weeds, and it is important — particularly with regards to this conversation.
Few people are discussing just how remarkable it is that working from home permanently is viable from a technological standpoint. And it is not just work. That is, the systems in place are sufficient that we can work, play, shop, catch up with friends, and build lives using only the digital. The metaverse completes this circle of digital existence, fleshing it out from utility through to a Ready Player One-style digital personas. But of this circle of digital living, all but the metaverse we are building is owned by big tech, and that raises three related problems: big tech will want the metaverse to complete their monopoly, the metaverse will likely be reliant on a lot of the infrastructure big tech has built, and we — the gamers, the users — are at risk in ways we may not even fully understand.
This sounds conspiratorial, I realize, but the metaverse is not just the next step in gaming. With the advent of NFTs and blockchain, much of what was restricted to the physical world no longer will be, and these structures need somewhere to live. The common example is digital art galleries, but where will they exist? They, and the myriad other applications, need an ecosystem to thrive and the metaverse — MyMetaverse — provides it. So, why is big tech — the admittedly logical creator of such a world — a concern? We have seen it over the past twenty years: data.
The internet was once something akin the wild west, with major companies vying for a sizeable piece. But as it evolved, as its purpose grew, and as it became central to modern life, the free internet was exchanged for an internet given to us by a handful of companies. We were given unfathomable quality of life improvements, for which we are all grateful, but it was at a cost far higher than a monthly subscription. We paid in data and with the vast oceans of harvested tracking information on every person with an internet connection, the overlords built wealth, power, and control.
Speak to anyone with experience in digital media and you will learn that we are controlled in varying degrees in ways many of us never truly consider. Algorithms decide what makes it into our echo chamber and what doesn’t, based on what we like and what we don’t. What we eat, what we watch, what we learn about, where we go — it is fed to us based on our data. Even if your smartphone is just sitting idly in your pocket, your proximity is being tracked and tailored ads are en route. If you are inclined to investigate real conspiracy, look at recent examples of informational warfare. Russia is alleged to have used information and social media to promote and build anti-vax movements in the U.S during COVID for their own ends. But, to debate whether this is true or not is to miss the point; the metaverse is an online world, the control of which is paramount if it isn’t to be monetized and a new wave of data gathered and sold the highest bidder.
Legislation to regulate the use of data and protect privacy has gone a way to helping with this problem. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in EU law aims to do just this and it has been effective to a point. Entire companies, whose success was built on the backs of the misuse and misappropriation of data, have crumbled to dust, unable to survive without shady insight into the personal details of their target customers. The push to reinstate a semblance of privacy with what we do online has led to a buzz phrase in marketing circles this year: “the death of the third-party cookie.” A third-party cookie is something one website uses to track every other webpage you visit. The ban of these is coming, but the pushback against this tracking for profit is marshaled by Google, the self-governing sheriff. If your visions are of the metaverse being the digital land of the free — as they are for us at MyMetaverse — then big tech is a threat, whether they build it or not.
There are antitrust laws in place in most first world countries and international organizations, that aim to stop a monopoly of industries by the largest players in the game. Antitrust is meant to underwrite a guarantee of fair competition, but capitalism is incongruent with such statutes. It may prohibit blatant dictatorships, but likely colluding monoliths hoovering up smaller competitors and swelling in influence is inevitable. Facebook own the four most downloaded apps of the last decade. If one of these giants doesn’t build the metaverse — and it’ll probably be cheaper and easier for them if they don’t — they’ll buy it. Between Google, Amazon, and Facebook, most of the Western internet is either owned, controlled, or at the mercy of their algorithms. It is like business endocytosis, as these cells float around absorbing useful molecules.
For the metaverse to be truly a place of the people, somewhere of personal control, of digital freedom, it must exist without the behemoths that control the digital world outside of it. The metaverse is a singular and future-altering invention that is as important as it is inevitable. The nature of blockchain, with its documented transactions on ledgers, means while anonymity can be protected insofar as the person’s name, address, and tastes may not be discoverable from their wallet address. A person’s online persona, however, can and probably will be intrinsically linked to their wallet address. That is — and this is significant — accountability is introduced to online practices without forgoing the person’s right to privacy in real life, a serious problem unsolved before now.
We have a chance to have it all, rather than this monumental development in digital life becoming a mere extension of the data farmers with their resulting, insurmountable wealth and power. The metaverse is yours and mine, and unlike social media, its boons and benefits must not come at the price of seemingly insignificant concessions about us. Crypto’s heart is decentralization.