Is the metaverse bullshit? We asked three futurists to explain

There’s been a lot of enthusiastic talk about the metaverse floating around lately. Given the complexity of the issues, and the number of voices that have joined the dialogue, it can often be difficult for many of us to know what we should be paying attention to, and what we can ignore. There is, in other words, a lot of bullshit polluting our public discourse about the metaverse. As part of our Predictions 2022 festival happening today, we sat down with three top futurists to help clarify matters.

The metaverse has been generating a lot of excited chatter from tech company chief execs, marketing executives, and just about everyone else. Very often, it’s painted as a major revolution in mass media – on par with those that followed the invention of the printing press or the launch of the internet – which will transform every corner of human culture, from art to finance to marketing. Such descriptions no doubt contain a kernel of truth; the broad-scale adoption of the metaverse, if it actually takes place, will undoubtedly transform society in some profound ways. But a lot of the metaverse-related buzz is either exaggerated or just flat out untrue. As a result, it’s become a genuine challenge for most of us to separate fact from fiction.

Thankfully, there are a handful of individuals out there who specialize in keeping track of these technologies and their potential societal impacts. We recently sat down and spoke with three of them: Keely Adler, cultural futurist at dentsuMB, Piers Fawkes, founder of PSFK, and ‘digital prophet’ David Shing a.k.a Shingy. Our discussion was centered around one key question: what’s trustworthy in popular rhetoric about the metaverse, and what’s bullshit?

Here are some of the key insights gleaned from our discussion:

The metaverse isn’t exactly a brand-new concept

Many of us picture the metaverse as being something that we imagine to be completely unprecedented: virtual landscapes in which human beings, in the form of digital avatars, interact with one another.

But in fact, as Fawkes points out, virtual, metaverse-like experiences have been with us for quite a while: “There are already metaverses in existence, and I think probably the biggest metaverse today is Discord,” says Fawkes. “We have this massive chat community beast happening, which is a metaverse, it just isn’t Mark Zuckerberg’s vision of his perfect future. And there are already virtual experiences – they’re called video games ... I wonder whether in 10 years, 20 years’ time we might look back at Facebook’s decision to jump into the metaverse, and we might have said, maybe they should have just bought Discord at that time, rather than going off and building a bunch of AR/VR projects.”

There’s still time to jump on the metaverse bandwagon

Given the frenzied pace at which companies have been announcing plans to enter into the metaverse, it can often feel like the train is at the station, and that anyone who isn’t packed and ready to board right now will miss the grand ride into the future of technology.

But that is, according to Adler, total nonsense. “I read somewhere recently that ‘a good forecaster works with radical imagination, but has one foot planted firmly in the ground,’” she says. “And I think that quote is illustrative of some of the bullshit that surrounds all of this frenzied, semi-obsessive discourse around web3 and the metaverse. People have lost their sense of gravity, and they’ve floated up, untethered, with the hype. The thing that I would like to tell clients is: no one is late to the metaverse party just yet, and they’re not going to be late for years and years to come when you really sit down and you think about adoption curves and where the tech is today.

“The bullshit is really acting like we’re late to the party and chasing that frenzy ... chasing the shiny object. We’re not chasing the critically important shifts that sit behind and also in front of this metaverse conversation from a human societal perspective.”

The metaverse is best served enhancing human interactions

The metaverse is often discussed in glowing terms as a sort of future virtual home for humanity, as if the physical world that we presently inhabit is somehow inferior. But new technologies, says Shing, are only desirable if they’re able to genuinely improve the quality of life for ordinary people. “[AR] just feels like this new filter on top of everything that we see,” Shing says. “To think we’re going to jump into this thing where we’re going to spend hours and hours in front of more screens? No thanks ... there’s time for baking and bedtime stories, and time to head out into the wilderness and spend some time in nature and not just in front of screens, because this experience [i.e. speaking via Zoom] isn’t exactly edifying. And it’s certainly not making me a better human.”

Many aspects of living life in the metaverse, says Shing, aren’t “actually a better human experience – [they’re] actually worse, because it feels further away than an enhanced reality. It just feels like a bad version of a game.”

For more, tune into the session here.