Who Will Rule The Metaverse? The Strange Battle For Our Future Digital World

Who Will Rule The Metaverse? The Strange Battle For Our Future Digital World

A complex battle is raging for control of a future world that few understand, but that could shape our lives in years to come. While the early metaverse can appear to a first-time visitor as awkward, even silly, massive investment and new technologies are bringing a far more sophisticated version suddenly within reach. The critical question we now face: Who will control it? Will the metaverse be owned by corporations, or will it be open and decentralized like the underlying infrastructure of the Internet?

The metaverse—currently a concept more than a place—is shorthand for a vast and immersive digital world that is inexorably enmeshed with our physical world. It’s not just for gamers—while the gaming industry has contributed innovation, the metaverse is poised to impact many aspects of our lives.

When the Covid-19 pandemic pushed people across generations to blend lines between online and “real” life, we learned how to socialize, work, learn, exercise and play through screens. This shift laid the foundation for the metaverse to weave its way into our day-to-day lives more easily. This will accelerate when we break loose from screens. While the early metaverse is a shared virtual space we go visit, over time it will be accessed as we go about our day via augmented and virtual reality technology. It is in this setting that the battle to dominate our next digital frontier has escalated.

Battle Lines Are Drawn

On one side are companies like Facebook, which seek to control our onramps to the metaverse—and the profit that comes from it—just as they have with the current web. On the other side are pioneers fighting for an open architecture that welcomes a broad ecosystem of builders and is governed by the community itself. Equipped with new technology like blockchains, these newcomers are fighting for a decentralized and interoperable metaverse, where individuals can have genuine ownership of digital assets and value is shared by all who are contributing to the network.

Established companies are deploying a massive arsenal in a quest to dominate the metaverse. From Microsoft to Roblox, tech powerhouses see the metaverse as our next gathering place for socializing and business—and where people come together, money is to be made. Mark Zuckerberg has declared that Facebook will be a metaverse company, not a social media company, in the next five years, with a goal that the metaverse reach one billion people and generate hundreds of billions of dollars in digital commerce by the end of decade. The company’s rebrand is even forecast to be centered on the metaverse.

Travels into the early metaverse can put the outsider at risk of dismissing it as a plaything. Collaborative workrooms can feel cartoonish. Avatars walk with jerky movements. It’s easy to get disoriented. Digital art can float unexpectedly onto a conference stage.

Early Work In The Metaverse Carries Deep Implications

But with such potential to influence our future, it’s critical to understand the implications of this early work. Over the last week, two simultaneous global metaverse festivals took place, giving us a glimpse of the competing sides of today’s battle for control. One was produced by an established gaming player, the other created by a decentralized metaverse pioneer. Roblox, a public company with 2020 revenue of $924 million, held the first virtual music festival on the Roblox platform in partnership with music event producer Insomniac. At the same time, Decentraland, an open virtual world totally owned by its users, held its first Metaverse Festival.

Both events gave us a glimpse of how digital technology can enhance the experience of attending an event; how live performance can be smoothly integrated; how exclusive experiences can be woven in; and how we can now congregate, no matter where we live, at global scale. Yet they also gave us an indication of the trade-offs ahead.

The Roblox experience was nothing short of slick, with the high-budget design of corporate digital experiences. In conjunction with the Electric Daisy Carnival (EDC) in Las Vegas, the virtual experience not only integrated EDC’s live stages and impressive lineup, but offered games, virtual tents and artist meet-and-greets.

Decentraland’s festival was carefully designed and orchestrated with sets from more than 80 artists including Deadmau5, a merch store for NFT wearables—and even digital portable toilets. The Decentraland festival felt like the community project it was—more creative, less produced.

Yet what’s most striking about Decentraland was happening behind the scenes. In this world, people can directly own and cultivate digital land. They can conduct commerce directly with other participants. And instead of relying on a corporation to run the world, its users govern policies on their own, through a Decentralized Autonomous Organization (DAO).

When we face choices about what kind of digital world we want to participate in, it’s critical to go deeper than surface level. Large technology companies are very good at producing very compelling user experiences, but it comes at the cost of our data and control. Blockchains and tokens offer community governance, direct ownership of digital assets and peer-to-peer value exchange, but the space is still in the early stages and the user experience still has a great deal of friction.

How Should Our Digital Worlds Be Controlled And Governed?

In the fictional world of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, people are dependent on a digital universe called the Oasis for escape from their dystopian present. Built by an eccentric and brilliant technologist, James Halliday, the Oasis is so immersive that the lines distinguishing “real life” are no longer clear. The world shapes people’s lives, but control of that world is handed over to whomever wins a contest that Halliday has designed.

This week, the public is learning just how dangerous it can be for a handful of people to control our digital worlds. The Facebook Papers—thousands of pages of internal documents that are being reported by a consortium of 17 U.S. news organizations—have demonstrated how executives repeatedly ignored research showing that the platform delivers social harm.

Well before we achieve a truly immersive metaverse, we face the decisive moment that will determine how it ultimately will operate. Will the rules be established by a small number of corporations, or will we discover a way for society, working together, to create a vibrant, thriving metaverse that is controlled and governed by its participants?

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