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Tomorrow’s (virtual) world

Tomorrow’s (virtual) world

Will politicians and the press indulge tired arguments about old media, only to catch up with the social impact of the metaverse when it’s too late?


Transcript

When government ministers whinge about the BBC, they always seem old. Andrew Griffith, the affable and relatively new MP for Arundel and former Sky TV executive, was appointed head of the Downing Street Policy Unit this week. 

Unusually for him, he then took a swipe at the BBC in a blogpost on Conservative Home: “In the battle of ideas,” he wrote, “we [the Conservatives] remain an insurgent force: outgunned by the hegemony of left-wing orthodoxy that often lurks without challenge within swathes of the cultural and education establishment and in the state supported media.”

I have to say this jarred. Partly, because you don’t want the person in charge of big, new ideas to then find themselves picking old, small fights; partly too because it doesn’t tend to end well for anyone when powerful people harbour a victim complex; and it’s worrying when sensible Conservatives, who characteristically bolster society’s institutions, seem bent on undermining them. 

But that’s not the reason it caught my eye. I’m James Harding, Editor and Co-founder Tortoise, and in the course of the past week, I’ve found myself all too aware of how I really don’t understand the wiring of revolutionary new technologies. 

I stumbled, for example, across decentralised Autonomous Organisations – DAOs. They’re financial blockchains dedicated to particular causes ranging from Julian Assange to carbon credits. Then working on a different story, I found myself trying to understand crypto once again and, in particular, NFTs. Briefly, and separately, I thought I’d got a handle on nuclear fusion. 

Most of all, though, I’ve been trying to wrap my head around the metaverse – the metaverse which is very loosely defined as a virtual reality world where, more and more like the physical world, people will be able to interact with each other, work with each other, experience entertainment and culture together and play games with each other.

But the metaverse, I have to confess, is like those other new, big things. I really don’t understand how it works, what it will do for me, how it will change us – i.e. what it promises and what it threatens. 

And in this week’s Editor’s Voicemail, I want to talk about how to handle not knowing. Taking the metaverse as a case in point, I want to point out the childish inability of politicians and us in the press to admit how little we understand the software that’s changing society – to consider aloud about what we can do about it. 

Here’s what prompted it. If you got the chance this week to read my colleagues Alexi Mostrous and Luke Gbedemah’s Tech States Sensemaker – that’s our weekly newsletter that focuses on the world’s technology giants, and reports on them like countries rather than companies – well if you read it then you’ll realise that Mark Zuckerberg, the man who probably more than anyone else shaped the first age of social media, he’s undertaken what may be the biggest “pivot” in the history of tech. Listening to Alexi and Luke in our editorial meetings, it was clear he’s not just rebranded Facebook as Meta. He’s betting the company’s past fortunes on what he thinks is the next generation of the attention economy: the metaverse. 

Likewise, if you read Richard Waters’ interview in the FT with Satya Nadella, the chief executive of Microsoft who’s just ploughed nearly $70 billion of the company’s money into the gaming business that makes World of Warcraft and Call of Duty, then you’ll know that for him this is a stepping stone into developing the immersive technologies and behaviours that build the metaverse. 

And if you follow the blogs, watch out for the rumours and read the reporting on Apple, then you’ll get the sense that the hardware is not that far behind the software. Apple Glass – which is the effort to build augmented reality glasses – will be the company’s next iPhone (at least that’s what one former Apple employee has told me). And if it’s gonna be that big for Apple, well, imagine what it’s going to mean for us. So possibly in 2023, but perhaps more likely 2024, Apple Glass is forecast to hit the market, and much will change as a result.

What does all that add up to? Billions. Tens of billions. Possibly hundreds of billions of dollars. The world’s software and computer companies are investing in what they think is a step-change technology. They are building it; we will come to it. (In fact, to understand better what’s coming, do join us at our ThinkIn on 10 March with David Chalmers, who’s the author of Reality+. He’s probably the best brain on the virtual worlds to come.) 

But for now, we – the public, politicians and the press – are largely in the dark. 

We need to start by acknowledging we’re not prepared. We’re not sufficiently informed. And surely we don’t want to repeat the mistake of the social media decade – understanding it all after the fact. 

Because what’s infuriating is that we’re currently playing catch up in the UK – in the form of the Online Safety Bill – with a decade of neglect and wishful thinking about the tech platforms impact on misinformation, mental health, personal safety, financial security, truth, trust and democracy. Surely, we don’t want to do the same again on the metaverse. 

If only the new head of the British Government’s policy unit had started work with an agenda that sounded like it was looking to the future. Not a heavy-handed plan for regulation, but, at least, a new little MPC, a Metaverse Policy Committee, of just three or four people who can make sure that what Silicon Valley does next to society doesn’t come as quite such a belated surprise to politicians. (I’m sure that Brexit Britain’s government doesn’t see itself in competition with the EU on this sort of thing, but it’s just worth noting: the EU’s Margrethe Vestager is already on it: she says her team is tracking metaverse development with an eye to what future oversight might require.) 

The old media is, relatively speaking – and in some cases, in real terms – getting smaller. And the old arguments about the old media are not just a waste of time and energy; they surely get in the way of the much-needed new arguments about how to make sure that the metaverse, the next generation of the attention economy, is safe, fair and accountable; that it’s a private world that is in fact a public good. 

Because there’s an opportunity cost to our culture wars: yesterday’s arguments distract us from serious thinking about tomorrow; they may of course offer some people a sense of emotional security, but those comfy slippers are not much help if we actually want to get somewhere.