Lead book review

What is the metaverse, actually?

Big tech might tell us it’s what’s coming next but as yet there’s no real use for it, says James Ball

16 July 2022

9:00 AM

16 July 2022

9:00 AM

The Metaverse: And How it Will Revolutionize Everything Matthew Ball

W.W.Norton, pp.351, 22

Money Men: A Hot Start-Up, A Billion Dollar Fraud, A Fight for the Truth Dan McCrum

Bantam Press, pp.352, 20

There is a concept in tech and innovation – branded by an expensive consultancy company, naturally – known as the Gartner Hype Cycle. Any innovation, be it NFTs (a means of owning ‘unique’ digital art), blockchains (the technology powering crypto-currencies like bitcoin), self-driving cars or wearable tech, will go through distinct (buzzword-heavy) stages before it is adopted by the mainstream.

First, it will head to a ‘peak of inflated expectations’, before entering the ‘trough of disillusionment’. As people then work out what the tech might actually deliver it climbs the ‘slope of enlightenment’ to the ‘plateau of productivity’.

It’s an idea that definitely fits lots of the technologies that we use today – think of the mobile internet, for example. As it was being developed we heard much of the promise of what it could deliver for us, only to find that on our pre-3G networks what it meant in practice was waiting for 90 seconds to load a bus timetable that was unreadable on our tiny phone screens. Only years later, with better phones and new infrastructure, did it actually deliver on its promise.

The problem with the cycle is it comes along with an embedded premise: all of these technologies can deliver, and even if they are currently obviously over-hyped or widely dismissed, this can all be explained away. Just give it time, hold the faith, invest more, and you’ll reach that plateau.

Two books, in quite different ways, serve to trouble that narrative. One, Money Men, by the Financial Times’s Dan McCrum, sets forth how Wirecard became the darling of the European tech scene (and obtained a $1 billion investment from SoftBank), turning the boring, low-margin world of payment processing into something much more lucrative, of which more later.

The other looks ahead. Matthew Ball (no relation), the former global head of strategies for Amazon Studios, has written The Metaverse: And How It Will Revolutionize Everything. As the title might suggest, Ball is quite enthusiastic about the prospect of the metaverse.

On that, at least, he’s hardly alone: Mark Zuckerberg is so excited about the metaverse that he’s renamed his company Meta and pledged to spend $10 billion a year making the metaverse a reality. Microsoft is similarly making big investments and Google is doing the same (but a little more quietly), as are dozens of start-ups. The powers-that-be in big tech have decided it’s the next big thing.

None of that, though, explains what the metaverse actually is. A virtual reality interview with Facebook’s president of global affairs (and former UK deputy prime minister), Nick Clegg, did little to clarify matters. In the virtual environment a legless Clegg – legs are still something of an unsolved technical problem in VR – gestured strangely as the real-world Clegg floundered, trying to sip coffee without hitting his headset.

His explanation floundered just as much too. The metaverse is about joining the real world with the online world, but doesn’t necessarily mean virtual or augmented reality (products like glasses which overlay online information on to your real vision). It may or it may not require blockchain or NFTs. It’s decentralised, but big tech wants to be the one to provide it.

It’s what’s next but there’s no single specific need that it’s there to fill. This is where Ball’s book shines. Where big tech waffles about the metaverse while spending billions on making it a reality, Ball has exacting standards for what the metaverse must be and what would be needed to achieve it – but where this seems to make him more aglow about its possibilities, it leaves me feeling it’s so remote a prospect as to not yet be worth wasting too much brain power on.

There must, Ball says, be only one metaverse – with smaller metagalaxies or meta-solar systems within it, run by Google, Meta (the metametaverse?), Microsoft or whoever. These can have different rules, visuals and goals, but things should be inter-operable and interconnected.

In practice this means that in the same way that in the real world we can wear a T-shirt bought at a gig in Barcelona back home in the UK – but might get told off if we wear it to a black tie dinner – digital items and art bought in one ecosystem should work in another.

Even this seemingly simple requirement is vastly beyond the technology that exists today, Ball explains. It requires protocols that translate what a shirt in Minecraft means in Meta, for example, and a shared set of descriptions of what it represents, plus (perhaps) an agreed set of age-appropriateness standards and so on.

Ball’s other key requirement is that the Metaverse will need to work in genuine real-time – something that only online games come close to doing now, and which they achieve largely through clever cheats (described lucidly in the text, at some length). Achieving this will require radically better hardware and networking capacity, both domestically and internationally.

As if all of that weren’t complex enough, Ball believes that online payments would need to work differently to how they do now, with Apple, Steam and others each taking 30 per cent cuts and guarding those gates. We would need huge technological advancement, major governance reforms and a degree of co-operation that might breach antitrust laws to get anything close to what Ball would regard as a ‘true’ metaverse.

Ball seems to agree that nothing we’re likely to see from big tech in the next decade will come close to what he regards as essential, which – to this reviewer at least – suggests we will be left with undefined and empty hype. Blockchain and NFT companies will claim their technologies are the future of the web. Facebook and others will launch VR-headset interfaces and say this is the future. If the history of virtual reality is anything to go by, users will steer clear.

The technology companies seem to be trying to wish a new era of technology into existence, without any particular breakthrough or user need to drive it – trying to rewrite the laws of reality just because they wish them to be different.

Wirecard – the subject of McCrum’s book – shows that can work alarmingly well, for a while. McCrum, who published a series of investigations in the FT, was for a time one of a mere handful of figures casting doubt on Wirecard’s story that it had rewritten the laws of financial gravity, making rapidly growing revenues and high profit margins in a traditionally staid business sector.

Wirecard fought back fiercely, with legal threats, private investigators and sting operations – with the German state even investigating whether McCrum was engaged in a criminal conspiracy with short sellers against the company.

The reality turned out rather differently: Wirecard had not changed the game, it was just cheating. Some $1.9 billion of cash on its books simply didn’t exist – and nor did half its revenues. But while cheating is much easier than rewriting the rulebook, it only tends to work for so long before hiding it becomes too hard to sustain.

This is the question facing big tech over the next decade. It is trying to convince investors it has a next big idea, another way to justify how it has become the dominant economic sector, why it holds so many of the top ten spots of the world’s biggest companies. The metaverse is that idea. The question for us as citizens and customers is whether big tech has rewritten the rulebook, or whether it’s simply found a new cheat.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments