Is The Metaverse The New Internet?

I was asked recently whether I viewed the metaverse as the next iteration of the internet, as we march towards Web 5.0. This got me thinking about the idealistic read-only world wide web Tim Berners-Lee initially handed us the keys to in the 90s, and whether this ‘new’ version brought to us by Mark Zuckerberg and his rapidly acquired 10,000 technicians is a worthy successor.

For some who are deep into Roblox or Animal Crossing, the metaverse is already here and serving them just fine. But the current iteration, rooted in gaming and escapism where being a snowboarding champion or warrior in a virtual world is considered aspirational, doesn’t exactly spark the imagination. This version of the metaverse just encourages more people to switch off and disconnect from the real world.

If you could actually control the future of the internet, how would you shape it? What would you want to keep and what would you get rid of?

The internet’s commercial model has a lot to do with where we are today. There was a fleeting moment when various possibilities were open to us in terms of how we’d fund our online habits, but ‘free’ was very tempting and before long we were blithely signing up to data scraping bots crawling all over our online lives, advertising at every turn and big money to be made from keeping us scrolling.

With no single lead or navigating voice, which was the whole ethos of the internet initially, commercial interests stepped in to fill the void. With lots of great stuff like access and convenience, but with inevitable trade-offs too.  

For example, it appears that if you spend enough time online you’ll be caught up in a web of algorithms that may very well turn you into the worst and most extreme version of yourself. Add anonymity into the mix and it’s not hard to see how things are pushed over the edge. 

Reading the papers last week reminded me that being a female politician is possibly the most thankless and potentially dangerous job in the UK right now, with women MPs facing a torrent of vicious abuse and death threats online because of their gender and race. Moving into a metaverse with the same model and algorithms doesn’t feel like the reset many are hoping for.

Of course the internet has also had a very positive impact in the world and given rise to progress, from the medical, with AR transforming surgery, to the sociological, with the rise of the MeToo movement. But what we don’t have right now is a new Tim Berners-Lee to lead us through this next evolution. And we question the future of the internet in part because we don’t trust the people in control of it. 

Zuckerberg won’t be the first or last to try and shape the future of the internet to his vision and interests. But with social media increasingly categorised as the new tobacco or oil, he’ll have his work cut out being defined as its hero.

We’re ready for something far more vibrant, inventive and creative (Greta Thunberg’s metaverse perhaps?).  A more progressive and transformative vision for the future and what’s possible. It’s exciting to imagine what an alternative metaverse would be and to think about the kind of leader who could galvanise a global audience to problem solve our most pressing issues around climate, the incredible loneliness and isolation so many experience or the lack of care so many desperately need. Less metaverse, more internet post its tricky teenage years. Idealistic but not impossible.

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