A simple test for what counts as “The Metaverse”

Lots of walled gardens and videogame platforms are now touting themselves as part of the metaverse, but there’s an easy way to tell if it’s true. Plus, revisiting Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death” in our digital age.

By Brad Berens

Two shorter (although slightly connected) main stories this week…

1. Revisiting Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death

If you subscribe to Audible, then you should know that terrific audio content comes as part of the subscription—originals, podcasts you can’t get anywhere else, and audiobooks. Right now, one of the included-with-subscription audiobooks is Neil Postman’s 1985 masterpiece, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. (You can find the paper/ebook version here.)

Descriptions like “prescient” or “ahead of its time” don’t capture the importance of Postman’s thinking. Re-reading or listening to the book today helps to explain Fox News, Trump, and our hyper-polarized society.

Postman’s argument is that, as the USA moved from a print-based culture to a television-based culture, American attitudes toward news shifted from a desire for information to a desire for entertainment. Americans had been afraid of the world turning out like the dystopian dictatorship of Orwell’s 1984, but it had really turned out like the self-medicating society of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

Here’s a key passage:

What Huxley teaches is that in the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate. In the Huxleyan prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours. There is no need for wardens or gates or Ministries of Truth. When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business becomes a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility. (155-6)

Postman died in 2003 at the age of 72: one year before Facebook, two years before YouTube, and three years before Twitter. If he had survived another decade to see the iPhone as well as the “Read/Write” and “Social/Mobile” aspects of Web 2.0, then what would he have made of it?

Television shifted from a few sources of broadcast to hundreds of cable sources, which seemed like a big deal at the time. Then the web dwarfed cable with an infinite supply of content from an infinite number of sources.

For a 35th anniversary (2020) edition, Postman might have retitled the book “Enraging Ourselves to Death” because he would have seen that American attitudes towards news have shifted again from a desire to be entertained to a lust for anger and outrage.

While in 1985 it was clear that Huxley was right and Orwell was wrong, 35 years later Postman would have seen a fusion: an eerie mashup of twin dystopia visions. Orwell’s panopticon has been realized, but in the digital age instead of government scrutiny we have scrutiny by corporations.

Huxley’s distraction by trivia becomes distraction by hyper-niche, algorithmically personalized trivia. Instead of Big Brother, we have countless kid brothers (many have said this, but the first was Simson Garfinkel). Instead of smiling faces on the news, we have angry shouting and fingers pointing. Instead of public conversation becoming baby talk, the possibility of public conversation itself seems less and less imaginable.

If you’re looking for a bracing, engaging read, then check out Postman. (Fair warning, the man who reads the book on Audible talks so fast that he could be working for Federal Express.)

By the way, another thinker worth revisiting is George Carlin, who died in 2008. Dave Itzkoff’s recent piece in The New York Times captures why Carlin is as important now as he was decades ago.

2. A Simple Test for What Counts as “The Metaverse” is Interoperability

At one point, listening to the Postman audiobook, I realized I wanted to look at one of his references, so I opened the Kindle app on my iPad, found the book, and downloaded it. (It had been some years and several devices since I’d read the e-book.)

To my surprise, when I opened Amusing Ourselves to Death, I found myself on the exact page where I’d left off listening. “Ah,” I thought. “This is Amazon’s ‘WhisperSync’ technology that allows readers/listeners to hop back and forth between platforms.”

But why is it that this syncing is only available when I buy both the ebook and the audiobook from Amazon? I also have books and audiobooks from Apple, Glose, and more. The answer, of course, is that Amazon is a walled garden. WhisperSync is part of its competitive advantage.

But it doesn’t have to be.

Among many other things, the European Union’s developing Digital Markets Act insists that different digital messaging services become interoperable. If you use Skype, you’ll be able to message somebody who uses WhatsApp. Digital Messaging Services, in other words, must become like phones. You can use any phone to call any other phone regardless of device and carrier. If you have an iPhone from AT&T, and if the person you’re calling has a Samsung Galaxy from Verizon, you can still call.

This doesn’t mean interoperability has to be free. Long distance calls and international calls still cost money. But phone systems are interoperable.

Left to themselves, companies will rarely make their products interoperable with those of their competitors. Only governments can mandate this.

Which brings me to the so-called metaverse. The dream is that the metaverse is like a digital commons where different communities and technologies can come together in a gigantic virtual marketplace of ideas, people, stories, and products.

Mostly, though, the metaverse in its present state is just another collection of walled gardens.

You don’t want to grow your vegetables on land you don’t control. Brand marketers learned this with the pain of a no-lube prostate exam in the early days of Facebook. Facebook (now Meta) encouraged advertisers to spend time and money building their presence on Facebook to have direct connections with their customers and fans. This was all free for years… until Facebook decided that to reach customers who had opted into being “friends” with brands, the brands needed to pay.

The simple test to see if the massive, multi-user, 360-degree interaction platform you’re playing with counts as part of a metaverse is simply whether or not the platform is interoperable with other platforms.

If you can’t take the sword you won in World of Warcraft into Roblox, then neither World of Warcraft nor Roblox are parts of a metaverse.

That doesn’t mean that interoperability has to be cheap or frictionless. When I cross the border from the United States into Canada, I need to buy Canadian dollars because I can’t use American dollars there. I need either to make an arrangement with my wireless provider or be prepared for massive roaming charges if I use my smartphone. I may have to pay a duty to import or export items from one country to another, and one country may forbid some items altogether.

To count as a metaverse, interoperability doesn’t need to be free or universal: it just needs to be possible.

When somebody comes to you and asks you to invest time or money or relationships in a new platform and says it’s part of the metaverse, then ask about interoperability. If it isn’t interoperable, then it’s just another platform, another walled garden. That doesn’t mean the new platform/walled garden has no value.

It just isn’t the metaverse.


Brad Berens is the Center’s strategic advisor and a senior research fellow. He is principal at Big Digital Idea Consulting. You can learn more about Brad at www.bradberens.com, follow him on Twitter, and subscribe to his weekly newsletter (only some of his columns are syndicated here).


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June 10, 2022