Beware the Metaverse

The vision is a fever dream for gamers who'd love to immerse themselves in their online worlds and not have to worry about the messy details of physical existence.

The vision of a metaverse laid out by Mark Zuckerberg last week is bonkers. Nutso on steroids. It won't be realized in my lifetime, yours or his, even if some of the wildest claims about longevity come true and we all live to be 150.

The vision is essentially a fever dream for gamers who'd love to immerse themselves in their online worlds and not have to worry about the messy details of physical existence, so it doesn't directly bear on the insurance industry. But there are still elements of it that could be dangerous to insurers if taken seriously.

The main problem is the underlying claim that the internet is about to morph into something very new -- and that we all need to start preparing. It won't, and we don't.

The story -- and there's always a story to these flawed technovisions that appear from time to time -- is that the version of the internet that appeared in public view in the 1990s was essentially a broadcast medium. Companies posted news, advertised their wares, etc., and people consumed that information in front of their computers. In the 2000s, Internet 2.0 arrived. It went beyond broadcast and became interactive. We didn't just consume what companies put in front of us. We interacted with companies and their products and with each other -- pioneering companies, Facebook among them, actually turned those interactions into their "product." So, here we are, a decade-plus later. That must mean the internet is ready for another leap forward, right? I mean, what has it done for us lately?

While the capabilities of the internet will continue to expand exponentially, the power will come from the explosion of information it will have at its disposal (including from billions of new sensors and hundreds of millions of additional cameras), from the increased speed and ubiquity of wireless communication. from the continued surge in computing power generally described as Moore's Law and from the ever-growing reach of artificial intelligence (including AI that makes the AI better--a mind-blowing proposition).

Those gains, while wildly powerful, won't lead to a multiverse for two main reasons: the technology and human nature.

The technology is actually the lesser of the problems, even though virtual reality -- the core piece -- is nowhere close to being ready as the entry point into a world where our primary existence is virtual. VR wasn't ready when it was the hot new thing 30 years ago. It wasn't ready when it staged a resurgence in the 2010s (when Facebook bought Oculus for $2 billion, in 2014). And it won't be ready any time soon. We humans have experienced the world in a certain way our whole lives, and we won't go into a virtual world until it gives us that same experience.

Even when the video gets far better than it is now -- people still often get motion sickness -- some things simply can't be simulated. You can only move so far while wearing VR goggles -- lest you trip or run into something in the real world. Some sensations, such as, say, bungee-jumping, can only be simulated so well even if your goggles tell you you're diving off a bridge. Textures and smells will be limited, too, as least for generations of the technology.

Other technologies that are just assumed in the Zuckerberg multiverse, including brain-computer connections, also have a long way to go before they could undergird a virtual world that more than hard-core gamers would want to live in. In the technology world, whenever anyone says that something is "only 10 years away," what they're really saying is that the claim might be science fiction -- and I don't know anyone who sees commercial possibilities for brain-computer connections even in a decade.

Human nature is the intractable problem. I think of a front-page story I wrote for the Wall Street Journal in the early 1990s about a prominent scientist who had written a book arguing that we'd soon be able to transfer our memories and consciousness into a robot -- at the small cost of the destruction of our physical brains and loss of our bodies. The article ran under this headline:

Good News: You

Can Live Forever;

Bad News: No Sex

In theory, Zuckerberg can argue that it's just as cool to dress up your avatar and send it to the top of the Eiffel Tower in the metaverse as it is to go there in person, but we all know that isn't true. Many things just can't be simulated.

Zuckerberg can do all the promotion he wants for the idea that a new version of the internet is in the offing and that it will become the core of our existence, but that's simply not the right way to think about what's coming. (In fact, as some have noted, the term "metaverse" comes from "Snow Crash," a 1992 sci-fi novel by Neal Stephenson, that is set in a dystopia.)

Even if we give Zuckerberg the benefit of the doubt and don't think his metaverse vision and the name change to Meta for Facebook are designed to distract from the company's many PR problems, he's falling into a trap that catches many smart technologists: He's lost touch with the real world.

As I detailed in this piece from early 2015 on a misconception by Google about the nature of the internet that isn't that far off from Zuckerberg's, many technologists have gotten so locked into their worlds that they lost track of key considerations in the one that really matters. But the fact that so many have been so wrong actually makes dealing with the metaverse easier -- we can see the pattern of error and avoid it.

There will, as always, be opportunities to participate in online worlds, including those that gamers spend so much time in now and that will continue to expand. The Biden campaign bought "yard signs" in a virtual world in 2020, and there will be opportunities for insurers to likewise at least advertise in virtual environments. But those virtual environments will be supplementary; they won't become the focus of our lives.

You already have enough on your plates as you try to, among many other things, figure out how to interact digitally with increasingly demanding customers. I assure you that you don't need to worry about shrinking your businesses to fit into Zuckerberg's metaverse, no matter how many awkward videos he produces that try to convince us otherwise.



Paul Carroll

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Paul Carroll

Paul Carroll is the editor-in-chief of Insurance Thought Leadership.

He is also co-author of A Brief History of a Perfect Future: Inventing the Future We Can Proudly Leave Our Kids by 2050 and Billion Dollar Lessons: What You Can Learn From the Most Inexcusable Business Failures of the Last 25 Years and the author of a best-seller on IBM, published in 1993.

Carroll spent 17 years at the Wall Street Journal as an editor and reporter; he was nominated twice for the Pulitzer Prize. He later was a finalist for a National Magazine Award.


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