November 18, 2021 - 11:30am

Late last month, Mark Zuckerberg took a huge bet on the “metaverse” concept. He even changed his company’s name from the familiar “Facebook” to the fatuous “Meta”. 

The idea is that, before long, we’ll all be using immersive 3D virtual environments to communicate, socialise, work, play and shop online. Whoever develops the definitive virtual world — the digital dimension to which all the others connect — will effectively own the future. 

Think of it as a race to control the Matrix — or at least the next iteration of the internet. In making his big announcement, Zuckerberg was trying to signal that his company was in pole position. 

However, the public reaction was muted and much of the media’s response derisive. But what if the sceptics are missing something? An editorial in The Economist this week argues that we are. “Mockery is an unreliable guide to the future”, the authors insist. The first mobile phones were made fun of — but we’ve all got them now. Ditto other mainstays of the digital economy: the personal computer, the World Wide Web, social media, online retail, crypto-currency.   

So is the metaverse the next big thing? The Economist regards the success of virtual environments like “World of Warcraft” and “Roblox” as a proof of concept: “It is hard to argue that an idea will never catch on when, for millions of people, it already has.”

In fact, these success stories prove the opposite. They remain niche products and most of them are computer games. That’s not to say that the gaming is unimportant — it’s a big industry. But even in a context where consumers are most open to moving beyond the conventions of everyday life, there is an enduring conservatism. Despite the availability of high quality, affordable virtual reality headsets, most gamers still prefer to use ordinary displays.

Yes, we love our moving pictures — but from magic lantern shows all the way through to the iPad, we’ve consistently expressed a preference for viewing media through two-dimensional frames. Periodically, there are attempts sell us 3D cinema or TV, but it’s never gone mainstream. We may be addicted to our electronic illusions, but they have to stay in their box.

Another constant is our persistent attachment to text. Despite the super-abundance of imagery, we still insist on reading — even in contexts where it isn’t strictly necessary. This is an increasing, not a diminishing, trend. For instance, new research shows that young people are much more likely than the old to use subtitles — despite having better hearing. 

Our brains are wired to view images and process information in a particular way. Electronic technology has greatly expanded the range of what we can experience. However, after several decades of consumer engagement, we can start drawing some conclusions as to what we’re comfortable with. And the metaverse isn’t it. 

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.