November 5, 2021 - 3:00pm

As a man whose digital avatar is more lifelike than his real self, Mark Zuckerberg is clearly delighted to be entering the metaverse — even if the engineers haven’t quite added “delighted” to his smile repertoire.

Last week, in an hour long video, Facebook rebranded as Meta. The company is preparing for a transition from a social media company into a metaverse company ‘within the next five to ten years’, and they’re already spending a full fifth of their revenue on building the software architecture that will take them there.

This is a clear case for the Great Man Theory Of History. The metaverse as a vague concept (augmented reality plus virtual reality times mobile internet) might well be inevitable, but the future is looking increasingly likely to be built in Zuck’s stilted image.

To confirm this: days after Zuck’s announcement, Nike has filed a series of patents that mark out their own stake in a world that will be a bonanza for IP lawyers: the world of virtual products from real companies.

The boom in Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs) — blockchain ledger entries that confer ‘ownership’ of digital artworks — has given everyone a dry run.

As has Fortnite, the insanely popular online multi-player game, where ‘skins’ — high-end outfits for your player — can come in at $5000.

Nike are already closing in on dominance in these new spaces. In 2019, they applied for patents on ‘Cryptokicks’: NFTs of their new shoe releases. Their system even allowed for the ‘breeding’ of two NFTs to create a shoe ‘offspring’ that could then be made into custom trainers. But like Monsanto with seeds, it also allowed for a cut-off point in the hybrids, that meant customers would always have to return.

In the dystopia they desire, your avatar will need Air Jordans to get around, and your avatar will be mercilessly mocked for wearing old Air Force Ones.

Of course the precise feel and rules of the metaverse are still a way off — hence Meta’s presentation falling back on stock sci fi clichés that you might have picked from an episode of Black Mirror.

But whatever the pathway, in the fight to shape the new world, the railways that Meta runs represent the conservation of the old order.

There will be no repetition of Digital Rights Management era that broke the music industry for a decade. Far from the kind of anarchic web 2.0 transition that allowed for MySpace to rise and fall and then Facebook itself to become the net’s croupier, this new era is envisaged as a managed transition. No upstarts, no anarchic Year Zero. Just Nike and Disney and Ed Sheeran; everything as it was, only more so.

It doesn’t take much of a futurologist to predict that the same range of market gouging techniques Big Tech has perfected over the past decade will apply to a new architecture they control. Just as most software is now sold as a ’subscription’, so too in Mark’s branded dystopia, your avatars could well be digitally denuded if they fail to keep up the infinite repayments on their Fendi account.

Meet the metaverse, same as the universe.

Gavin Haynes is a journalist and former editor-at-large at Vice.