He fails to understand that the technology is a step backwards not forwards
Nick Clegg has moved up in the world. He used to be our Deputy PM, now he’s the President of Global Affairs for Meta Platforms — the company formerly known as Facebook.
This week he published a lengthy essay on the future of the ‘metaverse’ — the technology on which his company has staked its future. The basic idea is that before long we’ll be working, shopping and socialising in 3D virtual environments.
It’s not a new concept, but so far the enabling technology has been too clunky to win over a sceptical public. Facebook/Meta clearly believes that’s about to change — and that we’ll able to blend the virtual world with the real world in a way attracts everyone, not just the hardcore gamers. Clegg believes it’s the “next generation of the internet”: “We’ve gone from desktop to web to mobile; from text to photos to video. In this progression, the metaverse is a logical evolution.”
If he’s right about that, then his company is ahead of the game. But he’s fundamentally wrong — and, inadvertently, he himself tells us why. His essay revolves around the “three key factors” that he claims will make the metaverse feel more like real life: “ephemerality, embodiment and immersion.”
By “ephemerality” he means a “shift towards live, speech-based communication that will often feel as transient as face-to-face conversations” — as opposed to texts and emails which aren’t live and leave a permanent record. “Embodiment” means using animated avatars to communicate with our whole bodies, which is another contrast to disembodied text or voice-only communication. Finally “immersion” means that our avatars will have computer-generated shared environments in which to interact.
Sounds like fun — and in certain circumstances it may even be useful. But Clegg has missed the bigger picture, which is that the internet has allowed us to move away from ephemerality, embodiment and immersion. Our addiction to our screens is not despite the flatness of text, but because of it. The fact that text isn’t live allows as to reply in our time, or not to reply at all. Another plus point is that it doesn’t betray our facial expressions or body language — we need say nothing more than what we consciously decide to say. The third advantage is that text allows us to remain in a space of our choosing as opposed to a sensory environment controlled by others.
That’s not to say text can’t be intrusive — an after-hours email from a demanding boss is rarely welcome. However, the metaverse equivalent would be so much worse. Instead of the annoying message in your inbox, you’d be summoned back into the (virtual) workplace.
Speed is the most obvious benefit of modern communications. But there’s a second kind of progress: towards enhanced privacy and personal autonomy. A phone call is a less intrusive than a visitor; and, in turn, a text-based message is less intrusive than a phone call.
Nick Clegg has therefore got the evolution of the internet the wrong way round. In mimicking real life, the metaverse is a backward step.