If you watched the 2018 film Ready Player One, you might recall the environment surrounding the players inhabiting the OASIS. The protagonist lives in a multi-level trailer park. He plays games inside the back of a derelict van with an internet connection. It’s a dystopian vision of a future. It’s also not too far off from what an actual, functioning metaverse would require.
And not because Mark Zuckerberg and everyone who looks like him (you know, Silicon Valley CEOs) are the villains in this piece. They are, more or less, but that’s not why the metaverse is an awful idea. No, the supply chain is the reason why building an actual metaverse will suck, horribly.
Forging your own chains
There are many challenges facing the concept of the metaverse. A working internet connection is needed. That’s still a distant dream for many in South Africa, and around the world. Then there’s the hardware required to participate.
Facebook’s Meta’s Oculus Quest headsets are broadly what we can expect. That is, standalone kit that transports users into a virtual world where they can interact with digital items. And then there’s interoperability. The hardware will have to work with whatever’s out there, or the software will have to work with multiple different instances of hardware. There’s not really any middle ground. And that’s before you get to the really hard stuff.
Assuming all of these challenges can be overcome in one way or another, that’s when the fun begins. The environment at present has multiple companies climbing on board the metaverse bandwagon. Some are just using the right words, so people pay attention to them. Others are most committed to the idea of a global, shared virtual space. And it’s those companies that need to be monitored.
Let’s assume the hardware and software issues are ironed out. Let’s also assume that internet access becomes universal. Digital security is fine, the currency is sorted out, the whole ‘ownership’ question is answered too. In other words, the major challenges to building a metaverse are overcome. What happens next? Competition, in theory. Except there won’t be any competition. Eventually, between one and three entities will own and operate every industry surrounding a ‘metaverse’.
While there might initially be many players in this game – some to craft hardware, others to code, still more to come up with interesting implementations – eventually, there will only be a few. You don’t have to go much further than the present day to see this.
Facebook… sorry, Meta is a prime example. There’s no competing service to rival Facebook anywhere on the planet. You also won’t find an Instagram competitor that can be taken seriously. Even messaging app WhatsApp, the only Meta-owned platform to face anything like real competition, is running far out in front.
Samsung is a similar illustration but on the hardware side. The South Korean tech giant makes everything. Device screens, processors, RAM, storage. They even make military hardware, through a product arm called Hanwha. Apple’s recent behaviour is also suggestive. The company is bringing recycling in-house, allowing it to control far more of its manufacturing than ever before.
The whole picture
Whoever gets there first – whoever makes the metaverse’s so-called ‘killer app’ – will wind up owning most of it. Mark Zuckerberg is aware of this, which is why he wants to be the one to do it. And it’s not a question of world domination that will end with a world mostly owned by Facebook, Amazon, Apple, or Tencent. It’ll happen because it’s cheaper to do it that way, which is perhaps the stupidest road ever taken to a dystopia.
A metaverse would be a hugely complicated entity. We have those everywhere. Governments are an example. But while a government can mostly fail to function (just look at South Africa as an example), it’ll all still move forward. A metaverse, a project of that scale, can’t afford to function as a government.
If a government fails to pay social grants, or the State-owned airline is a complete SNAFU, the rest of the country can limp along. It’s wounded, but it keeps moving. If a metaverse has a single area out of step, it stops working. Hardware doesn’t update? A software update breaks something? Power goes out somewhere? Not enough processors for the next batch of headsets? These instances could cripple a metaverse. And for every minute it’s not working, it’s actively chewing up money. So it has to work, all the time.
We can own you wholesale
The only exception to this would be the experiences that exist in the metaverse. Something specific, hosted on this massive platform. If one of those goes down, it’s a little like walking past a store being remodelled. You can’t go in right now, but maybe you can later. But the platform itself has to remain online at all times.
And that means owning everything. If you absolutely must have control over your uptime, it makes sense to own the server farms. And probably the thing supplying power to it. Solar, most likely, but it’ll then make sense to branch into utilities in general since running all that server hardware takes a lot of power and you’re bound to have a little excess you can sell on the side.
You’ll need to own all of the software companies contributing first-party software for your environment. And probably most of the third-party software providers, eventually, because it’s too costly to have that support withdrawn. So those are acquired and added to the pile. So is a chip-maker, a hardware manufacturer, and a logistics company or three, because all of these need to function globally. At that point, it just makes sense to sell a bit of everything as well, because you own all the other moving parts.
Working for Meta
And then there are experiences within the metaverse. Some will be popular. Some will be less well-frequented. Anything that does well might as well belong to the company because it’s sensible to own the attractions drawing people in. Downtime caused by an indie developer, even one paying to be on the platform, will cost the larger company more money than if they owned it all outright. It’ll eventually be easier to just employ everyone who even tries to make software for the metaverse because there are fewer rights negotiations that way.
At this point, we’re looking at the start of a truly global monolith. The sorts of megacorporations cyberpunk literature in the vein of Willian Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and Neal Stephenson warned the world about. The current corporate titans are vast but they’re, so far, limited in what they own. A future in which a metaverse exists probably won’t have those limits. A working metaverse won’t allow it. There’s always a possibility of a team effort creating such a place, but it’ll be consolidated eventually. The threat of disagreement taking down such a massive endeavour won’t allow the sharing of power.
But, of course, that rather relies on the current issues facing the metaverse being overcome. As mentioned earlier, they’ve still got to figure out how to give everyone decent internet access. And make the hardware functional but broadly affordable. And then create a software environment where everyone can connect to everyone else. Let’s not forget developing security that functions, digital ownership that works, and a few other higher-grade items. All in 3D, as well. We’ve already got the 2D version. It’s called the internet. It seems like an awful lot of downside to develop what will essentially be a 3D web browser.