Ontological questions about the metaverse

In preparation for the workshop I’m going to next week, I thought it would be useful to map out some of the ontological questions about the metaverse which I’ve been thinking about intermittently over the last year:

  • What is the Metaverse? Zuckerberg describes it as “a]n] embodied internet that you’re inside of rather than just looking at” that would offer everything you can already do online and “some things that don’t make sense on the internet today, like dancing.” But I think it’s better thought of as a conceptual framework for the convergence of VR, AR, ambient computing (etc) as big tech firms try to find their way towards a business model under difficult political and economic conditions once they’ve maxed out the room for growth in the digital advertising business. There are examples which meet Zuckerberg’s definition in things like Robox, Fortnite and Microsoft Flight Simulator but what Zuckerberg is driving towards is the possibility of (a) integrating these spaces (b) doing so within a walled garden (c) monetising them through creation of their own economy. It would also be a new frontier of datafication which drives the expansion of advertising.
  • Are relational goods feasible through the metaverse? How, if at all, is this different from other online relations? What are the particular characteristics of metaversal interaction and their implications for relational goods?
  • Is there a practical order within the metaverse? For example will hand presence facilitate embodied engagement with metaversal artefacts? Are our existing theories of material culture adequate for practical action within the metaverse? What possibilities for relationality will specific new technologies open up? For example the possibilities for touch and texture which Future Presence by Peter Rubin describes as being brought into play by haptic technologies in the near future.
  • How should we conceptualise the relationship between VR, AR, Extended Reality, Synthetic Reality and Mixed Reality in a way which is ontologically consistent while recognising the branding dynamics involved in the use of these terms? There are real technological changes underway here but there’s also a political economy of hype.
  • How do we conceptualise the difference between the platform agnostic approach to the Metaverse adopted by Microsoft and the walled garden approach adopted by Meta? It seems like Meta want to lock in platform economies in a new generation of technology (probably without even the limited transferability of content/services on social platforms) whereas Microsoft has a much more open and plural approach built around their influence and experience in gaming.
  • These models have implications for the sustainability of the metaverse. A single unified metaverse of simultaneous interaction is going to be more computationally intensive than plural smaller scale metaverses. Can individual devices support this computationally intensive rendering or will there be a wider infrastructure of localised centres facilitating this? Is a planetary scale metaversal the real frontier of planetary scale communication and what dose this mean for the climate? Will we retreat into the metaverse as the real world becomes fundamentally unliveable for most?
  • What does the Metaverse mean for digital labour? This ranges between pre-adult developers for Roblox, resource mining in games and metaversal enterprise software. There are a whole set of important questions here which are different to parse at present.
  • How is the computationally constructed experience of simultaneity in online interaction different from the simultaneity we experience in reality? I’m still getting my head around this issue but my point is that there’s a complex network architecture of connection and recombination which enables real time coordinated experience between distributed parties. This is particularly complicated for a metaverse with various points of access across different kinds of devices. What is the nature of simultaneity if people are accessing this virtual world using devices which render that world in fundamentally different ways? Does this mean the overall complexity of a virtual world is limited by the capacities of the lowest order device which can access it? Or will we have a metaversal equivalent of China Mieville’s The City and The City with worlds within worlds, only accessible to a metaversal elite?
  • What kinds of relations will metaverse operators have with metaversal developers and users? For example Epic Games have sought to develop trust with developers by minimising the control they have over the platform.

More thoughts here: https://markcarrigan.net/2022/01/30/the-social-ontology-of-the-metaverse/

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