Consumer/Opinion/

Why the idealism of the metaverse can never be a reality — unless we fight for it

Metanomic founder Theo Priestley on why it’s already too late to make web3 a truly decentralised and democratic online space

Credit: Unit 2 Games Limited
Theo Priestley

By Theo Priestley

The metaverse represents an unparalleled opportunity for self-expression and is as much a question of human creativity and imagination as it is about technology.

And it’s already fucked.

Big brands are sinking their teeth into its barely formed flesh just like they did with the World Wide Web — and we are letting it happen.

History repeating

You know the saying that if you fail to learn from history, you’re doomed to repeat it? Let’s take a stroll down memory lane…

The web was invented by Tim Berners-Lee at Cern in 1989 and was available royalty-free to the public from 1993. The promise of decentralisation and democratisation was real, only to be broken by the first web browser — Mosaic, made by the US state body the NCSA — with its constraints on permissible uses without payment.

Then Marc Andreessen launched Netscape Navigator — arguably the first commercial browser — in 1994. Despite pre-launch marketing that internet software should be freely available to all, by v1.1 anyone other than “educational and non-profit institutions” had to pay to use it. The company floated 16 months later, valued at $2.9 billion. 

Yep, the same Marc Andreessen that cofounded venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz (a16z) in 2009 and is now telling us that decentralisation and open source are key to the metaverse. Ring any bells?

Metaverse builders must retain the sense of freedom that embodied the birth of the web this time around. That can only be achieved if Web3 and the metaverse are created alongside the old web and not simply on top of it — despite the iterative naming convention. Both must coexist for a long time and should be seen not as an evolution, but nothing short of a revolution.

Decentralisation at the centre

Another key mistake that early Internet builders made was dividing digital space into closed ecosystems where users could only access “approved” content from the likes of AOL and its walled garden.

It’s the antithesis of user-first design and a business model that still pervades today — most notably with Apple‘s all-powerful App Store, as well as video content companies like Disney and HBO deciding to go it alone, rather than play nice with Netflix or Prime.

This isn’t about consumer choice; it’s about maximising profit.

At the very core of the Web3 movement is a shift towards decentralisation in every aspect of our online existence. 

Tony Parisi, chief strategy officer at Lamina1 — a company making the infrastructure for others to create metaverses — describes decentralisation as “an important step toward putting power back in the hands of consumers and producers, for distribution, payments and identity verification. This will have implications on how and where some information is maintained in the metaverse.” If you ask me, “some” doesn’t go far enough. 

But will Web3 be able to make good on its decentralisation promises in the face of pressure from huge companies?

Epic Games founder Tim Sweeney has been a vocal detractor of walled gardens, but couldn’t we make similar observations of Epic’s centralised ecosystem, offering cheap access to its Unreal engine in the hope of becoming the dominant metaverse player? They’ll be the first to crack interoperability, but while a lot of people in the industry see the company as a welcome antidote, maybe it’s just the drug that keeps us functional instead of optimal. Do you take the red pill, or the blue one?

Let’s be clear: there will never be just one metaverse. There will be metaverses — plural — but as long as big businesses like Facebook — sorry, Meta — are running the show, they will bring their agenda to bear and do everything they can to rinse every last cent from their users.

And one way to do that is to make it almost impossible to spend time and money outside of their system by building those walls and pulling up the drawbridge. This is not the open and free metaverse of which we all dream, but history suggests it is inevitable.

Breaking the cycle

The metaverse could have ushered in a new renaissance and with it, a golden age of creativity and thought, with an endless canvas to create worlds and ideas that express who we are. 

This won’t happen overnight. It already looks as though it won’t happen at all. To have any chance, we need open dialogue between startups, VCs and big brands — as well as the rest of us who want a stake in this future. We can’t let it be driven by the few otherwise we end up where we are today, 30 years after the first iteration of the web, regretting that we didn’t get it right. Again.

Theo Priestley is CEO and cofounder of Metanomic. 

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