The metaverse was a ridiculous idea. Where did it come from?
A few years later, Silicon Valley’s brief obsession with the metaverse has taken on the quality of a half-remembered bad dream. Legless avatars lured us inside barren digital landscapes … stand around and talk about NFTs? Lots sold for millions of dollars? It was a… virtual world? NO? A mixed reality game? NO? A new frontier? An escape from meatspace? A layer above? Companies raised and spent billions of dollars on the Metaverse without ever being very clear on what it was meant to be or do – they not only lacked a good pitch that went beyond “early entry,” they also lacked a coherent one concept To pitch at all.
The Metaverse was a term in search of a trend; a trope in search of instantiation; a failed act of summoning by leaders who genuinely believed they could control the weather. In an obituary published on InsiderEd Zitron surmises that the ultimate cause of death was the arrival of another big thing:
The metaverse fell ill as the economy slowed and hype about generative AI increased. Microsoft shut down its virtual workspace platform AltSpaceVR in January 2023, laying off 100 members of its Industrial Metaverse Team and making a series of cuts to its HoloLens team. Disney shut down its Metaverse division in March, and Walmart followed suit, ending its Roblox-based Metaverse projects. The billions in investment and the breathless hype surrounding a half-baked concept resulted in thousands – if not tens of thousands – of people losing their jobs.
But the Metaverse was officially pulled from life support when it became clear that Zuckerberg and the company that started the madness had strayed to greener financial lands. Zuckerberg explained in a March update that Meta’s “biggest single investment is pushing AI forward and building it into every one of our products.”
He shifts much of the responsibility for the hype to a man’s feet — or the space beneath his floating torso. “Zuckerberg misled everyone, burned tens of billions of dollars, convinced an industry of supporters to succumb to his unworldly obsession, and then killed them just as another idea began to take an interest on Wall Street.” , he writes. Which is fair: Renaming Facebook to Meta was a bold attempt to not only rebrand a company but set an industry agenda, and while it ultimately failed, it kind of worked for a while.
A question worth pondering, however, is why It worked at all – and why people like Zuckerberg were so eager to get involved, despite the huge cost. Low interest rates couldn’t have hurt. Crypto neighborhood had something to do with it. The sense of imminent stagnation among the tech giants was certainly a concern. Maybe they just read it snow accident in high school and thought: What if that, but not cool? (“We’ve always been clear that our Metaverse vision is long-term, and that hasn’t changed,” Meta spokeswoman Elana Widmann said in an emailed statement. “We are committed to our Metaverse vision and We’re seeing good momentum.”)
In hindsight, however, I think one obvious answer is being grossly underestimated: COVID. Empty offices and new empowered Staff drove some tech executives from her mind, and the Metaverse promised a solution, or at least acted as an answer. It presented an intoxicating fantasy, yet most of us wouldn’t recognize it – or, if we did, one we might recognize as some kind of nightmare.
Leadership fantasies—and executive autonomy in general—are neglected in most popular theories of how things work, I think especially in the tech industry where superstar founders and CEOs have considerable deference and latitude. They lead strange lives, develop idiosyncratic views of the world and wield unusual amounts of power. It’s safe to assume that the leadership of a large technology company is interested in maximizing efficiency and profits, for themselves or for shareholders. It’s the job description and often explains much but not everything – sometimes seemingly legitimizing much more instinctive and personal decisions made under the auspices of capitalism’s cold logic. In the case of Elon Musk’s Twitter, for example, where executive whims are the only thing left to explain, this is certainly not the case.
Consider what crypto looked like from the top: not just a potentially promising area for investment, a modest but significant grassroots phenomenon among users, or an engine for wealth, but also the crude fantasy of complete regulatory freedom, a road to stateless, tech-centric world. AI, too, represents, among other things, a deep fantasy of tech executives: an endless supply of cheap and obedient labor and a chance to own the means, well, everything. The Metaverse was, as Zitron suggests, a “means to a higher stock price” for Facebook/Meta, but it was also akin to an executive crusade — it was the awkward twitch in those Metaverse announcement videos, more animated than ever — and it is also It’s not that hard to imagine why.
The Metaverse was another preeminent executive fantasy. Overall, it offered the prospect of a new frontier not seen since Zuckerberg conquered the last frontier. In short, it was a way to make remote work more like working in the office for everyone, but especially for bosseswho saw it as a way to regain control and authority over their new WFHing employees. It was a theoretical solution to the suddenly pressing problem of expensive and empty real estate – replacing a finite resource with an infinite one. (Meta has long talked about being a remote-working company, but it pays for millions of square feet of office space around the world.) From one executive to an audience of other executives, the Metaverse offered — at least in Zuck’s perspective — an offering one Vision of the future in which everything was different but also pretty much the same: a disruptive technology that maintained the basic order of things and where you knew again what your employees were doing, even if they were just avatars.
A rational CEO who thinks of his shareholders could certainly have made any number of bad or misguided decisions in Mark Zuckerberg’s position, especially in the strange circumstances of a pandemic; Still, it’s hard to explain Meta without an unusually capable CEO committing himself intensely to a fantasy that, then and now, resonated with none but himself and perhaps an audience of similarly disoriented corporate leaders.
What was unusual about the Metaverse from the outside, around 2021, was how little it offered to anyone But Executives alternately hailed it as imminent, far off, or already existing in games like Roblox News to the millions of people who play it. It felt eerie and hollow, and when people stopped talking about it as much, nobody who wasn’t directly involved seemed to care. It’s true that Silicon Valley has shifted its attention to AI, but what really destroyed the metaverse was the return of workers to the office. In 2022, outside of the tech sector, large companies that had switched to remote work began demanding the return of their employees. In the tech industry, traditionally relatively open to remote work, a season of brutal layoffs has been matched by stricter plans for returning to the office. In a March To update To employees and investors who made only passing reference to the Metaverse, Zuckerberg wrote of the need for a “Year of Efficiency”:
Our early analysis of performance data suggests that engineers who either joined Meta in person and then moved to remote or stayed on-site performed better on average than those who joined remotely. This analysis also shows that early in their careers, engineers perform better, on average, when they work face-to-face with teammates at least three days a week.
From the outside, this reads like an anti-pitch for the Metaverse office that Meta had unveiled just a few months earlier — or, for Zuckerberg, maybe just a postponed dream graphics are good enough.
It’s fitting that Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI and avatar of the industry’s next leadership fantasy, is the one wanting to bury the last one. “I think one of the worst mistakes tech has made in a long time was definitely that everyone could work completely remotely forever,” he said in an interview this week. “I would say the experiment is over and the technology isn’t good enough for people to be fully remote controlled forever.”