Except, of course, it can’t. Virtual reality has been hovering on the cusp of success for decades now, never quite able to attract the masses. In an essay written for WIRED just before Facebook became Meta, writer and academic David Karpf outlined how the culture-shaking promise of VR had repeatedly failed to materialize, despite major advances in hardware and software. “The technology is always about to turn a corner, about to be more than just a gaming device, about to revolutionize fields like architecture, defense, and medicine. The future of work, entertainment, travel, and society is always on the verge of a huge virtual upgrade,” he wrote, arguing that the problem boils down to the simple fact that “swinging a virtual sword gets tiring pretty quickly.”
Zuckerberg’s particular metaverse can barely provide the expected number of limbs, let alone the sensation that those limbs are somewhere they’re not, cozying up with long-distance loved ones. Far from feeling “deeply present,” people who currently traverse Horizon Worlds must do so while wearing a clunky headset that requires frequent charging, which means that not only are they not transcending the “little window” of a screen, but they are also physically tethered to a charger.
Sure, it’s early, and maybe there will be major innovations that make feeling physically present with other people in a virtual space more plausible 20 or 30 years from now, although even that seems unlikely. (Matrix pods, anyone?) But even if that happens, there’s a far larger obstacle to surmount: whether people want this in the first place. Do we really want to plop our bodies down, ignore corporeal existence, and instead spend a good chunk of our wild and precious lives in a corporate-controlled simulacrum? Even the coolest virtual sword loses its luster.
Big Tech leaders, Zuckerberg in particular, have made an audacious bet that they can profit off the metaverse. This does not make it something people automatically want. The folly of Meta’s quest, in particular, is tied to how broad its ambitions are. The most successful current metaverses are gaming platforms like Roblox and Epic Games’ Fortnite. But Meta has no intention to become the next Roblox or Fortnite. It wants to gobble them up, then spit them into the corner of a vastly larger world, one where people go to work as well as game, to hang out, to read, to stream, to scroll, and, of course, to buy stuff.
This more ambitious vision for the metaverse—the full-fledged parallel world—is misguided. It hinges on this frankly strange assumption that people yearn to move further into a digitized facsimile of the real world, complete with real-estate bubbles, art speculation, and Zoom meetings. This is an assumption which has ample evidence against it. It’s not like society is turning away from the internet—people spend truly excessive amounts of time both online and playing video games—but there’s no great clamoring for a new, more intense version. If anything, especially after the pandemic pushed a large swath of urban professionals into extremely online, remote-working lifestyles, the cultural appetite is for in-person events, face-to-face conversations, and un-augmented reality.