Give me my metaverse!

This plus this brings the metaverse that much closer.

We are literally one technological convergence step away from a world entirely marked up by metadata. This basically means that we are one killer gadget away from a world where continuous, real-time access to that metadata is assumed as part of an individual’s basic equipment set, like having a phone number or the ability to see.

Next semester I plan on teaching Bruce Sterling’s not-quite-sci-fi design manifesto Shaping Things (full text here), in which he refers to this kind of killer gadget as a Wand. A wand is nothing like the Xwand, because Microsoft’s trumped up Wiimote does not deal with metadata. A wand is handled like a cell phone, but without the already obsolete assumption that the gadget’s primary function is to make phone calls. The Wand’s primary purpose is to wrangle arphids, which are the keepers of metadata.

A “monitor” should be cheap and easy to make, because it’s basically just an active arphid. It’s an arphid that happens to have a steady source of power, a longer communication range, and a more sophisticated chip. It’s been moved from passive to active; it’s now a boss arphid…

The point of installing these monitors is that they can communicate information about the arphids to one another. Then they can filter that torrent of data and move the valuable information over long ranges. They become bosses, guards, co-ordinators. Add these monitors into the mix—active hubs of arphid data, repeaters, relayers, linked to a global network—and you have created an INTERNET OF THINGS.

Whenever I shop, I shop with a wand in my hand. It would never occur to me to shop without a filter and an interface. And someone built that for me, it was designed—as a Wrangler, I need an interface for capitalism itself.

The problem, however, is that the majority of the information and metadata embedded in the internet of things lies behind the immediate interface made available by my wand. Most of the work done to sustain this metaworld runs silently in the background, at least from my perspective, because in the internet of things, things are more involved, active, and important than people.

Why is this a problem? Because it makes the metaverse highly unlikely. The traditional metaverse is not simply an environment for interacting with metadata, so the convergence of the technologies above is not enough to give birth to the metaverse. The metaverse happens when the filtered, marked up data gleaned from the real world is easier to navigate than the world itself, so we start to prefer the virtual world over the real world, and start conducting the majority of our business there. To give a straightforward analogy, blogs:rss reader::world:metaverse.

But Sterling’s internet of things represents a technological divergence from the dynamic, embedded interface technologies that are slowly becoming available. In Sterling’s spimey future, things conduct the majority of all business, so the need for sophisticated interface and navigation techniques rapidly diminishes. Information becomes ubiquitous and available, but I need to search for it or wrangle it with my wand before that information becomes apparent to me. There is too much information in an internet of things to simply show me what is around, so if I want to know something I need to submit a formal query: a mini prayer to the tech gods. While such control might be desirable from the perspective of a consumer, it fundamentally undermines any project worthy of being called the metaverse. If the metaverse is to become a world at all, then it simply cannot put the onus of appearance on the user. In other words, when the metaverse comes, it comes silently, because its not there for me to navigate. It is, instead, an internet of things, by things, and for things, and I get only the most superficial glossy window into their world.

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