So said Tim Berners-Lee in 2018, reflecting on the impressive and tumultuous life so far of his invention, the internet. It’s a useful quote to come back to – not just on its own value as an indication of the bigger picture, but also in the context of the metaverse. It’s a helpful reminder that, no matter your job title or how much money your brand is throwing at this thing, nobody knows – nobody can possibly know – just what the metaverse is going to become. Like the original web before it, the metaverse will take on a life of its own regardless of our best-laid plans.
First of all, a confession: It’s become a mild frustration to so often clumsily talk of ‘the metaverse’, given it’s a collective term which is increasingly used to discuss specifics. But, perhaps like ‘the internet of things’ before it, ‘the metaverse’ is a helpful shorthand to discuss these intricate and exciting changes in technology and culture. Whilst many creatives, innovators and developers have been working on projects we might now define as ‘metaverse’ for 15 years or more, it’s only now that these disparate and unique technologies are coalescing under one term in our broader consciousness.
It’s important to recognise that we are very much in a sandbox phase at the moment, one of play and experimentation. As a result, there will be some exciting success stories as well as some disappointing misfires before we truly understand the alchemy at work.
There’s a palpable desire to make sense of it all – and that’s most often where designers come in. But, instead of asking whether design can bring order to the metaverse, what we should be asking is ‘should it?’.
Design has many virtues, but it can often rationalise and limit experimental ‘failures’ too soon, and homogenise successful applications, patterns, and interactions. Think of the overly-familiar app designs we experience with such regularity today. Perhaps there’s a little too much order in the way we talk about the metaverse. Maybe it’s time to invite some well-intentioned chaos.