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Google the word metaverse.

About 51 million results appear. Headlines announcing state-backed metaverse investments worth billions of dollars pop up, too. And next to all that, in Google’s description for the search term? “Fictional world.”

The algorithm is right. The metaverse doesn’t yet exist, beyond rudimentary versions in games. But that hasn’t stopped platform companies, including Google itself, from betting big that it will exist soon. These investments are dealing in speculation, banking on the prospect of an enormous, functional and interoperable virtual world where tech C.E.O.s promise we will soon work, shop and socialize as digital avatars. The pitch is essentially a technologically improved, personalized version of The Sims.

The problem is, the metaverse can’t be manifested with just wishful Silicon Valley thinking. While much of our lives have already shifted online during the pandemic, making those experiences truly immersive at scale is a knotty challenge. The metaverse is currently stalled by a lack of infrastructure (the hardware and software aren’t ready yet), a monopolistic approach to platform development (the metaverse is likely to require more openness and collaboration) and a lack of clear governance standards (some experts want to avoid reinscribing the pitfalls of social media).

So without a functional product, we wanted to know, what’s with all the hype and the headlines? Is the metaverse just marketing, as our tech columnist Kevin Roose asked?

If this moment feels familiar, that’s because it is: A fictive metaverse future has been floated since the early 1990s by authors and technologists dreaming of an era when our virtual lives would be as important as our physical realities.

For the last few decades, the idea has remained fringe. But slowly, it has seeped into the collective consciousness.

The growing popularity of gaming helped introduce the idea of a digital second life to the general public, allowing people to have immersive social experiences in digital worlds. New technology, including virtual reality headsets, facilitated these experiences, and movies like “Ready Player One” helped viewers imagine the possibility of a metaverse.

When “Ready Player One” came out in 2018, the metaverse still felt like a distant, potentially dystopian possibility. Then the pandemic accelerated the digitization of nearly everything, including schooling, working, socializing and exercising. Now, one poll estimates that at the current level of technological consumption, the average American will spend up to 44 years of his or her life staring at a screen.


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