our technologies have histories and even pre-histories, and that far from being neat and tidy, those stories are in fact messy, contested, and conflicted, with competing narrators and meanings.
The metaverse, which graduated from a niche term to a household name in less than a year, is an excellent case in point. Its metamorphosis began in July 2021, when Facebook announced that it would dedicate the next decade to bringing the metaverse to life. In the company’s presentation of the concept, the metaverse was a thing of wonder: an immersive, rich digital world combining aspects of social media, online gaming, and augmented and virtual reality. “The defining quality of the metaverse will be a feeling of presence—like you are right there with another person or in another place,” Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg wrote, envisioning a creation that would “reach a billion people, host hundreds of billions of dollars of digital commerce, and support jobs for millions of creators and developers.” By December 2021, a range of other large American technology companies, including Microsoft, Intel, and Qualcomm, had all articulated metaverse plans of their own. And by the time the Consumer Electronics Show rolled around in January, everyone seemed to have a metaverse angle, no matter how improbable or banal: haptic vests, including one with an air conditioner to create your own localized climate; avatar beauty makeovers; virtual delivery vans for your virtual home.
There has been plenty of discussion about the involvement of Meta (née Facebook) and its current complicated position as a social media platform with considerable purchase on our daily lives. There have also been broader conversations about what form the metaverse could or should take, in terms of technical capabilities, user experiences, business models, access, and regulation, and—more quietly—about what purpose it would serve and what needs it would fulfill.