Two overarching themes emerged in respondents’ answers as they contemplated the most likely fate of the metaverse and extended reality (XR) by 2040. The first: Augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR) information layers that can be seamlessly implemented in real-world settings will be relatively widely embraced across societies by 2040 as a part of daily life, but all-immersive virtual reality (VR) will likely remain a niche domain mostly used for entertainment, meetings and virtual education and training. The second: Advances in XR seem most likely to be shaped by the well-heeled mega-technology companies that own, design and control today’s public spaces of the internet. A share of these experts said they expect that this will amplify the already-difficult problems arising out of digital life circa 2022. They argued that human agency, human rights, personal safety and people’s mental well-being are at stake, as metaverse services will further deepen the tracking of people’s online activities, monetize their every move, exercise more influence and control over users’ lives and employ more algorithmic techniques to stir their emotions and passions. This chapter covers experts’ responses related to both of these themes.
A notable share of these experts predicted that AR and MR information layers that can be easily implemented in real-world settings will be more widely embraced across societies by 2040 than VR. They predict that AR and MR tools will continually become more and more important in many millions more people’s daily lives at work, home, school, health care settings, shopping and social engagements. Many said they expect that VR worlds will not have the same kind of utility in 2040, gaining ground only in the realms of entertainment, work and education/training. They pointed out that AR apps can be easily and seamlessly integrated into people’s everyday lives via mobile devices as complements to and enhancers of the real world, bringing more and more data into people’s real-world experiences. In contrast, they noted that today’s vision of truly-immersive 3D VR includes use of sophisticated hardware such as goggles or special glasses and handheld haptic and gestural devices, and it requires a full immersion that leaves “the real world” behind.
Dmitri Williams, associate professor of technology and society at the University of Southern California, commented, “As much as I personally like elves and lasers, they are not the future of our daily life. Relationships, sex, friendship, work, commuting and community all are, and those are the things AR overlays will have real impacts on. The potential for AR is much larger than what will be found in fantasy- and entertainment-based platforms and pure VR. AR could augment our daily interactions, which absolutely will have massive social effects – many positive and negative at the same time. I think this is where our attention should be.”
Mark R. Miller, a Ph.D. candidate who works in the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University whose research examines social interaction and interpersonal communication in augmented and virtual reality, said, “If there is a hope for broad adoption of the metaverse, it is in augmented reality rather than virtual reality, where the border between the worlds is lower and daily use does not imply, as Marc Weiser says, ‘excluding desks, offices, other people not wearing goggles and body suits, weather, grass, trees, walks, chance encounters and, in general, the infinite richness of the universe.’ The driving factor for the adoption of other social media – the telephone, Facebook – has not been richness and depth but rather greater numbers of easy, low-intensity communications. This contrasts with the idea of the metaverse, which occupies as many senses as possible (fully immersive) and assumes synchronous rather than asynchronous communication.”
David J. Krieger, director of the Institute for Communication and Leadership in Lucerne, Switzerland, commented, “What will become influential and integrated into many activities is mixed-reality or augmented-reality applications. Integrating digital information into real-world activities and thus extending reality rather than replacing it with an immersive ‘second life’ will have many advantages and effects in all areas of life including work, education, health care, etc. The immersive digital spaces of a metaverse sacrifice too much of reality, leave too much out of experience and thus ‘cost’ more than people will be willing to pay and offer less than they can get with augmented reality. I do not think that immersive digital spaces will become mainstream in any significant area of life, apart from gaming and entertainment, at any time in the near future.”
Tim Bray, founder and principal at Textuality Services (previously at Amazon), said, “Why would I insulate myself from the wonders of the real world and the people around me when I can keep that and still have full access to the riches of the online life, carefully curated and layered onto whatever I see around me – or not, at my choice? The VR-flavored metaverse is interesting, but it will have peaked and started declining by 2040 because AR will have a much more profound impact and push VR back into a Twitch gaming niche.”
Micah Altman, social and information scientist at MIT’s Center for Research in Equitable and Open Scholarship, wrote, “Eyeglasses have been a successful technology since the 14th century. Today, VR gear is still much harder to use than a pair of glasses, perhaps in 20 years the weight, bulk, reliability, battery life, wireless connectivity and even the price may improve enough to make the ease of use of such equipment comparable to eyeglasses. At that point, shouldn’t everyone have a pair of magic-tech specs? Highly-usable high-tech glasses may well become very popular in industrialized, well-resourced countries – but not primarily to use the metaverse. Instead, cheap and widespread magic-tech specs would have a lot of uses and benefits in augmenting reality or ‘mixing’ with it – the uses of these terms are fluid. This can be a great boon for entertainment – (Tamagotchi 11.0), expert work (surgery, auto maintenance) and in daily life (augmented facial-recognition could be great for those of us suffering face-blindness, or vision loss; maybe not-so-great for those of us concerned with averting a surveillance society). Most of these uses do not require full immersion in a unified audiovisually-immersive virtual metaverse, nor are they improved by it.”
Simeon Yates, director of the Centre for Digital Humanities and Social Science at the University of Liverpool, UK, said, “To function very efficiently in our interactions with digital devices we don’t need a virtual representation of the world to drive around in. In fact, all prior attempts have failed for this reason (e.g., Second Life). What will likely be far more powerful than a 3D metaverse is the integration of computation into more and more devices – such that the real world is interactive in and of itself. This will be popular and featured physically in artifacts or in virtual overlays – even if the result could be, in some instances, as dystopian as the AR world imagined in Keiichi Matsuda’s short film ‘Hyper-Reality.’ So, will we have some VR environments in 2040? Yes. Will they be all-encompassing? No. It’s not like being online dominates all aspects of my life. I go hiking to be in real hills, I cycle to get fit and it’s better if I do it in the local national park. I get more done working at home on Zoom, but boy, being on campus feels better. Of course, humans adapt, and kids brought up with VR and the metaverse may in fact love the ‘Ready Player One’ existence. So, it might become ubiquitous. But I actually think that, like much other tech, it will be the domain of the wealthier/elites if it has great value (access being limited and what goes on there being privileged – both in terms of wealth or ‘private-law,’ the meaning of privilege) – and/or the domain of those not so fortunate if it is a great route to control or exploitation (VR Mechanical Turk work, VR ‘gig economy’).”
Steve Sawyer, a professor of information studies at Syracuse University expert in sociotechnical systems, wrote, “The future is about a merged experience of physical and digital. By 2040 we’ll have moved into a more-seamless augmented overlay of digital features on real experiences. The metaverse is centered on shifting attention away from physical realities.”
Mark Johnson, a technology advisor, administrator and consultant, wrote, “People don’t want to transact their daily business in artificial worlds. Instead, real life that is augmented with digital overlays will become increasingly useful; think more-immersive YouTube how-to videos.”
Andrew Tutt, an expert in law and author of “An FDA for Algorithms,” wrote, “Assuming the technological advances come about, the most likely metaverse to emerge will be a ‘blended-reality’ metaverse, in which the real world and a digital world are blended in various settings. We already see this to a very limited extent with the technology of today. During COVID, many restaurants replaced physical menus with QR codes that could be used to pull up a menu on a phone and then order from the menu on the phone. This will become even more seamless and virtualized. Every flat surface will have the potential to become a screen, every blank sheet of paper will have the potential to become a printed document with virtual text overlayed, every empty room will have the potential to become a conference room with people not physically present in the room.
“I do not foresee, at least by 2040, a tremendous appetite for moving large swaths of physical life into a metaverse environment. Rather, I foresee that we will overlay a data-rich virtual world over the real world that augments the real world. Some examples of how this could work: Imagine running into a forgotten acquaintance at a party and being able to immediately and discretely find their name and other important information about them at the touch of a button; or being able to quickly and easily learn the make, model, price, and potentially even the owner of a car by taking a photo; or being able to identify and name a plant growing in a garden next to the street; or being able to virtually visit a museum, distant place or historical site; or being able to collaborate with friends and colleagues on projects across long distances in empty rooms where they are ‘virtually’ present with you.
“I say all of this as preface because I still regard this as a ‘metaverse’ and an important one. But it is not the ‘shared 3D virtual world’ that some envision when they talk about the metaverse. Although I can imagine there will be some such platforms (for example, possibly fully virtualized concert, karaoke or party venues) I think these will be more like what we already see today as discrete experiences within our larger real-world universe. A group of friends from all over the planet might go on a virtual safari together in a videogame in lieu of all traveling together to South Africa for a real-world safari, but that experience will be discrete (like buying a travel package) not integrated into a single unified virtual world.”
Paul Brigner, head of U.S. policy and strategic advocacy at Electric Coin Company (which seeks to support technology that provides the public with access to a fair and open currency), responded, “Outside of gaming, my expectation is that AR and MR have the most potential for transformative change in society by 2040. I have doubts about Meta successfully driving the transition; rather, I think it is far more likely that Apple, Google and others will lead.”
Kyle Rose, principal architect at Akamai Technologies, said, “Augmented reality? Yes. Virtual reality? No. I doubt people want to live in cyberspace, but I do believe that people will use AR devices to supplement the information they receive from their existing senses.”
Richard Miller, CEO and managing director at Telematica, a technology and business strategy consultancy, wrote, “I have no doubts whatsoever that XR (VR, AR and a variety of designed-for-purpose uses of these technologies) will be very much a part of our society’s business and consumer life. However, I also believe that the ‘fully-immersive,’ completely-contained mediation of VR will continue to be disturbing and problematic for end-users and it will, therefore, experience limited success when compared to augmented-reality technologies and services.”
Robert Bell, co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, predicted, “Augmented reality will be incredibly useful in a huge range of businesses, industrial operations, medicine, science and so on. This will involve wearing a pair of glasses that unobtrusively augments what you see, hear and touch with data when the user wants it. There are many dystopian possibilities as well, which many books and films have explored. But there is strong core value to hands-free access to useful data that will, I believe, translate into strong impact.”
Pete Cranston, an independent communications networks consultant based in Oxford, UK, wrote, “Mobile phones are where partial immersion is more easily achieved without needing to be fully immersed. Many will find that a more-attractive option.”
Andrew Nachison, founder of WeMedia, executive and creative analyst, commented, “I’m not convinced fully virtual experiences will replace ‘real’ ones for most people. The transformation of ‘real’ life will be more like what today we call augmented reality – layers of information and interaction overlaid on real-world environments. That implies glasses or some kind of visual device and I have no clue which hardware approaches will become dominant. Even future smartphones could do the job and be transformational. This additional layer of pervasive data will change our experience of the real world. The answers to routine curiosities will be delivered without the need to type or speak a search on Google. Names, birthdays and important notes about friends – or anyone – might float over them. Maps and directions, which are already pretty fantastic, will be embedded in your live, real-world view. Those kinds of information utilities will change our routine experiences, and some of those changes may transform how we interact with each other – like never again forgetting someone’s name and background when you bump into them. I can also imagine the malicious and dark aspects of that world. Doxxing, shaming and tracking individuals might become truly terrifying. Yet I do expect ‘virtual’ will be commonplace.”
Grégory Maubon, a longtime independent consultant in the augmented-reality field and digital coordinator and AI project leader at HCS Pharma, said, “In everyday life, AR will be more useful than VR because it will offer us a simple way to find the right information at the right time. I hope we will get usable smart glasses by this time.”
James A. Danowski, president at Communication and Technology Sciences, predicted VR interest will not outmatch the appeal of real-world digital overlays, writing, “Although many activities will occur in the play space of VR, the non-play digital world will be dominant. The recent metaverse chatter is due to Facebook’s last try to leap over its stagnant user base and the declining importance of social media in people’s lives. This is a temporary deviation. The metaverse is a longshot gamble tied to the rise in social distancing due to COVID. There will be work applications in specialized areas for it, but the initial surge in VR will involve platforms recouping their investments in the metaverse and creating the pay-to-play environment with NFTs. Users are unlikely to persist in the metaverse unless they can make money there in a digital currency. The secondary economic activity could lead to initial growth, but the metaverse will stagnate after the early innovators and adopters have left.”
An internet pioneer and longtime network executive wrote, “Most interaction with social media and the Internet today is not immersive, but rather in tandem with or complimentary to real-world interaction. Some people may desire to be in a fully-immersive experience in their homes, but in public both safety and practical concerns strongly suggested that virtual reality participation will instead be augmented reality – if AR catches on to a greater degree at all. Augmented reality is much-touted but presumes interception and modification of at least visual and likely audio input for the user. As experiences with Google Glass and Facebook eyewear have shown, users don’t desire such devices to be continually attached to themselves – they value the ability to turn off and put away their mobile devices as much as they value the ability to turn them on. Important lessons are available in the wearable watch area – users will continuously wear the Internet-connected watch but only if it doesn’t get in the way of the rest of their real-world life. While refinements in wearable goggles are expected, no one envisions goggles that are so innocuous that the wearer and their friends forget that they are wearing them – yet that’s the implied requirement for ‘full-immersion’ digital life.”
The next-generation networked-knowledge ecosystem can be built in ways that better serve people than the current web does
The move into extended reality is a shift from today’s Web 2.0 (the social web) to what many are calling Web3 (the XR web-plus). In the early years of the web in the 1990s, before it was commercialized, individuals generally controlled their online interactions. Since the commercialization of online spaces, large technology companies offering centralized platforms were able to monetize the public’s input and interactions online. This has raised significant issues tied to privacy, personal security and political ploys to polarize the public, and it has raised concerns due to the prevalence of hate speech, harassment, bias and misinformation. For more than a decade, many internet leaders (including web innovator Tim Berners-Lee) have been trying to find new approaches to “decentralize” online activities once again. Yet, most of what the internet’s billions of users do online takes place in centralized spaces under the control of mega companies and authoritarian governments.
A share of the experts who participated in this canvassing said now is the time to address these societal issues – before the metaverse is more fully built. They said the more engaging and fully-immersive XR world of the near future will foster rising complexities. They expect that XR spaces built by commercial interests or authoritarian governments will implement AI to exploit individuals in ways that threaten their basic agency and their well-being. They argued there are problems implicit in allowing the principles of market capitalism and political authoritarianism to be key factors in the design and control of the world’s networked-knowledge and communications ecosystem. Some recommended new laws and regulations should protect vulnerable populations from being exploited physically and financially, prevent large tech companies from gaining monopoly power, preserve user privacy, give individuals control of their data and encourage decentralized systems and services.
Gina Neff, professor and director of the Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy at the University of Cambridge, predicted, “The dark side of the metaverse is that the types of technologies coming together to make it work as a whole will monetize even more of our social private lives, will create new types of surveillance, chip away at regulatory and state powers for ensuring equity, fairness and protection for citizens and cede more power to the corporations that are already the most powerful ones in human history. Right now we are seeing the redrafting of fundamental social contracts about trust and democracy. Powerful narratives about life in the metaverse combine new ways of experiencing social connection with new forms of ‘trustless trust’ from the hundreds of little contracts and exchanges that we’ll be asked to enter into every day. Where is the public sphere, where is the social center, in a world that we are told we can remake and reconfigure at whim? There will be so many wonderful positives, to be sure.”
Brian Haberman, network architect and Internet Society board member, the principal staff research scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, predicted, “While the technology to instantiate the metaverse is rapidly emerging, there is little work being done to address the more challenging problems that will hinder widespread adoption of the metaverse. The existing social media platforms clearly demonstrate the challenges to such immersive technologies adopted on a broad scale. Those challenges include complex topics such as trust, attribution, data provenance, identity management and personal information management. Fully-immersive digital life will cause an exacerbation of the current ills of social media platforms (disinformation, bullying, spying, etc.). The underlying XR technologies will evolve in niche markets and make dramatic contributions. Technologies that require massive computational resources will be re-thought, as more industries and users understand their massive environmental impact.”
Alexander B. Howard, director of the Digital Democracy Project, wrote, “As with rapidly emerging systems that are currently being used as virtual concentration camps by authoritarians in modern surveillance states, it is possible a metaverse could empower authoritarians to track, control and coerce billions of humans in silicon prisons ringed by invisible barbed wire, governed by opaque algorithmic regulation and vast artificial intelligences. When combined, all of these devices, our activity on them, the sensors in them and the urban environments around us and above us will make up an embodied Internet in which we leave digital exhaust with each action or movement. As with smartphones and the data collection practices of 2022, people won’t need to be wearing goggles, smart glasses or other wearable computers to be affected by adding more Internet-connected cameras, sensors and autonomous devices to public and private spaces. This will put a premium on nations and states enacting data laws that protect children, consumers, citizens and seniors as they move through these sensorized spaces. While dystopian outcomes aren’t assured, there is gathering risk that failures in collective action will allow bad actors’ exploits (e.g., today’s ransomware and spear phishing) to become even more pernicious as more and more human activity is tracked as we navigate a planet overlaid with a metaverse.”
A principal architect whose focus is cybersecurity said, “As the metaverse becomes more connected with the real world, it can cause harm to the real world, and I do not believe we currently have the necessary safeguards and the architecture to address that. Given the advances in internet technology (speed, latency, availability) along with the advances in AR/VR and AI/ML [artificial intelligence and machine learning] techniques, it is a natural progression for the virtual world to be advanced to allow us to explore and express our need for communication, need for information and our need for attention. This is likely not going to be an all-happy-go-lucky path. We have to evaluate and address the moral and ethical consequences along the way. We need to understand the implications on privacy and security. Currently we are driven more by profits and big corporations which can have a very damaging effect. However, I remain cautiously optimistic that we will be able to evolve this metaverse as a collective that serves the greater good.”
Steve Wilson, founder at Lockstep Consulting and a VP and principal analyst at Constellation Research focused on digital identity and privacy, wrote, “The metaverse is probably not something that should be rushed by commercial interests. It should be allowed to evolve ecologically. Social media, digital spaces, digital reach and immediacy can be wondrous. We need to triangulate the best of human organisation and digital technology to synthesise a true VR ecosystem.”
James Hochschwender, futures strategist with Expansion Consulting, said, “Misuse of metaverses by companies like Facebook (Meta) could undermine independent thinking and create a form of slavery to that company’s economic and cultural ecosystem. It will be the same as we have seen with social media, the bad folks will take advantage of the less astute and will incorporate misinformation to serve their own controlling purposes. It will need global standards, regulation and supervision at a scale that does not yet exist on Earth if it is to avoid being more destructive to society than constructive. Metaverses could take over many people’s lives to the extent that they would no longer be living in the physical world but would spend most of their lives entirely in the metaverses of their choosing. That could result in desocialization of large numbers of people and the breakdown of the entire fabric of society.”
A co-leader of a major U.S.-government-convened AI policy group said, “I have no doubt the technology will be more immersive and that digital life will continue to encroach upon our physical lives. Will it create more positives or more negatives? Given the evidence that the current internet environment is enabling both global nationalism and a further concentration of wealth at the top, and understanding the added psychological influence and power of being more immersed in a ‘metaverse,’ it is hard to believe that its positives will outweigh the negatives.”
Leah Lievrouw, professor of information studies at UCLA, wrote, “The whole metaverse prospect is being presented in breathless, escapist terms as a novel and entertaining way to avoid or overcome the badness of reality – perhaps to appeal to those feeling worn down and adrift in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the resurgence of violent authoritarian and nationalist politics and declining faith in institutions or one another. This promotional tack may reflect the enduring digital utopianism of the extraordinarily wealthy and influential ‘tech titans,’ investors and walled-garden models that have come to dominate most people’s experience and understanding of the internet and its possibilities (from the same folks who are presenting space flight and planetary colonization as the ultimate escape for the select few – oy). It’s very interesting to me that at this moment – just as social media, search, online entertainment and the market power of a handful of titanic firms are facing serious public criticism and backlash for the social, political and psychological harms they have produced – the metaverse idea is somewhat cynically being promoted as the ‘next’ internet and thus the solution to all its current problems. But if the owners and users and infrastructure and devices are all securely entrenched, what they’re really offering is more of the same, only more so.”
Alex Halavais, associate professor of Data & Society at Arizona State University and past president of the Association of Internet Researchers, wrote, “The negative end of this evolution is already very clear: Meta’s attempt to wall the metaverse garden is dangerous. There should be a moonshot effort at building the Wikipedia of metaverses – a platform in which the users have a significant say in how things are built, one that remains solid enough to predictably support interactions. Platforms that infect these spaces with advertising or make them only available to those most able to play are challenges.”
Andy Opel, professor of communications at Florida State University, wrote, “While the spectres of corporate control, data mining, privacy fears and predatory capitalism haunt these emerging spaces, just as they continue to haunt much of our daily lives outside the metaverse, the power and potential of these tools is far too profound to reject them because of their corporate entanglements. These digital spaces need to become another front in the ongoing struggle to democratize our media systems, dismantle monopolistic control and close the digital divide. Bell telephone lasted from 1877 to 1983 and was eventually broken up, sparking the explosion of the digital age. Long-distance phone communication changed the world, and immersive media tools are going to be equally revolutionary in their impacts. We shouldn’t wait 100 years to confront, question and demand to change the systems of enclosure and control that shut out audiences and limit creativity and innovation.”
A director of applied science whose work focuses on identifying and mitigating problems arising from technological change said, “The largest concern for our future is that the platform companies that have the clout to build these systems, that have not yet shown the ability to responsibly run platforms with much less potential influence on society seem to believe they can responsibly run metaverse platforms. This is almost certainly not true, and much harm will result if this is allowed to occur. Policymakers, other entities in the market and the public need to be proactive to prevent this.”
A professor of public policy at a major U.S. technological university said, “The metaverse may be ‘more fully immersive’ and expertly ‘refined’ by 2040, but it will be in a way that is designed to extract information and dollars from those who enter. To some, that might be a ‘well-functioning aspect of daily life’ but it offers enormous unchecked power to those who control it. The promoters of the metaverse are hardly disguising their motives, and at this point there is no constraint on what devices (behavioral, cognitive, even coercive, but certainly not involving truly informed consent) will be used to exploit their innocent participants. There’s no reason to expect that legislative or judicial institutions will understand these systems, react to them quickly, or stand up to the financial pressures that will accompany this new way to profit from this fundamental alteration in the way people interact with each other and real reality.”
Terri Horton, founder and CEO at FuturePath LLC, said, “Theoretically, the metaverse of the future can enable a more inclusive and safe work environment, support work-life harmony, meaningful work, drive collaboration beyond traditional boundaries and be a catalyst for innovation. However, if it is not carefully crafted, organizations risk creating work environments in the metaverse that exacerbate societal issues and biases that exist in the physical world. Issues of corporate surveillance, access to worker biodata, privacy, data security, mental health impacts, identity, and reputation theft can have overwhelmingly adverse effects on organizations, workers and society. Therefore, these significant vulnerabilities must be addressed as the future of work continues to unfold through 2040.”
An expert on the evolution of algorithms predicted, “Most concerning are the geopolitical challenges currently becoming increasingly visible in the ways in which states are increasingly assertive in their control and surveillance of online spaces and populations. Any further immersion into online spaces heightens the potential for the extension of this control and the expansion of alternate forms of currency/exchange creates additional pressures on state systems and control.”
Some respondents do not see it to be highly likely that anything can be done about these problems
John Sniadowski, a systems architect based in the United Kingdom, responded, “The opaque nature of massive-scale international corporations such as Google, Meta (Facebook) and Amazon makes it deliberately difficult for governments and politicians to legislate overarching controls to rein in and allow better scrutiny of how they manipulate markets to their often-exclusive benefit and to the detriment of competition and society as a whole. Most of the negative aspects of social media technologies are being used now by governments to create surveillance systems that have no parallel in human history. This is happening without citizen consent or even awareness in many instances. It is driven by international corporations peddling technologies to oppressive governments to improve their corporate market profits to acquit the fiduciary requirements imposed by law to maximise their market values.
“Every technology, from the most simple to the vastly complex, has light and dark uses. The more complex the technology, the greater the potential for nefarious uses in warfare, social discontent and the development of citizen-control systems that are even more opaque than those created by the very corporations that help develop them. This is a huge inhibitor to the development of a fair and equal metaverse that truly enriches the daily lives of citizens and contributes unequally to the dark side use paradigm. As the metaverse is developed and deployed, there will be inevitable distortions and warping of use cases because this is in the interests of oppressive governments and other organizations to bend technologies to their nefarious uses. Legislation will always be in a retrofit defensive mode unable to move fast enough to keep on top of the negative aspects of technology use. The inability of political structures to avoid the soundbite that ‘one size fixes all ills’ will inevitably drive the metaverse into areas of oppression rather than to the enhancement of the human experience.”
There has been some pushback against 2021-2022 moves by venture capitalists and entrepreneurs who have created a “gold rush” by claiming that Web3 will be decentralized and then touting the riches to be found in the metaverse combined with blockchain, cryptocurrencies and non-fungible tokens (NFTs).
Steve Wilson, founder at Lockstep Consulting, explained, “Decentralisation is a catchphrase that needs to be unpacked. Some things can’t be easily or usefully decentralised; re-centralisation is a forceful natural state of affairs which is seen time and time again in this space. See the emergence of Airbnb brokers, private blockchains such as Hyperledger and Corda dominating in enterprise, crypto wallet platforms that are hugely popular and antagonistic to ideals – see Moxie Marlinspike’s analysis of Web3. To maintain a decentralised state requires energy (work) for all sorts of reasons – thermodynamic, economic, ecological, sociological. Any system that insists on being decentralised has to have an extraordinarily good rationale to make the work worthwhile and it needs to be very focussed on exactly what is being decentralised in order to make efficient use of the enormous energy expenditure.
“NFTs are illustrative here: The idea of imparting originality on digital artifacts is extremely strategic, almost the holy grail, but the way that NFTs do it is political. Digital signatures curated by a central administrator are much more efficient than NFTs but not so palatable because they tie all participants into an administered scheme. If a metaverse is implemented on a platform, then there will be central administrators behind the green curtain. Ultra-decentralisation in the circumstances is just a party trick. A key piece is going to be digital originality. NFTs deliver originality through crowdsourcing but like cryptocurrency, they don’t work in a vacuum, and there is way too much magical thinking around how NFTs can guarantee fairness for makers and authors. We can provide proof of originality in other ways, albeit centrally administered ways, but that’s just how digital civilization is going to roll.”
Grégory Maubon, a longtime independent consultant in the augmented-reality field and digital coordinator and AI project leader at HCS Pharma, wrote, “I have doubts about promises of seeing decentralization in virtual worlds because we heard the same song at the introduction of the original web and Web 2.0. The evolution of devices will simplify the access to digital immersive worlds. Around 2040 it will be normal to use virtual places as if you are operating in real ones.”
Christine Boese, an independent scholar, wrote, “Patterns are repeating. First came the walled gardens of the early Internet: CompuServ, America Online and Prodigy. Then came the biggest tech companies (formerly known as FAANG – an acronym for Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google). These entities own the platform, host the service, control the search results. Some say that Web3 will be a new distributed model, powered by blockchain, NFTs and the power of cryptocurrency mining. They say the ledger makes it distributed, sends it everywhere with perfect fidelity. That’s not the pattern I see, however. The engineers who built the early Internet created a distributed infrastructure using packets, uniform resource locators, open-code, shared modular components, crawlable pages. It was Lo-Tek, as science fiction author William Gibson might say, but Lo-Tek with distributed power. Sir Tim Berners-Lee released his link protocols into the wild for free (just as Salk released the polio vaccine). Almost immediately, entrepreneurs tried to build centralized, owned bits on top of it, to monetize it. But they couldn’t figure out how to put a meter on the frictionless Internet. However, the deep infrastructure of Web3 has monopoly capitalism in its DNA. The blockchain ledger promises opportunities to consolidate wealth and remove it from the oversight of governments and currency regulators. But this consolidation is the opposite of distribution. A true distributed model grows a new or bigger pie. A consolidation model keeps cutting up and trading pieces of the same pie. NFTs promise to honor ownership, fencing the Wild West while letting the bison roam free. You’ll just get charged every time the herd wanders over some invisible fence. Blockchain inventors claim they can distribute these objects while consolidating money for speculators, like betting on stocks or commodity futures. They are also gambling with a high environmental carbon cost for the electricity to create and maintain it. Killing one environment to build another, a virtual black market e-commerce system, hidden from oversight, regulation and taxes? They’ll build immersive environments and interactive physical or virtual objects because they’re betting values will accrue.
“Due to aggressive promotion, immersive platforms may gain a following, but I don’t believe they’ll have staying power to keep users in a kind of thrall except through dark UX [user experience] patterns or manipulative AI. Gambling interfaces already do this, but the blockchain system itself is a big casino, a Ponzi bet. Here is why: Blockchain items are distributed with ledgers attached, but the ledgers themselves are not truly nonlinear, distributed things. Rather, their central record can be added to, but not changed. The blockchain ledgers move around like nonlinear, roaming bison, but they don’t multiply, clone, branch or merge back. Our roaming blockchain bison gets heavier and heavier, picking up burrs, tumbleweeds, mud from the wallow. We like the permanence of its record, its chain of hyper-extended linearity, preserving a single authoritative record over time.
“But centralization is the opposite of a distributed system. In this world, the past is fixed, recorded. Only the future can change. Revisionist history is not permitted. The recorded past holds all authority – the deep mythos of the blockchain – which is conservative by design. One thing we know, if not from Marshall McLuhan, then from our own experience, is that the medium, its deepest structures and their biases, blind spots and prejudices, shape us as much, if not more, than we shape them. That’s why we can’t let AI agents run wild, learning our broader culture. The agents learn too well, hold too perfect a mirror to society, and within a short period, they turn fascist, authoritarian, unyielding and abusive. Because that is also who we are. Could a blockchain metaverse carry the day? Yes. Didn’t Alexander Hamilton’s central bank defeat the distributed democratic ideal proposed by Thomas Jefferson?
“If the builders of Web3 believe a more-immersive Second Life will become compelling because stores and commerce are there, then I have a dead mall to sell them. More likely, they will return us to 1999, full of hope and hype, and then suddenly decide returns haven’t reached projected levels, and values will deflate, as pyramid schemes often do.”
Paul Brigner, head of U.S. policy and strategic advocacy at Electric Coin Company (which seeks to support technology that provides the public with access to a fair and open currency), responded, “I do not anticipate the move to XR will initially align with a transition to a blockchain-based Web3 ecosystem. Even though many people link XR and Web3, I believe XR is relatively more mature and will become mainstream much sooner via traditional centralized architectures. I see the positives and negatives of this transition to mirror what we have experienced in the transition to connected lives generally, although perhaps magnified.”
Ellery Roberts Biddle, projects director at Ranking Digital Rights, wrote, “Early development of the web and other networked technologies in the late 1990s and early 2000s was cloaked in techno-utopianism, the idea that these technologies would benefit the whole of society by creating a newly open and somehow more level playing field where people would be more free to express ideas, form communities and movements, and build businesses. Most of the people who imagined these benefits were white, male, living in cosmopolitan areas in the industrialized West, and often affiliated with elite universities. Twenty years on, it is not hard to see what actually happened here – this utopianism was indeed little more than a cloak. From these elite circles emerged some of the world’s most powerful technology companies that have fundamentally altered the path of the internet and its development and truly made it a place where profits (and algorithms driven by profit incentives) rule the day.”
An information science professional said, “The metaverse will not be more fully developed. That would require that people will want to trust more of their lives to big tech companies and to trust big tech companies. It also presumes that people will want to live in a less-tactile world.”
Those who fear that corporate and government interests will continue to control the evolution of these systems as they have been the past few decades believe that AI-XR online evolution accentuate or even expand upon current system deficiencies, creating more challenges and limiting human rights and autonomy.
An anonymous respondent shared an excerpt from an essay by journalist Tom Valovic titled “Why We Should Reject Mark Zuckerberg’s Dehumanizing Vision of a ‘Metaverse’”:
“The Internet is now increasingly about social control, technology dependence for profit purposes, surveillance and sometimes cynical corporate manipulation of hearts and minds. … These issues require critical-thinking skills for deciding what kind of world we want to live in since the mass of humanity is not being asked if these invasive technologies are acceptable or desirable. We need to somehow, through the seemingly unstoppable momentum of runaway technology, find a way to return to a way of living that retains the use of limited and intelligent technology where appropriate without allowing it to run roughshod over the core values of humanity we still cherish.
“Facebook’s new moniker, Meta, is shorthand for metaverse, a major new technology and culture shift that Big Tech is trying to force feed anyone who uses the Internet. In the words of a friend who works for another Big Tech giant, this new direction is ‘terrifying.’ … This is a seismic shift. It is planned to become the dominant paradigm for human communications, transitioning our business, social and cultural life from physical to online environments. … This radical change in how we live our lives is something that no one will get to vote on, as a new and unprecedented kind of technocratic governance begins to replace many of the functions of traditional government and, I believe, even democracy itself. [This is] nothing less than an attempt to fabricate an alternate ‘reality’ other than the physical one we now inhabit. This new reality can be accessed, of course, only by paying customers who are in a position to afford and understand it. It is a technology designed by elites and for elites and implicitly leaves behind much of humanity in its wake. …
“As more and more corporate control was levied, Internet-based technology began to intrude subtly on our personal spaces in exchange for the Faustian bargain of a new set of technological ‘conveniences.’ Now Big Tech is aiming to not only extend this intrusion with technologies like Alexa but to make life impossible to live without it … hence the notion of a metaverse. Working in conjunction with elites and Big Tech social engineers, this next big initiative will be even more intrusive and dehumanizing and is being carried out under the rubric of a specious philosophy called transhumanism – a set of values that has declared our own humanity as deficient and in need of technological enhancement.”
Llewellyn Kriel, CEO of TopEditor International, a media services company based in Johannesburg, South Africa, said, “As with most aspects of XR, the metaverse is doomed in utero because it fundamentally threatens basic human nature. As long as amoral bots and related unresponsive, antisocial AI define the metaverse, it should be opposed in every way possible. It remains, no matter how camouflaged, sweetened and propagandised, a threat to humankind.”
An expert in AI who leads a foundation dedicated to the support and evolution of open-source knowledge commented, “The metaverse, to me, feels like rampant capitalism trying to run even further amok. Cool, but amok. Facebook has already proved you can create a wildly popular social network that is both dystopic and valuable; it should be a walk in the park to seduce a half billion people to switch to the VR. You want to know how it will change lives? What’s the point? Well, Facebook has already shown what. It can be both dystopic and valuable. Some people will use it to exploit others. Others, like my wife, will use it for just gabbing with friends the world over. Sure, connecting with friends is seriously cool; meanwhile, there are wars going on, dictators rising, and, oh, did I mention that there is solid evidence that the climate is changing and not for the better?”
Brooke Foucault Welles, associate professor of communication at Northeastern University, said, “I’m concerned that we’re already replicating the exclusionary and biased practices that trouble today’s social web. Corporations are crowding out or buying up bespoke metaverse platforms. Experiences beloved by women, children, people of color, people with disabilities (and, really, anyone who is not a cisgender White man) are being dismissed as not ‘serious’ or ‘important’ metaverses. And centralized corporate control places an emphasis on expensive equipment and a narrow set of experiences that prioritize competition, consumerism and productivity. This will almost certainly ensure the metaverse(s) of 2040 are not diverse, inclusive or accessible. That’s a real shame, because there is so much potential for metaverses to imagine and embody the full range and joy of human experience in ways we have missed in prior technological changes.”
Cathy Cavanaugh, chief technology officer at the University of Florida Lastinger Center for Learning, said, “We have learned that when IT companies align with governments and businesses to develop and adopt a technology, consumers at first gain the option of using the new technology and then often lose the option to quit using the new technology as it replaces older technology. In 2022, there is enough momentum, excitement and funding behind XR that this adoption and narrowing of choices seems likely. What’s unclear is in what spaces and aspects of life the adoption and narrowing is most likely. Certainly, in entertainment, including sport and the arts and media, as well as personal communication and commerce among wealthier consumers within this decade. Whether adoption and narrowing of XR in government, work, research and education reaches tipping points is unclear due to the current expense and complexity of XR technology. As with previous communication technology, XR could increase human presence in remote connection while increasing isolation and general human distance in life. And it could be another example of technology benefiting privileged people while marginalizing people with less wealth.”
Andrew Nachison, founder of WeMedia, executive and creative analyst, said, “Will the parallel virtual space people are now calling the metaverse be the nexus of culture, like the internet is now, or just a big subculture, like video gaming is now? I suspect the latter. Given what we know about business and technology, it also seems likely that eventually a handful of corporations will dominate. There may be more than one metaverse, but not too many.”
Pete Cranston, an independent communications networks consultant based in Oxford, UK, said, “The promise of social media and other elements of Web 2.0 has at best only partially been realised because of the winner-takes-all nature of capitalism. One geography – the U.S. – had a head start, and the dominance of the English language in the Internet of the early 21st century, along with the development of tools that facilitated hugely profitable business models based on monetising surveillance, meant that a small number of companies would dominate the space delineated by Web 2.0. Chinese Web 2.0 in some senses mirrors the English-speaking world although within huge constraints set by the Chinese state. Chinese web tools, including those associated with immersive digital spaces, will play a much larger part in the next development phase. There are likely to be other location- or nation-based competitors from other parts of the world, from the other BRICs and possibly Europe. The nature of these immersive spaces will be different, reflecting different cultures.”
An expert in complex systems, gaming and collaborative learning commented, “In the 1990s we had multi-user domains (MUDs), text-based virtual worlds built by folks creating them together for fun in online communities. The most famous was LambdaMOO, a blank canvas on which a charismatic founder could build a rich and lively community with all of the action you see in the metaverse – but just in text. Which creative form has more impact, the book or the movie? Why won’t the current metaverse expand? In my view the system has to be distributed and federated. There should be communities running on tiny, affordable computers like Raspberry Pis that can connect into a metropolis running on much more powerful computers. Also, developing 3D dynamic content is much more difficult at the moment than writing/programming dynamic content in the 1990s text-based MUD environment. Being ‘in the zone’ in the text-chat environment back then was so much better than today’s ‘wave if you can hear me’ Zoom-type conversations. The mechanics of Second Life are so distracting. Current players are just thinking about how they can extract value from the place, with little thought about the software infrastructure required. I don’t think these problems will be worked out by 2040. Perhaps the 0.1% are trying to reduce the world to a dust bowl to make the metaverse the better alternative.”
A professor of digital humanities in one of the most prestigious computer science departments in the U.S. wrote, “The ecological and social costs are staggering. We need to wake up. WAKE UP! Do NOT go further and further into fantasy land. The physical, actual world is a beautiful place. Why is everyone racing to escape it?”
danah boyd, founder and president of the Data & Society Research Institute and principal researcher at Microsoft, commented, “Tl;dr: ‘Snow Crash’ was a dystopian novel.”
It should be noted that on June 21, 2022, Meta, Microsoft, NVIDIA, PlayStation, Sony, Epic Games, Adobe, and dozens of other large, medium and small tech companies joined together with leading open-standards groups including the World Wide Web Consortium, the Open Geospatial Consortium, the Web 3D Consortium and others to announce the founding of the Metaverse Standards Forum, a group designed to ensure interoperability in the metaverse and, ideally, address some of the other concerns experts cited in this canvassing. Two large players, Apple and Google, were not founding members of this group. The aim of the group is to foster consensus-based cooperation to define and align diverse technologies, requiring a constellation of interoperability standards created and maintained by many standards organizations. The announcement did not mention whether standards for ethical design and business practices will be part of its action plan.
The experts who participated in this canvassing wrote hundreds of pages of thought-provoking insights into the potential future of extended reality and how these tools and society might evolve in the next 18 years. They were fairly evenly split as to whether the metaverse will or will not be a much more refined and truly fully-immersive, well-functioning aspect of daily life for a half billion or more people globally by 2040.
The next two sections of this report are centered around insights shared by 1) respondents who predict that it is likely the metaverse will be quite a bit more widespread and advanced by 2040, and 2) those who say it will not. Each of these sections has multiple subsections tied to common themes arising from these experts’ insights.