What binds Microsoft's takeover of Activision, the distant memory of Sunday closing, and the craze of premiership clubs selling their fans digital memorabilia? The answer is the next iteration of the internet, or what Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg calls "the metaverse".
The “metaverse” is a place of the future, where people’s digital lives, the games they play and their online personalities seep into their real lives to create a new version of this person. This person exists both in the real world and the virtual world – always on, always available, living a different, maybe better life online, where the boundaries between what is real and what is virtual no longer exist – or at least have blurred so much as to make them indistinguishable.
For those of us old enough to remember when TV shows finished at night and the test card popped up on our screen until the shows came back in the morning, the idea of the metaverse is a dystopian nightmare.
For our children, it’s a coming reality. Arguably, it is where many of them already live. And for infants just born, Web3 – the third coming of the internet – promises to change their lives in ways their parents and certainly grandparents cannot fathom.
That old world, with its Sunday trading hours and Grandstand on a Saturday, is history
All this is happening quickly, under our eyes but beyond the comprehension of many, particularly people who remember the number of the home telephone in the draughty hall and their mother answering it by way of announcing the number, often in a weird or “makey-uppey” posh voice.
That old world, with its Sunday trading hours and Grandstand on a Saturday, is history. Obliterated by the internet, multiple sports platforms, subscription channels and online shopping, we are in the new world of Web3. This week, Microsoft spent $70 billion (€62 billion) on Activision, a gaming company, because it believes gaming is the future.
Readers of this column have probably never heard of the online game League of Legends, but the final was watched by an average of just over 73 million viewers per minute. Its viewership was up over 20 per cent from last year. The growth is phenomenal.
The final of Euro 2020, the jewel in European football’s crown, was watched by 329 million. So although real live football at the highest level is king, virtual games are catching up, and they can be played all day and all night anywhere in the world – and they are.
For many, it is the decentralised nature of the new, collaborative web that makes it attractive and its growth potential unlimited. Web3 is a place of cryptocurrencies, digital assets and non-fungible tokens, as well as start-up companies that aim to cash in on the spending of a consumer who is always online and therefore always receiving advertising messages.
For investors, the promise of the metaverse is monetising the attention of the globe. If you have people’s attention, you can sell them things. And if people are online 24/7, you have their constant attention.
Many worry that the metaverse will reduce large swathes of the population to little more than servants of various corporate franchises. In fact, what worries moralists about the future are the very things that are exciting investors, though they may be loath to admit it.
Let’ s consider who will be more attracted to a new, invented, virtual life? Those whose lives in the real world are going reasonably well or those whose real lives are not progressing as they’d hoped? Who will seek the sanctuary of the best version of their life? People who are rich, fulfilled and exciting or people who are poor, downtrodden and humdrum? This is the danger.
The metaverse will mirror existing inequalities. Those who have fallen through the cracks will crave a new life; those who have done well might not need to. Therefore, who will be the targets of the online advertising? The people who experience the biggest gap between their virtual and real incomes and therefore those people who can least afford what is advertised.
If the problem is reality, the solution isn’t fantasy. The solution lies in fixing the reality. The way out offered by the metaverse – and some of its Silicon Valley evangelists backed by a flood of speculative money – is to counter your actual reality with a digitally simulated voodoo world where you’ll be pinged with 24/7 adverts.
Philosophically, this is where things start to get weird and where economics and economists must wrestle with moral questions about money, technology and economics. We can’t be neutral.
The danger is corporate franchise serfdom, deadening people's ability or willingness to change an unequal real
The Web3, as opposed to Web 2.0, is a world where we create our own online universe, unencumbered by our daily reality, where the best version of ourselves lives in the best version of life. If this sounds like science fiction, it's not. It's here, and the danger is corporate franchise serfdom, deadening people's ability or willingness to change an unequal real world because they've simply created a parallel world instead, watched over by Facebook – or whatever comes next.
It might not pan out this way, of course. But it might.
Sunday trading existed to give us a break. The sabbath was where the incessant demands of commerce and the market were suspended. People could not work and had to chill out. The idea of time off is probably deeper, its roots pre-dating organised religion.
In Germany until recently, all shops closed at midday on a Saturday and didn’t open until Monday morning. I remember walking around a silent Berlin in the 1990s and blissfully understanding why they did it.
Back then we needed to switch off. We still do.