Enter the Metaverse

Can the digital world offer more than the real one?

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Advances in hardware and software are converging to produce products more impactful than we could have ever imagined. Leveraging greater compute power, engineers can model and test prototypes more efficiently without having to use materials. Computationally intensive software then becomes optimized with better hardware.

It’s a feedback loop that Marc Andreessen thinks hasn’t exactly created the type of innovation it should have. He posited last March about the need for society to get back to building. I think his core argument is based on the belief that we’ve come up with some pretty amazing but distracting technologies and are generally becoming lazier in that we’re choosing to binge the next Netflix blockbuster instead of trying to solve problems.

If you’ve read Ross Douthat’s most recent substack post, you know exactly what I’m talking about. He shared thoughts on this Andreessen interview, much of which I am commenting on here. In it, he argues that building things is great and new hardware is important, but concludes that if software promises more for those who can’t reasonably afford such advances in hardware, then we should focus on the software.

I’m going to bite on this. Yes, I think it’s epic that Boom looks like they’ll actually succeed in bringing back supersonic commercial travel, and SpaceX and BlueOrigin will be able to take billionaires into orbit. But while new tools discovered along these engineering journeys are likely to improve society, the core value propositions primarily benefit the rich and the bureaucratic powers-that-be.

And while I’m increasingly excited about these advances, I probably won’t get to enjoy most of these services in my lifetime (I hope I’m wrong about this). So let’s consider the alternative hypothesis that Douthat is espousing: that software can create a better life for the majority of the world, primarily those who are underserved.

I’ve been exploring Decentraland lately, a place where you can see what the Metaverse has to offer, like NFTs and games, and you are identifiable only by your digital wallet address. Worlds like this are not new; think Sims, a timelessly popular game in which the sole objective is to simulate an alternate reality. These games have offered an escape since early in the internet age. However, the ecosystem being built within Decentraland is not an alternate reality, but an alternative to reality.

Decentraland is admittedly clunky and requires a solid graphics processor in order to truly appreciate the experience without significant latency. Nonetheless, its still a cultural gateway that anybody in the world with a smartphone might one day be able to access considering the advances in hardware. The world is rapidly adopting ARM-based processors that offer significantly greater computing power than Intel’s x86 architecture you’ve been using for decades (your computer might have the ‘Intel Inside’ sticker on it somewhere). Apple ditching Intel and moving to its own proprietary ARM chip called the M1 is an indication of this. Moore’s Law thus has new life breathed into it, and graphically-intesive software like Decentraland will improve alongside it.

It’s no longer crazy to say that in another decade this digital world could potentially offer as much, if not more, cultural value than the real world does. You can imagine putting on a headset, Ready Player One style, to explore the Louvre, the ruins of ancient Egypt, or Times Square. You could explore ancient cities and civilizations that have ceased to exist. What’s more is that this world incorporates all that makes the internet great: a place for community building to share ideas and thoughts.

Consider the impact this could have on education, where still less than half of the world has access to a computer in the classroom. Anything and everything that can be programmed will be programmed, and the greatest sights of both modern and ancient times can become accessible to anyone.

The digital world thus contains significantly greater potential than the real one. Most people won’t be able to afford a supersonic flight from London to JFK, but saving up for a 20th-gen Oculus might be akin to buying your first used car in your teens. And a decentralized world means that no authority has any profit-motive to pervert it by creating barriers to access. Rather, it promotes access; decentralized spheres benefit from enabling more people to do more things.

Decentraland might not be the home base of this virtual sphere of culture and community, but it could benefit from some first mover advantages. The point is that the world it’s attempting to create offers fewer obstacles for a much wider swath of people to enjoy the cultural offerings that humans have been obsessed with consuming for centuries.

Special thanks goes to Connor Flanagan and Chris Foote for assisting with this post.

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