A Review of Luis Bravo Martins’ and Samantha G. Wolfe’s Metaversed: See Beyond the Hype (December 2022)
The term metaverse was coined by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 sci-fi novel Snow Crash. It has since been adopted to describe a certain vision of the future of computing and our relationship with technology. The metaverse is now often viewed as a profit-making asset in industries such as Web3 and Industry 4.0. Stephenson has an advisory role in Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin aerospace company and a position as “Chief Futurist” for Magic Leap, a company that specialises in producing technology for virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) applications (together known as XR or “extended reality”). Snow Crash predicted widespread XR adoption by the 2010s, but, despite Stephenson’s technological optimism, the 2022 metaverse craze is already dissipating. The metaverse failed to be widely adopted and now the bubble is about to burst.
Luis Bravo Martins and Samantha G. Wolfe intend Metaversed as “a #responsible #business-oriented book for the #metaverse.” Martins is chief marketing officer at UK start-up KIT-AR, which is in the business of “worker augmentation” and calls itself “an industrial AR solution to enhance workers on the manufacturing shopfloor.” Wolfe is an adjunct professor at NYU and the Founder of PitchFWD, identified on LinkedIn as “a boutique strategic advisory firm focused on the emerging technologies ecosystem.” Together, they want to sell you something. In a previous self-published work entitled Marketing New Realities, written with Cathy Hackl under the nom de plume “The Marketing Futurists,” Wolfe endorsed a vision of the metaverse that makes it seem more like a dystopian advertising hellscape. The foreword by Lisa Buyer ends: “The journey is just beginning, and you are here. Let’s immerse in the future of marketing today. Namaste.”
— Luis Bravo Martins (@o_bravomartins) January 26, 2023
Worker augmentation—the use of technology to increase worker efficiency—is not a new concept. One example is the introduction of onboard computers in the trucking industry, which—as any trucker will tell you—was never primarily intended to increase the drivers’ safety and comfort but to ensure compliance and increase productivity at all costs. The Metaversed book, then, is designed for bosses, not workers.
Since 2022, the prophecies of a consumer-driven metaverse have given way to efforts to rebrand it as a business tool for collaborative productivity. This is because consumers have rejected the services and products offered by the metaverse for obvious reasons: they entail hardware more expensive than the latest iPhone for an experience worse than the one Second Life provided twenty years ago. And, in addition, the reputation of the Web 2.0 brands that offer these products has been tainted. Despite the employee-first philosophy many of them once touted, they have been haemorrhaging employees. Conditions of work at the tech giants are beginning to seem much less attractive just as those companies are trying to get us all to slip into their avatars—not for entertainment purposes but as part of a gruesome officeverse.
Martins’ and Wolfe’s book has arrived late to this party and much of its thrust seems to be based in now outmoded early-2022 consumer optimism. The book predicts that XR will become bigger than the internet, connecting every object, place and person on the planet, and will have significant effects on various industries that require new roles and skills. They also believe that it will alter the nature of human interactions and dramatically impact society, since it will change how we define what we consider to be real. (Amid these lofty but vague ambitions, they never explain how we currently define what is real.) Even metaverse enthusiast Matthew Ball agrees that this imaginary future offers little that might persuade people to trade in their smartphones for the more costly and cumbersome equipment the metaverse requires to facilitate a user experience that is not that different from just being online. But that hasn’t stopped diehard defenders of the metaverse from claiming that they will be able to sell us an alternative reality.
For Wolfe and Martins, one of the main selling points of the metaverse—especially the officeverse—is that the use of avatars can promote diversity and inclusion, since they mask some of the user’s real-life characteristics, such as gender, age, race and religion. Realistically, however, a don’t ask, don’t tell culture in which people are known only by their avatars is unlikely to emerge in the current social climate. The widespread adoption of pronouns in bios and email signatures—primarily by people to whom pronoun misattribution is less likely—and the annual corporate scramble to proclaim support for LGBT initiatives during Pride Month suggest that people are more likely to voluntarily try to make these aspects of themselves more salient, rather than concealing them. If employees are forced to exchange material reality for a digital environment, they are going to want some part in the reality-creation process. And at a time of what Guy Rundle has described as “the rise of the knowledge class,” companies are scrambling to adopt the “new progressivist” values of workers.
Employers could use these new values to incentivise employees in a metaverse workplace. Moral authority to change workplace conditions could be delegated to individual workers as a reward for productivity. Plus, the ability to choose your own avatar could be presented as a perk: digital self-actualization could be an employment benefit—the metaverse could become a kind of corporate version of the pay-to-play games many of us already have on our phones. Achieve these goals for the firm and you can join the metaverse on your own terms. Major companies may soon be competing to be the most furry-friendly workplace in the metaverse.
But whether we are speaking of individual consumers or company workspaces, there must be widespread adoption of metaverse-related technologies to make it worth investing in such technologies in the first place. That puts those who are selling the technology today—like Wolfe and Martin—in the difficult position of pitching a thing that simultaneously offers to be a marketing paradise with a captive audience and a collective voluntary endeavour: an impossible repeat of the Facebook formula, dependent on hardware that has not yet been adopted.
The tech simply does not—and may never—sell itself, regardless of the engineering achievements that it represents. The history of the fax machine provides a cautionary tale here. Although faxes existed for over a century, the technology failed to gain ground in the commercial marketplace until it had reached the very end of its usefulness, despite technological improvements and decreasing costs. Predictions that the metaverse is likely to be adopted by Gen Z, based on their use of platforms like Roblox that include an XR element, feel like a marketing Hail Mary. Setting aside the question of Roblox’s exploitative labour practices, the use of Roblox is only as indicative of the metaverse’s future as the incessant virtual feeding demanded by Tamagotchis in the 1990s has been predictive of today’s so-called quiet quitting trend.
As was the case during the dotcom bubble, many companies outside Silicon Valley today are heavily invested in as yet unproven tech. Metaversed’s publisher, John Wiley & Sons, is one example. It surpassed $2 billion in revenue in 2022, while it was trying to expand from being merely an educational publisher to providing “tech-enabled” educational services. CEO Brian Napack has stated that his plan for Wiley is to “bridge the widening talent gap with career-connected education products and education services” (i.e. he wants to break into the augmented work market). If they want to succeed in that, Wiley would be well advised to maintain its integrity as a scientific publisher. In the past, both Wiley and its subsidiary Hindawi have a number of scientific publications retracted. These were the result of Chinese paper mills (organisations selling research paper authorship), aided by collusion rings and tools like SCIgen.
The IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), which has collaborated with Wiley since 2001, is also plagued by such problems. The 2022 IEEE Conference on Metaverse in Haikou, China was funded by various sponsors connected to the Chinese state. That conference featured multiple keynote speakers whose contributions to the IEEE conference seem to have been later retracted on ethical grounds (as a search here indicates). Before purchasing Hindawi in 2021, Wiley acquired IT educational service provider mthree in 2020, rebranding it as “Wiley Edge” and promising that it would be “future proof” and that clients’ onboarding costs would be minimised. Wiley is therefore intimately connected with the kind of worker augmentation the book advocates—so much so that it may sort out its research publishing issues in order to ensure that the growth of its “tech-enabled” solutions continues unimpeded.
In August 2022, the Biden administration acted on an Obama-era memorandum, mandating that all federally-funded publications and research be made open access by the end of 2025. The White House has also declared 2023 the Year of Open Science and has promised more reforms to come. Perhaps Wiley has made its recent retractions in preparation for exploring alternative sources of funding, such as those acquired by the IEEE in Haikou. There are certainly incentives for Wiley to explore augmented work realities that allow new forms of outsourcing (i.e. worker exploitation). Brian Napack, Wiley’s president and CEO since 2017, also serves on the board of Burning Glass, a labour market analysis company. He likes to envision an “opportunity hyperloop”—a buzzy manner of describing a labour market trapped in permanent precarity by the lack of open access, professional educational tools.
If the metaverse were adopted by IT and related managerial positions, this could provide the captive audience for Wiley’s educational services, leaving the company ideally placed to lead the predicted fourth industrial revolution—aka Industry 4.0. In fact, Wiley-IEEE have just published a Chinese edition of their book Industry 4.1 (edited by Zheng Fangtian). However, it is hard to imagine that the metaverse will really catch on—especially when compared to its recent competitor, AI. It is becoming increasingly clear that the concept of the metaverse signals little more than the hopes of multinational corporations who want to manipulate labour markets in order to generate profit for investors.
Systems theorist and Silicon Valley idol Buckminster Fuller once said, “We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims.” Ironically, Rich Dad Poor Dad author Robert Kiyosaki and others have borrowed this idea from Fuller’s 1981 book Critical Path to justify their endorsement of cryptocurrency (in reality Fuller was proposing something more akin to Universal Basic Income). Even if the metaverse is more than just a novelty that today’s tech giants are using to try to stay relevant, it is unlikely that you or I would want to experience the “reality” that Wolfe, Martins, Wiley and Meta want us to buy. It’s just too obvious that this is about profits, not about people. And that is probably the biggest obstacle to its widespread voluntary adoption by consumers. Though perhaps businesses may be able to force it upon their employees.