I am on holidays this week, and today I decided to set aside a couple of days to read through—and write a review of—a recently published book by the venture capitalist Matthew Ball, author of the Metaverse Primer and lead creator of the Ball Metaverse Index (whom I have written about before on this blog). The title of his new book is The Metaverse: and How It Will Revolutionize Everything.
As Matthew Ball writes in the introduction to his book:
In 2018, I began writing a series of online essays on the Metaverse, then an obscure and fringe concept. In the years since, these essays have been read by millions of people as the Metaverse has transitioned from the world of paperback science fiction to the front page of the New York Times and corporate strategy reports around the world.
The Metaverse: And How It Will Revolutionize Everything updates, expands, and recasts everything I’ve previously written on the Metaverse. The book’s core purpose is to offer a clear, comprehensive, and authoritative definition of this still inchoate idea. Yet my ambitions are broader: I hope to help you understand what’s required to realize the Metaverse, why entire generations will eventually move to and live inside it, and how it will forever alter our daily lives, our work, and how we think.
Yes, Ball capitalizes “Metaverse” throughout his book, which I find unnecessary and annoying. However, “Internet” was also usually capitalized in its earliest years of existence before most people settled on lower-case-i internet, so there is some precedent here.
It is not until chapter three, after a brief historical and philosophical discussion of the concept, that Matthew Ball provides his own definition of the metaverse (smartly leaving aside a discussion of blockchain until later on in the book):
A massively scaled and interoperable network of real-time rendered 3D virtual worlds that can be experienced synchronously and persistently by an effectively unlimited number of users with an individual sense of presence, and with continuity of data, such as identity, history, entitlements, objects, communications, and payments.
After laying the groundwork with history and definitions in the first four chapters, in Part II of his book Matthew Ball discusses in seven chapters the various components which he feels go into the building of a metaverse: networking, computing, virtual world engines, interoperability, hardware, payment systems, and blockchain technology.
In chapter 5 (Networking), Ball uses popular games such as Microsoft Flight Simulator to explain concepts such as network bandwidth and latency, and how game and metaverse companies work around such limitations. Chapter 6 covers the computational requirements and trade-offs in building the metaverse, while chapter 7 looks at virtual world engines such as Unreal and Unity. Chapter 8 addresses the thorny issue of metaverse interoperability and standards (i.e., the ability to take your avatar and its possessions from one virtual world to another). In chapter 9, Ball offers a concise overview of VR and AR hardware, calling it “the hardest technology challenge of our time”. Chapter 10 discusses a key component of the current and future metaverse, payment rails (e.g. credit cards, PayPal, Venmo) and the associated economics of buying and selling on metaverse platforms.
Finally, in chapter 11, Matthew Ball addresses the controversial and contentious issue of blockchain, cryptocurrencies, and Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs), stating “some observers today believe that blockchain is structurally required for the metaverse to become a reality, while others find that claim absurd.” Obviously, this book was written well before the current crypto crash, but Ball attempts to write a balanced take on the subject, including an entire section about the various obstacles currently facing the blockchain. He wraps up this chapter by stating:
How much of the blockchain remains hype versus how much is (potential) reality remains uncertain—not unlike the current state of the Metaverse. However, one of the central lessons of the computing era is that the platforms that best serve developers and users will win. Blockchains have a long way to go, but many see their immutability and transparency as the best way to ensure the interests of these two constituencies [i.e., platforms and developers] remain prioritized as the Metaverse economy grows.
The real meat of this book is in Part III, subtitled “How the Metaverse Will Revolutionize Everything”. In it, Matthew looks into his crystal ball and makes some predictions about how the metaverse will develop and be used across a range of industries, including education, entertainment, fashion and advertising, lifestyle businesses—even sex and sex work!
Chapter 12 is a discussion of when the metaverse is going to arrive, which of course is entirely dependent upon the definition of a “metaverse”; as I have often said, Second Life (which does get a few passing mentions in this book) is the perfect model of a fully-evolved metaverse, which the newer companies building platforms would be wise to study, emulate, and learn lessons from. However, Ball tends to lean towards the assertion that the metaverse is not yet truly upon us, despite these early platforms.
In a subsection of Chapter 14 titled “Why Trust Matters More Than Ever”, in a discussion of corporate strategies, Matthew Ball writes the following:
My great hope for the Metaverse is that it will produce a “race to trust.” To attract developers, the major platforms are investing billions to make it easier, cheaper, and faster to build better and more profitable virtual goods, spaces, and worlds. But they’re also showing a renewed interest in proving—through policy— that they deserve to be a partner, not just a publisher or platform. This has always been a good business strategy, but the enormity of the investment required to build the Metaverse, and the trust it requires from developers, has placed this strategy front and centre.
In the final chapter of his book (Metaversal Existence), Ball broadens his view to discuss how the metaverse will impact society, and what policies might be necessary to address that impact. Matthew warns:
Misinformation and election tampering will likely increase, making our current-day complications of out-of-context sound bites, trolling tweets, and faulty scientific claims feel quaint. Decentralization, often seen as the solution to many of the problems created by the tech giants, will also make moderation more difficult, malcontents harder to stop, and illicit fundraising far less difficult. Even when limited primarily to text, photos, and videos, harassment has been a seemingly unstoppable blight in the digital world—one that has already ruined many lives and harmed many more. There are several hypothesized strategies to minimize “Metaverse abuse.” For example, users may need to give other users explicit levels of permission to interact in given spaces (e.g., for motion capture, the ability to interact via haptics, etc.), and platforms will also automatically block certain capabilities (“no-touch zones”). However, novel forms of harassment will doubtlessly emerge. We are right to be terrified by what “revenge porn” might look like in the Metaverse, powered by high-fidelity avatars, deepfakes, synthetic voice construction, motion capture, and other emergent virtual and physical technologies.
He adds, “for the same reasons the metaverse is so disruptive—it’s unpredictable, recursive, and still vague—it is impossible to know what problems will emerge, how best to solve those which already exist, and how best to steer it.”
Matthew’s book is packed full of interesting anecdotes, such as the following tidbit from chapter one:
Not long after Tencent publicly unveiled its vision of hyper-digital reality, the Communist Party of China (CCP) began its biggest-ever crackdown of its domestic gaming industry. Among several new policies was a prohibition on minors playing video games Monday through Thursday that also limited their play from 8 pm. to 9 pm. on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights (in other words, it was impossible for a minor to play a video game for more than three hours per week). In addition, companies such as Tencent would use their facial recognition software and a player’s national ID to periodically ensure that these rules were not being skirted by a gamer borrowing an older user’s device. Tencent also pledged $15 billion in aid for “sustainable social value,” which Bloomberg said would be focused on “areas like increasing incomes for the poor, improving medical assistance, promoting rural economic efficiency and subsidizing education programs.” Alibaba, China’s second-largest company, committed a similar amount only two weeks later. The message from the CCP was clear: look to your countrymen and women, not virtual avatars.
The CCP’s concerns about the growing role of gaming content and platforms in public life became more explicit in August, when the state-owned Security Times warned its readers that the Metaverse is a “grand and illusionary concept” and
“blindly investing [in it] will ultimately come back to bite you?“
While Ball sprinkles footnotes throughout his book, there were not nearly enough to satisfy this librarian! As I tell my students when doing information literacy training, footnotes are useful to find what sources the author refers to, so you can look them up yourself. For example, in chapter one he writes the following tantalizing but non-footnoted sentence, without further explanation:
Stephenson’s novels have been cited as the inspiration for various cryptocurrency projects and non-cryptographic efforts to build decentralized computer networks, as well as the production of CGI-based movies which are watched at home but generated live through the motion-captured performance of actors that might be tens of thousands of miles away.
Now, after reading that, wouldn’t you also like to know the source of this information, and the names of such productions? More footnotes, please! (Also, I’m not sure that “cryptographic” is the correct adjective here, as Ball seems to be using the term to refer to non-blockchain or non-cryptocurrency projects in this sentence.)
Also, while Ball is quick to use popular games such as Fortnite and Roblox to explain various terms and concepts throughout the book, I found it rather frustrating that he was not nearly as quick in drawing examples from the many metaverse platforms which already exist (e.g. VRChat, Rec Room, Sansar, NeosVR). I mean, this is a book about the metaverse; why not use more examples from existing social VR and virtual worlds? I know he’s a busy venture capitalist, but it makes me wonder how many metaverse platforms Matthew actually visited in his pre-writing travels. The book would have greatly benefited from that extra virtual legwork, if not by him then by his research assistants!
But these are picky little quibbles; overall, the book is an excellent introduction to the metaverse, and an informative overview for users new to the concept and wondering what all the recent fuss is about. Even those readers who have many years of experience with the metaverse will learn some new things which they did not know before. I can recommend this book, and I look forward to Matthew Ball’s future writing on the topic.
Thank you to the person who gifted me a copy of Matthew Ball’s book!