The Metaverse Is Already Broken (And How To Fix It — Chapter One)

TL;DR — Stop being so fucking lazy and just read the damn post in full for once.

There’s a lot of noise and very little signal around Web3 and the Metaverse. So much so that Neal Stephenson, you know, the author who actually coined the term, is so pissed off he’s decided to rage quit his latest sci-fi book project and take on everyone to build the damned thing he invented in the first place.

The trouble is, the metaverse is already broken. It doesn’t matter if you read Matthew Ball’s book and come away with a sense of purpose and enlightenment — it’s too late for that. He trampled on the shattered remains too whilst running to the publisher to pick up his first royalty cheque.

Let me explain.

Over the last 12 months or so many people have decided it was time to write the rule book on the Metaverse and Web3; lay out the guidelines, frameworks or cookbook that everyone must follow. They are all wrong. But to get to this point we must first examine where we’re starting from.

Let there be light

In the beginning there was nothing. Then some boffin had a fucking great idea. That idea was The Web. The Web was originally conceived as a document management system (ikr, a bloody filing cabinet changed the world as we know it) and was invented by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN in 1989 and opened to the public in 1991. Not content with just reshaping the planet as we know it he developed the foundations for this brave new world too — HTTP, HTML, the WorldWideWeb browser, a server, and the first website in order to manage documentation. The Web was a success at CERN, and began to spread to other scientific and academic institutions. Within the next two years, there were 50 websites created.

50. Lulz.

Then the mad kings at CERN made the Web protocol and code available royalty-free in 1993, and that was that. Every human being suddenly became an HTML influencer and so the promise of decentralisation and democratisation of the web was fulfilled. Tim surveyed the breadth of his domain and he did weep.

To view this new digital promised land the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) developed the first web browser, called Mosaic. It turned HTML into a visual feast (exaggeration) and basically accelerated the web's initial growth.

Now here’s the first tragedy.

The licensing terms for NCSA Mosaic were generous for a proprietary software program. In general, non-commercial use was free of charge for all versions (with certain limitations). Additionally, the X Window System/Unix version publicly provided source code (source code for the other versions was available after agreements were signed). Mosaic was never released as open-source software and there were always constraints on permissible uses without payment.

This incredibly short-sighted move broke the web’s first and cardinal rule which we’ve been clamouring to reclaim ever since — decentralisation (or democratisation, I don’t care which term you lean into most anymore, I always hear Inigo Montoya speaking in my ears at this point).

Act two is even more tragic.

Not keeping the first browser open source and available for everyone to use freely and improve paved the way for what was to come. And lo and behold, who stepped in first?

Marc Andreessen.

Marc steps in with Netscape and launches arguably the first commercial browser (Internet Explorer came after, and was based on Mosaic’s code and we all know where that chequered history of forcing everyone to use IE with Windows led to). Marc and a16z are now trying to tell us in 2022 that decentralisation and open source are key to an open and free metaverse but he broke it all in 1994 and there’s no winding the clock back.

Can you imagine Tim’s face seeing his baby run free and then suddenly be surrounded by the likes of Andreessen and Gates?

Anyway, a bunch of stuff happened after, there was some kind of bubble, a million-dollar website was created, Neal Stephenson wrote Snow Crash and other wonderful things so let’s skip lunch and head to the main course.

Seven Deadly Sins

I’m going to pick on three separate ‘manifestos’ written about the Metaverse, each one containing pretty much the same framework of seven ‘rules’ or guidelines. I’m not sure why they all settle on seven, it’s hardly a lucky number in this case.

Tony Parisi — arguably one of the OGs who knows and has practised his art.

The Seven Rules of the Metaverse

Rule #1. There is only one Metaverse.

Rule #2: The Metaverse is for everyone.

Rule #3: Nobody controls the Metaverse.

Rule #4: The Metaverse is open.

Rule #5: The Metaverse is hardware-independent.

Rule #6: The Metaverse is a Network.

Rule #7: The Metaverse is the Internet.

Andreessen Horowitz — broke the web in 1994 and spends lots of money trying to make amends.

7 Essential Ingredients of a Metaverse

  1. Decentralisation
  2. Property Rights
  3. Self-sovereign Identity
  4. Composability
  5. Openness/ Open source
  6. Community Ownership
  7. Social immersion

Matthew Ball — got lucky with a set of blog posts and bagged a book deal.

Framework for the Metaverse

  1. Hardware
  2. Networking
  3. Compute
  4. Virtual Platforms
  5. Interchange Tools and Standards
  6. Payments
  7. Metaverse Content, Services, and Assets
  8. User Behaviours

Oh Matthew! you’ve ruined my Lucky Seven list with that last point but I’ll let you off you cheeky scamp.

Rather than come up with my own set of rules, primarily because it’s a fucking waste of time, I’ll tackle a few core areas and themes which are spread across each of these manifestos.

The real reason why I won’t bother with a set of rules of my own is far, far simpler and less filled with profanity — the birth of the web came with no rules. This is far more important than any of you realise; it was allowed to evolve into its first incarnation and direction. Arguably that’s also the reason why it turned into a royal shit show when the capitalists moved in and upped the rent but it’s that sense of wonder and freedom that we absolutely must uphold and retain for this time around because the metaverse has been lauded as the new internet — not an evolution but a revolution.

The metaverse we already know about, like Second Life, is part of history that we must learn from and not ignore but it’s not part of the future. It’s built on the ideals of the previous web(s) and in part, has influenced these sets of rules in themselves.

In a sense, we build the metaverse alongside the old web, not on top of but both must co-exist for a long time. Like a failed marriage there’s a lengthy period of mediation and couples therapy before two people go their separate ways and this is no different.

So, Number One on the list — Decentralisation.

Decentralisation or democratisation, whatever

This is the MOFO that feeds the FOMO.

a16z comes straight out the gate with it, Tony discusses it across a few of his core rules and Matthew barely touches on it as an explicit guideline but does talk about aspects of it across his entire primer series. I honestly don’t know where to begin with this one because it’s such a divisive and far-reaching topic but I’ll start here.

The current Web3 movement toward decentralization, for example, is an important step toward putting power back in the hands of consumers and producers, for distribution, payments and identity verification. This will have implications on how and where some information is maintained in the Metaverse. On the other hand, this in no way implies that we should favor decentralization in all layers, such as in data storage or network topology; approaches should be judged on their own merits with respect to features, performance, privacy and security.

Actually, Tony old chum, on your last point in this quote I disagree. Fundamentally, decentralisation at the scale needed to support the very idea of the metaverse is indeed needed at the infrastructure layer right down to the grassroots. We’ve seen some of this occur with startups like Arweave who are building distributed storage solutions using spare capacity tied to a blockchain protocol.

This is one-third of a solution which ultimately may become the backbone of the metaverse and a benefit to society at the same time, and there may not be a requirement to use cryptocurrencies or tokenomics as a funding model which the web3 pundits will be shaking their fists at reading this.

In Part IV of his primer, Compute, Matthew goes into detail about various types of computing infrastructure; from centralised servers, supercomputers, cloud and edge but it is again, in distributed computing that there lies a future for decentralisation at the infrastructure scale needed for the metaverse.

In fact, as early as the 1990s, programs emerged for distributed computing using everyday consumer hardware. Examples include Berkeley’s SETI@HOME, wherein consumers would volunteer use of their home computers to power the search for alien life. But more recent blockchain concepts, including smart contracts and tokens, provide an economic model for this sharing. In this conception, owners of underutilized CPUs and GPUs would be ‘paid’ in some cryptocurrency for the use of their processing capabilities, perhaps by users located ‘near’ them in network topology. There might even be a live auction for access to these resources, either those with ‘jobs’ bidding for access, or those with capacity bidding on jobs.

He elaborates further but here we find the second part of the solution — distributed computing. Both distributed storage and compute are the only ways to handle the processing power and storage requirements needed for the metaverse and web3. Matthew speaks of persistency a number of times in different contexts but without the scale of this nature that distributed computing offers in terms of scale, persistency and redundancy we will always be at the mercy of CDN networks, AWS-type server centres and all the nines availability.

Here we have the foundations of decentralisation that everyone rabbits on about — the fact that every person on this planet with a connected device capable enough now owns and runs a part of the metaverse passively.

Where previous attempts like Arweave (and another mobile phone-based startup using spare compute with crypto that I can’t for the fucking life of me remember the name of) is that they built a service tied to a token that nobody gives a shit about. I mean, you’d think that the idea of free money would bring people in their millions (I’m sure that was the business model on the pitch deck at least) but they fail for fundamentally simple reasons — they don’t understand people.

People don’t care. People would rather create an Inigo Montoya meme on ImgFlip than download an app that drains their battery for free money.

This is also the primary reason that Project Solid — Tim Berners-Lee’s attempt to regain control over data privacy — has failed. It was predicated on the notion that societal attitudes in 2022 are the same societal attitudes of 1992; build it and they will come, they will care about their data again, they will launch their own pods and the web will be good again.

Bless you, Tim. You should have hired a behavioural scientist or at least spent a couple of hours in Primark to understand where the world is today.

Now, here’s the kicker, the last piece of that pie that nobody has yet put together. Not even Andrew Yang. You paying attention Yang, you’re going to kick yourself with this one.

You tie Universal Basic Income (UBI) to the provision of distributed computing and storage necessary to handle the metaverse and enterprise in general. You don’t need to tie it to a token, capitalism pays for this.

Never mind another tax. My god, why is it always linked to taxation?! And fuck play-to-earn. That shit is dead. I’m pretty sure even Andrew Yang got suckered into thinking that was a solution at one point before beating a hasty retreat when the markets tanked.

Society-level passive income paid for the spare compute and storage requirements that sit idle in everyone’s home connected to the internet. And what’s the absolute basic requirement for that (besides a mobile phone) — the home broadband router. Right now, it’s a blinky light box that sits in a dark corner forgotten about until you can’t get wifi and you give it a smack, but what if it evolved into something else. A metaverse node — a router with the power and storage capacity when sitting within a distributed computing network that can solve a shit tonne of problems across science, govt, manufacturing, pharma, healthcare, banking, and of course the metaverse.

And they pay for it.

They pay for the compute from Amazon, Google, Tencent, and Azure…so why not give it to you, the humble node owner? In the distant future even AWS will be paying you for some of your capacity when they can’t build anything to scale anymore.

Makes you think about where the real power lies. That’s decentralisation. You always had the power but they kept you doped up on social media dopamine so you forgot.

You make this as invisible as possible but with the provision from Govt that everyone will have one and earn from it. Heck, you could even make this a crypto-wallet or part of a decentralised identity system. And with decentralisation comes extra security too. Community DAOs become a thing, equitable ownership and voting rights over local authority spending tied to smart contracts and accessible on your node…you still there, Yang? I hope you’re taking notes.

Anyways, the long and laboured point here is — decentralisation is a lot more than people think it is and in fact a path to solving a lot of issues not only with the current web infrastructure but also how we view the ownership of the metaverse and society.

There you go Tony, I’ve solved #2 and #3 for you.

I won’t write about distributed AI because some people will cry ‘Skynet’ into their cornflakes and not read the rest.

And I haven’t mentioned a16z’s take on decentralisation because, frankly, it doesn’t say anything.

Oh no, it’s a cliffhanger!

Congratulations, you’ve made it this far and like all good serials, I’m ending on a cliffhanger. I’m going to split this up into a series of interconnected blog posts rather than a 30,000-word essay and look to dissect the various manifestos written about the metaverse and web3 in easier-to-manage chunks. And the next Chapter in this saga is titled:

Born Free — Open, Interoperable, For Everyone

In the next post I’ll talk about interoperability, standards, open source and why Epic Games is really the schoolyard bully and not the goody-two-shoes prefect everyone makes them out to be. Matthew seems to have a real penchant for Tim Sweeney, Unreal Engine and Epic Games and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed his writing on the subject but I believe he’s gotten too close to seeing that Tim’s 20-year holy grail quest for the metaverse is not the same one the rest of us should be treading (again, why I think we should be building aside and not atop what we have today, let Tim run riot in his own backyard).

Feel free to comment, gnash your teeth, shake a fist, or send threatening letters to cease and desist.

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