What are the metaverse and Web 3.0? And how will they impact the Future of Work?
Everybody is talking about the metaverse. Facebook decided to change its name to Meta to signal the importance of the metaverse in their strategy. Microsoft is also positioning itself as a key player in the Metaverse market being built as we speak. Other big and small brands will follow. In parallel and linked to it, there is also a lot of talk about Web 3.0 and how it will transcend and replace the much-maligned Web 2.0.
All this is fine, but what are these concepts? Do the metaverse and Web 3.0 have real meaning, or are they just hype and marketing gimmicks? And how will they impact the Future of Work?
Let’s delve deeper into these concepts and look at their effect on the Future of Work.
What is the Metaverse?
Let’s start with a simple definition of the metaverse, found in this article from the MIT Technology Review:
“In contrast to what we typically think of as the internet, a metaverse is a 3D immersive environment shared by multiple users, in which you can interact with others via avatars. A metaverse can, with the support of the right technology, feel like real life, with all the usual elements of work, play, trade, friendship, love—a world of its own.”
If you have seen Spielberg’s movie Ready Player One or read the book with the same title by Ernest Cline, you’ll get the idea. It’s not new; it has been doing the rounds in science fiction books and movies for decades. The term metaverse itself was first coined by Neal Stephenson in his book Snow Crash, published in 1992. What has changed now is that it stopped being a thing of fiction and has started to become a real possibility.
Today we have the necessary technology to make the metaverse a reality. Well, more or less. We have the computing power to build the necessary worlds in the level of detail required, the advanced Virtual Reality (VR) or Mixed Reality (XR) sets to make it feel more or less accurate, and the internet speed to make it happen in real-time. It is not as natural as in Ready Player One, but we’ll get there eventually.
Or that is at least the bet that Facebook, Microsoft, and others are making. Using VR sets still feels clunky, and they are still the preserve of geeks and gamers, although last year their sales hit record numbers, and some people believe they will become mainstream soon.
There are games and programs already that are a bit like a metaverse on their own (e.g., Fortnite), but they don’t form a metaverse yet. For that, we’d need interoperability between different systems. A metaverse is supposed to be a single universe in which all “citizens” can interact and jump seamlessly from one space, program, shop or game, into another. We are still a bit far away from that.
As usual, some people believe the metaverse will be great, while others think it will be terrible. Some believe it will open infinite opportunities for people to thrive, know other people, learn, have fun and make money. Others think it will strengthen the grip Big Tech and social media have on the population and accentuate their power to spread misinformation and amass troves of personal data.
Some critics also ask why we need a parallel virtual world. Isn’t the real world enough? Is the metaverse a way of escapism from this terrible world we have created and to have the masses hooked? Is it the new opium for the masses?
What is Web 3.0?
The Web 3.0 proponents argue that the new web solves some of the issues with the metaverse.
Web 1.0 was unidirectional and basic: users could mainly consult information on websites akin to online brochures. There was no interaction or social component. It was also decentralized and fragmented, nobody controlled it.
Web 2.0 added a social element to it with the rise of social media and the ubiquitousness enabled by smartphones. This was enabled by centralized third parties like tech companies, which offered free products and apps. Their business model was based on gathering enormous amounts of data and selling it to other corporations. As the saying goes, “if it is free, you are the product”.
Web 3.0 promises to upend this model by decentralizing the internet via blockchains. Blockchains allow true decentralisation because the consensus to make decisions is based on rules written in code, not a centralised authority. Web 3.0 proponents argue that creators and other users will be able to make profits and raise funds through crypto technology, without the intermediation of big corporations.
As this article argues, Web 2.0 was adversarial, as big tech corporations were incentivized to promote the wrong set of behaviours: misinformation, cheap gossip stories, confrontation, surveillance, etc. The author calls Web 3.0 the aligned web, as all users’ incentives are better aligned. It is a decentralized model with no third intermediaries with the wrong incentives, so it should work smoother.
Chris Dixon was in Tim Ferriss’s podcast a few months ago talking about Web 3.0, and he defined it like this:
(Web 3.0) “is an internet owned by users and builders orchestrated with tokens. This new concept of a token is the kind of the key concept of Web 3.0.”
With Web 3.0, we are returning to a more open internet, where creators own their content and are paid via tokens without intervention from third-party intermediaries. All this is enabled by blockchain and crypto.
The key organisation model of the Web 3.0 is the DAO, or Decentralised Autonomous Organisation. These are decentralized organisations owned by their members, with no central structure, and managed by rules written in code on a blockchain. DAOs have democratic governance structures (or sometimes oligarchic or aristocratic, as the number of tokens the participants own gives their votes different weight: more tokens, more voting power). For example, a DAO was recently set up to buy the original copy of the US Constitution, but it failed.
As this article argues, centralized structures like modern corporations have been very successful. They offer convenience to their consumers, owners, and contributors (usually employees), so decentralized ones must provide something new. Web 3.0 has created a new incentive structure whereby all parties involved are rewarded. If the community is successful, they all benefit from its success. If it isn’t, they all lose. This is why crypto communities can be very vocal and tribal: they all have something to win or lose.
All the hype we see around NFTs, or Non-Fungible Tokens, and their promise of digital scarcity increasing their value (the record was hit by this NFT valued at 69 million dollars), is part of Web 3.0. People are selling digital plots of land in the metaverse for millions too. Others are earning money as they play games in the so-called play-to-earn sphere.
NFTs, social and community tokens, and play-to-earn belong in Web 3.0. Paying millions of dollars for a JPEG or a plot of land that only exists in a virtual world may sound crazy to some, but this is what many believe is the future. Who is right? Time will tell…
A hypothetical example
All this sounds crazy and confusing, I know. Things are easier understood through practical examples, so let’s use this website as one.
I have a day job, but I like writing and sharing my ideas, so I decided to create this site, called Humane Future of Work. This is a hobby, and I don’t make any money out of it. My only motivation to do it is the joy writing gives me and the ego boost I receive when a reader praises my job now and then (we all have a little ego to feed, after all). This blog is entirely Web 2.0, or even Web 1.0.
It is hosted on a third-party server, for which I pay an annual fee. I promote my articles on social media sites like LinkedIn, Twitter, and Medium. I also send a monthly newsletter to my subscribers. It is based on centralised structures, and its editorial orientation and content are fully centralized on one person: me. I decide what to write and when to publish it.
You could say that each of these centralized nodes is a single point of failure. The server hosting the site could go bankrupt and stop operating, or they could dislike my content and censor me. Twitter or LinkedIn could block my profile. Web 3.0 is supposed to bypass this and offer other advantages.
What would be the Web 3.0 version of Humane Future of Work? First of all, it wouldn’t be an individual effort, a DAO would manage it. For example, this could be formed by myself, my subscribers, and readers. The DAO could decide the contents about which I should write. Some of the readers could write and contribute content too. There would be a social token linked to the community. To be a subscriber or receive premium content, you would have to purchase and own some of these tokens. If you were an “early investor” and you thought Humane Future of Work had the potential to become a very successful site read by millions of people, you would gladly invest in some of these tokens. They would be like shares in a company and you would be investing in the future of the site and the community.
As you are now invested and are interested in the site being successful, you would promote it amongst your friends and push its content widely. The governance rules of how the Humane Future oF Work DAO works would be written in code in the blockchain, and in order to change those rules, you would need to have a majority of tokens supporting the proposed changes.
Now imagine the Humane Future of Work DAO would like to make it part of the metaverse. It wouldn’t be a written blog post but a virtual community. There would be videos and interactive content you can “live” through your 3D equipment. There would be virtual rooms for discussions about leadership, the future of work, coaching, etc., where you would be having conversations with other like-minded people or their virtual avatars.
It all sounds exhilarating, but I have no intention of doing any of this. I’m very happy managing my little personal blog, thank you very much. I hope this hypothetical example helped clarify these concepts though.
Now we have understood the concepts, what would be their impact on the Future of Work?
The Metaverse, Web 3.0 and the Future of Work
The modern corporation as we know it has been around for a long time. That means hierarchy and centralization have been prevalent features of the types of organisations we use to make business and structure work. As explained above, centralization has its advantages over decentralization (efficiency and speed to name a few), so it made and will continue to make sense.
Decentralised organisations also have their advantages (they are more egalitarian and align better the interests and incentives of all market participants, and they are difficult to block and censor), so they’ll have an increasingly more prominent presence in future organisations.
Decentralised organisations like DAOs will have a bigger protagonism in the future, and web 3.0 and the metaverse will be the perfect experimentation ground to test different decentralized organization models. Will they replace the centralised corporations? Time will tell, but I believe both centralized and decentralized organisations will coexist and compete side by side, each with its added value, advantages, and disadvantages.
Web 3.0 will usher in the real creator’s economy. Web 2.0 has allowed this to flourish, but only a few privileged creators can actually live from it. The lion’s share of the spoils is for the tech companies owning the means of communication (Facebook, Google, Twitter, and the usual suspects). Web 3.0 has the potential to subvert this pyramid and put the creators at the cusp of it.
This will mean more people will decide to hustle and try to make it on their own, answering their calls for creativity. It will enable a new variant of the gig economy. Corporate careers in the payroll of big corporations will continue to exist but they may not attract the best talents.
One evident improvement the metaverse will bring will be in virtual meetings. We have all suffered Zoom fatigue in the last couple of years. As more and more people work from home, we need to devise more effective and less tiring ways to meet virtually. The metaverse and the improvements in 3D and VR technology bring the promise to spice things up in this area. When the technology gets there, meeting colleagues virtually will be an enhanced experience. The metaverse can considerably improve the online collaboration and meeting tools we have today.
Some people believe both the metaverse and Web 3.0 are marketing gimmicks and don’t offer anything new. Depending on who you ask, they are just new fades, new ways of naming things that have existed for a while, or aren’t here yet and will never materialize. There are many sceptics, as it often happens when something new arises.
I am not sure the metaverse and Web 3.0 will be the revolutionary phenomena their proponents argue for. I see them as technology-enabled new ways of functioning. Technology should never be an end in itself, but the means to achieve something. If technology allows us new ways to interact, collaborate, work and have fun, so be it. In that sense, the metaverse and Web 3.0 have the potential to enrich our lives and help us build a better future.
If, on the other hand, these technologies are used to escape and evade real life because it has become some sort of dystopian hell not worth living (like in Ready Player One, for example), then we would have failed in building this richer future.
The technologies are there to help us and these have the potential to do so. We should be able to immerse in the metaverse to meet with faraway or virtual friends and enrich our work and all other areas of life. Web 3.0 should bring us new opportunities to create and own the fruits of our creativity. They have enormous potential in a world that is increasingly lived in the virtual space.
However, real life will still be the one worth living. Seeing a real sunset while holding the real hands of the person you love while sipping a real margarita, or the drink of your choice, cannot be replaced by any virtual experience, can it?
Time will tell if the Metaverse and Web 3.0 will help us for good. They have the potential for it, but as always, it will all depend on the use we decide to make of them. They are just new tools, after all.
Time will tell…