Tuesday, February 01, 2022

The new pioneers

 Time was, a few hundred years ago, that a pioneer was a person who left the civilized areas and moved to new lands in search of a better opportunity or a new way of life.  When we in the States think of pioneers, we think of people like Daniel Boone, who led people into Western Virginia and then on into Kentucky to find new opportunities and new lands further west.

The reasons pioneers went west (in this case) were several.  First, the land near the coast was often very expensive and in some cases in the hands of aristocrats or wealthy families, passed down from generation to generation.  Even though the US was only a hundred years old, land and its value had the same connotations as it did in England.  Second, the coastal plan, and increasingly the Piedmont, was getting populated, and many pioneers wanted more space.  Third, by going further west, they could open up new lands and bring new settlers in, which would allow the pioneers to replicate some of the things that happened on the coastal plain.  The pioneers could be the landed aristocrats eventually.

The pioneers, however, as anyone who knows their history, were often violating the law (going beyond the Blue Ridge mountains) and encountering people who already considered the new lands their home and heritage.  The pioneers had to brave difficult mountains where there were no roads, and had to be relatively self-sufficient.  This meant they could plant their own crops, kill their own game, make and weave their own clothing and so on.

Thanks for the history lesson

The recap above is familiar to anyone who knows their history, or who watched Daniel Boone or Davy Crockett on television.  What's all this got to do with a blog that is nominally about innovation?

We are seeing a new opportunity for pioneers in the so-called metaverse, yet the pioneers entering and staking out claims in this new frontier are dramatically different from the pioneers of old.  We ought to stop and ask what's changed, and why it has changed.

New "pioneers"

There is a new "land" rush happening, and it is happening for perhaps the third time, in what is now called the meta-verse.  This isn't the first time that the phenomenon of virtual reality has raised its head.  I had the good fortune to work with a number of people almost a decade ago using virtual worlds like Second Life to solve problems in real time for corporate customers.  At that time, there were discussions about claiming a particular location in Second Life, or designing avatars or clothing, or earning money by designing virtual buildings or locations.

The concept of virtual reality has been with us for a while, and there have been several very good attempts to create a continuous virtual reality.  What makes this attempt a bit different?


This new virtual reality is sponsored by a completely different set of pioneers - what I'll call the oligarchs - that is, Facebook (Meta), and a number of other companies who are salivating at developing a virtual reality that moves platforms like entertainment and gaming into a 3 dimensional platform that until now really wasn't achievable.  In earlier virtual realities like Second Life, much of the interaction was still done on a computer screen, so while you were represented by an avatar, you were still watching from an observer's perspective.  With the advent of low cost virtual reality headsets, faster internet and new computing platforms, we can now feel relatively completely immersed.

The problem is that the people and companies who are staking out the claims are the same GAFA (Google Apple Facebook Amazon and so on) that control much of the traffic (and advertising, and content) that is on the web.  In reality, their likely goals are to recreate all the earning potential of the web in the metaverse, and lock down advertising channels and other mechanisms to make money.

Early pioneers (the ones in the coonskin caps) had visions of making money but also seeking new lands, new opportunities and bringing people to a new place.  There were definitely speculators - including our first president - but there seems to have been a deeper, personal investment and less crass mercantilism.  Now, it seems, the opposite is true.

Why does it matter?

This all matters because the metaverse as currently envisioned will rapidly converge to the "web 4.0" without any experimentation or divergence.  We'll lose an opportunity to explore what the metaverse could be, and attempt a collective development.  Whereas the States are independent "laboratories" of democracy and learning, where differences can occur, I think the metaverse is likely to end up controlled by a few powerful corporations who will dictate how it works, and we will all have missed an opportunity.

The new "pioneers" in the metaverse have resources far beyond what any early pioneer could imagine, and far more technical advantage and control.  There is no patriotism or sense of manifest destiny, just another way to put more advertisements in front of eyeballs.  If this is what we allow the emerging metaverse to become, we consumers and participants will lose, and Meta and others will win, leaving us a little less engaged, a little more saturated with ads, and having missed an opportunity to explore what could be a much richer and more fulfilling opportunity.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:01 AM


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