The following was previously published in an earlier edition of Media Insider.
According to my fellow Media Insider Maarten Albarda, the metaverse is just another in a long line of bright shiny objects that -- while promising to change the world of marketing -- will probably end up on the giant waste heap of overhyped technologies.
And if we restrict Maarten’s caution to specifically the metaverse and its impact on marketing, perhaps he’s right. But I think this might be a case of not seeing the forest for the trees.
Maarten lists a number of other things that were supposed to revolutionize our lives: Clubhouse, AI, virtual reality, Second Life. All seemed to amount to much ado about nothing.
But as I said almost 10 years ago, when I first started talking about one of those overhyped examples, Google Glass -- and what would eventually become the “metaverse” (in rereading this, perhaps I’m better at predictions than I thought) -- the overall direction of these technologies do mark a fundamental shift:
“Along the way, we build a “meta” profile of ourselves, which acts as both a filter and a key to the accumulated potential of the 'cloud.' It retrieves relevant information based on our current context and a deep understanding of our needs, it unlocks required functionality, and it archives our extended network of connections.”
As Wired founder and former executive editor Kevin Kelly has told us, technology knows what it wants. Eventually, it gets it. Sooner or later, all these things are bumping up against a threshold that will mark a fundamental shift in how we live.
You may call this the long awaited “singularity” or not. Regardless, it does represent a shift from technology being a tool we use consciously to enhance our experiences, to technology being so seamlessly entwined with our reality that it alters our experiences without us even being aware of it. We’re well down this path now, but the next decade will move us substantially further, beyond the point of no return.
And that will impact everything, including marketing.
What is interesting is the layer technology is building over the real world, hence the term “meta.” It’s a layer of data and artificial intelligence that will fundamentally alter our interactions with that world. It’s technology that we may not use intentionally -- or, beyond the thin layer of whatever interface we use, may not even be aware of.
This is what makes it so different from what has come before. I can think of no technical advance in the past that is so consequential to us personally yet functions beyond the range of our conscious awareness or deliberate usage. The eventual game-changer might not be the metaverse. But a change is coming, and the metaverse is a signal of that.
Technology advancing is like the tide coming in. If you watch the individual waves coming in, they don’t seem to amount to much. One stretches a little higher than the last, followed by another that fizzles out at the shoreline. But cumulatively, they change the landscape -- forever. This tide is shifting humankind’s relationship with technology. And there will be no going back.
Maybe Maarten is right. Maybe the metaverse will turn out to be a big nothingburger. But perhaps, just perhaps, the metaverse might be the Antonio Meucci of our time: an example where the technology was inevitable, but the timing wasn’t quite right.
Meucci was an Italian immigrant who started working on the design of a workable telephone in 1849, a full two decades before Alexander Graham Bell even started experimenting with the concept. Meucci filed a patent caveat in 1871, five years before Bell’s patent application was filed, but was destitute and didn’t have the money to renew it. His wave of technological disruption may have hit the shore a little too early, but that didn’t diminish the significance of the telephone, which today is generally considered one of the most important inventions of all time in terms of its impact on humanity.
Whatever is coming, and whether or not the metaverse represents the sea change catalyst that alters everything, I fully expect at some point in the very near future to pinpoint this time as the dawn of the technological shift that made the introduction of the telephone seem trivial in comparison.