In the mid-19th century, when a seven-year-old Alice, bored and tired on a mundane afternoon, fell through a rabbit hole, little did she know that her experiences in Wonderland would be invoked time and again for a phenomenon purely 21st century. There is never a dull moment in Alice’s wonderland, and the same is true of the hectic pace of action around metaverse. It is the next level of the internet, and things move fast here.
While Sridhar Vembu might tell Outlook Business that he does not yet understand metaverse, there are very few entrepreneurs who now have the luxury to brush it away as the esoteric future. Internet 3.0 is here. Merriam-Webster defines metaverse as a highly "immersive world where people gather to socialize, play and work", thus underscoring how every aspect of human life and avenue of economic activity is being swept by it.
The idealist sees it as a movement, where the power of the internet is restored in the hands of people, where creators, artists and web pioneers run decentralised apps (dApps) on blockchains, without a chance of any transaction or data being monetised. It is conceptualised as the idyllic web, just as its predecessor versions. Here, the user sees, uses and owns a part of it.
While the germs of this began with the introduction of the Bitcoin network in 2009 (many say the term metaverse has been in the air since the 1992 novel Snow Crash), but its massive following beyond gaming can be attributed to Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement in October 2021.
It is reinvent or perish for big tech companies, at least once every decade. Look at how IBM, one of the most profitable companies in America in the 1980s, misgauged its movement out of mainframe and got thrown out of the frame for years. The story is the same with Nokia. The recent mess at Twitter could also be traced to its inability to reinvent.
Big Tech, at least the top five—Meta, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Apple—have been upping their spend on R&D for the past few years. Data from The Economist reveals that the Big Five spent $149 billion globally in research and development in 2021; roughly a quarter of America’s public and private spending in the sector and significantly more than Pentagon’s spend, a year before, says the report. Metaverse, fintech and crypto take up the lion's share of this spend. The path to Web3 has been laid, and it is here. And everyone’s taking a cue—from corporates, start-ups and governments to regulators. While the whirlwind romance with everything metaverse has begun, it is important to note the core of its nature: its ethos is decentralisation. Though one might argue that is how Web1, or even Web2, began before regulation and "greed" took over to kill its spirit.
So, you take heart when Ajit Mohan says that it is not a Meta’s metaverse that his company is building—they want to facilitate interoperability—or when he talks about Meta’s philosophy in India beyond commercial considerations.
Along with a deeply reported analysis of the transformation of Facebook to Meta and its impact on India, we also dissect metaverse and what it can do to the subcontinent. Leading the charge for this are my colleagues who are a little older than Facebook, perhaps looking at new avatars on the next wave of the internet. Of course, at the helm is the much-seasoned executive editor of Outlook Business who has lived through the disillusionment of the first two installments of the internet.