COVID-19 pushes us toward the Metaverse

What is the Metaverse? In Neil Stephenson‘s seminal 1992 sci-fi novel Snow Crash, it was a virtual space in which human-controlled avatars interacted online for every conceivable purpose—work, play, entertainment, commerce, friendship, dating, criminality, vice, and espionage—essentially all of the same purposes that the current internet is used for.

A virtual reality (VR) extension of the real world, always on, available from any interface, and chock full of all the same stuff. Stephenson wasn’t the first to come up with such a concept (it’s the underpinning of the entire 20th century cyberpunk genre, and the concept of virtual worlds goes all the way back to Pliny the Elder), but he was certainly one of the most influential, and his vision and lingo have continued to inform the concept as various components of the tech industry have endeavored to make it happen IRL. When Snow Crash debuted, VR was little more than a ’90s gimmick, which evolved, even as the technology has gotten a lot more impressive, into a 2010s punchline. I’m quite sure that mentioning cyberpunk and VR in the same paragraph, unless I’m writing a satisfying deep dive on the future of the technology like former studio VP and venture capitalist Matthew Ball wrote earlier this year, has simply served to mark me as a certain kind of nerd (I do own a standalone 3DOF VR headset). But it’s fair to say that when Ball wrote his piece a million years ago in January 2020, he had an eye on the Metaverse solely as an entertainment concept, when none of us had any idea just how bad the pandemic was going to be. How long a demand shock would keep the economy aloof, and how long that we—or at least those in industries that are able to practically do so—would spend so much time working from home that we would start to question the raison d’être for every single regular departure from the house. How the downstream effects of this shift would affect—in a vastly inconsistent and unequal manner, I might add—everything from childcare to housework to schooling to a service economy reliant on the needs of office workers to the entire commercial real estate market.

The pendulum swing

I went down this particular rabbit hole because in the most recent episode of the Enterprise Dish podcast, Aaron and Brad spent a significant amount of time discussing the “pendulum swing” in various companies’ office arrangements from individual offices to collaborative workspaces and back again, as well as similar swings between company cultures allowing (or even encouraging) working from home vs. working in an office building. I’ve discussed aspects of this shift in previous posts, from novel identity theft scams to the difficulties of cloud-based endpoint management, which we’re working hard to help make easier with SmartDeploy. It’s fair to say that during this pandemic, we’re in a bit of a natural experiment, in which the pendulum is getting shoved uncontrollably in one direction—toward individual (and often at-home) workspaces, and away from other people. It is beyond my expertise and the scope of this blog to say where we will land on this as a society, or if we will even land anywhere consistently. But I will say, being able to wander around virtual spaces even as I couldn’t do so as often or as far in real life has been a real source of comfort, and it has made me consider that we might eventually spend a great deal more time doing so, in the service of doing more productive and specific things besides just keeping our sanity while surrounded by the same four walls all day—that we’ll end up creating another world in a virtual space right beneath the real one, and that we’ll possibly spend a great deal of time there: collaborating, designing, building, and deciding. Meeting with clients and partners. And perhaps, in time, not having to remind each other that our mics are muted or our screenshare hasn’t started yet or your platform is using its own separate irrepressible notifications system, because as far as your senses are concerned, the interface is universal, interoperable, and barely present, and you’re simply sitting in a conference room working alongside your team in a virtual space you didn’t have to leave your house or deal with a commute to enter. And what’s more, it’s the same virtual space where you might “go to the movies” after work. Or play a game. Or stream your activities live, for those inclined. Or meet for happy hour (even if you might be mixing the drinks yourself). A world in which more meaningful choices may be presented than which set of vague presets you pick during the Windows OOBE (an addition which, like Aaron, I found it difficult to see a use case for in a company domain environment).

The future of the Metaverse

There are plenty of practical and technical hurdles with this scenario that have yet to be solved. Security, latency, interoperability, and ease of use—and also the fact that it relies on a great deal of hidden labor and expertise that is currently not reflected in the end-user experience or cost. Before the pandemic, the Metaverse was purely the sort of thing that a certain kind of nerd talked about as the future of entertainment and leisure. Now, as society potentially reorders itself following a devastating pandemic, people talking about the future of work, collaboration, and creativity may be talking about the Metaverse whether they realize it or not. Whether we’re talking about endpoint management and security, protection of one’s identity and personal information, or simply making sure that everyone’s human needs are met, we’ll always need to keep a steady eye on the real world even as we try our hand at building the next one.

That’s all for now—on the security side, as Aaron mentioned, passwords—ever-changing, complicated, and hard-to-memorize—are out! You can check out the NIST publication here—particularly Section 10, which gets into detail on why passphrases are preferable. Then generate a strong passphrase here, or think one up yourself!