Convene editors gathered ideas and insights from a variety of sources to examine what the metaverse is and how business events professionals are and will be using it in the future. This is one in a series of stories (see list at bottom) from the March/April issue of Convene.
The metaverse is simply the natural next step in our evolution, a progression of the ancient human act of worldbuilding, argues Herman Narula in his book Virtual Society: The Metaverse and the New Frontiers of Human Experience. “From the Egyptians, whose conception of death inspired them to construct the pyramids,” writes Narula, “to modern sports fans, whose passion for a game inspires ritualistic devotion, humans have long sought to supplement their day-to-day lives with a rich diversity of alternative experiences.”
As much as Narula, cofounder and CEO of London-based tech company Improbable World Limited, believes in the promise of the metaverse, there is, he writes, a great deal of confusion over what it actually is. Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg, Narula notes, defines the metaverse as an “even more immersive and embodied internet,” while Matthew Ball, author of The Metaverse: And How It Will Revolutionize Everything, describes it as a “massively scaled and interoperable network of real-time rendered 3D virtual worlds which can be experienced synchronously and persistently by an effectively unlimited number of users with an individual sense of presence, and with continuity of data.”
These definitions fall short for Narula, who sees the metaverse as “a collection of realities, including the real world or a ‘home reality’ and a series of other worlds that society imbues with meaning. … The utility of the metaverse lies in its ability to facilitate meaningful, fulfilling experiences in its constituent worlds. Value is transferred between worlds in many ways, including through increased social cohesion, the creation of valuable artifacts of culture, and direct commerce.”
Narula is convinced that the metaverse has the potential to “make our physical world a better place and improve our lives,” he writes, “primarily by freeing us to do more, know more, be more, and experience more.”
Not so fast, says journalist David Sax, whose book, The Future Is Analog: How to Create a More Human World, takes a more tempered approach to all things digital. While no future is inevitable, Sax writes, he is “fairly certain about two things.” One is that digital technology will continue to advance and have an impact on many aspects of our lives. The other is that the analog world — “the realm of emotion and relationships, real community, human friendships, and love” — will remain the one that matters most.
The Future Is Analog was inspired by the real-world experiments brought about by the pandemic, a time when lockdowns meant the whole world could “road test the digital future we were building,” Sax wrote. And instead of leaving us wanting more of that digital world, the experience left us “desperate for something more real.”
Sax doesn’t argue that we should live without technology, but rather that we are at a crossroads: We can continue to build a future where technology is the driver, or “we can pause, absorb the hard-learned lessons of the digital immersion that we experienced during the pandemic, and build a future where digital technology actually elevates the most valuable parts of the analog world, rather than replacing them.”
Sax interviewed academics, designers, business leaders, and others who described what’s lost when we trade face-to-face connections for digital ones. Our work suffers without the sensory information we get from moving around the world, designer Joseph White, director of workplace futures for Herman Miller, told Sax. “Our minds connect to the world around us,” White said, “and by the process of moving around it, we get information that we’re not consciously aware of.”
Sax also talked with education historian Larry Cuban, an emeritus professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, who is skeptical of claims that technology can be transformational in the classroom. Relationships are “what turns information into knowledge,” Cuban told Sax. “It turns something empty into something caring. You can’t get that from a screen. It’s impossible.”
“If we want our human needs to come before digital technology’s creators and investors, then we have to prioritize analog,” Sax concludes. “To build a more human future, we need to invest in analog reality, in all its messy glory.”
The general consensus in the business events industry is that this is the year we return full-steam ahead to in-person gatherings — putting us squarely in the Sax analog camp. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep an open mind about how the metaverse — which is still in its early stages and surely will evolve to provide a better user experience — can shape the future of events. Come along with us for a quick tour of the ways our industry is currently approaching the metaverse. No bulky VR headsets required.
Illustration by Chiara Vercesi