Who Will Build the Metaverse?

Image by Okan Caliskan from Pixabay

I wrote elsewhere about how the metaverse is not the multiverse. For one thing, the metaverse is not here yet, and we're not sure if the multiverse is here. Also, you can turn off the metaverse, but not the multiverse. Okay, you might need some definitions first.

Metaverse is a computing term meaning a virtual-reality space in which users can interact with a computer-generated environment and other users. It may contain some copies of the real world and it might combine VR and AR. It might turn out to be an evolved Internet along with shared, 3D virtual spaces that create a virtual universe.

The multiverse is not online. It is cosmology and, at least right now, it is a hypothetical group of multiple universes. Combined, these universes encompass all of space, time, matter, energy, information, and the physical laws and constants that describe them. That's quite overwhelming and far beyond the scope of this article.

The metaverse is being built and it is also a bit overwhelming. One person who wants to help build it is Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. He recently said, “In the coming years, I expect people will transition from seeing us primarily as a social media company to seeing us as a metaverse company… In many ways, the metaverse is the ultimate expression of social technology.”

You might have encountered the word “metaverse” if you read Neal Stephenson’s 1992 science-fiction novel, Snow Crash. In that book, people move back and forth from their lives in the 3D virtual living space to their "ordinary" real-time lives.

Matthew Ball has written an interesting "Metaverse Primer" containing nine articles. Ball asks "Who will build the metaverse?" It certainly won't just be Facebook. Google, Apple, and other big tech companies, but they have all been working (and investing) in augmented reality (AR) which layers tech on top of the real world and VR (virtual reality) which creates a kind of "otherverse." (Remember Google Glass back in 2013?) Epic Games, best known as the creator of Fortnite, announced in April 2021 a $1 billion round of funding to build a “long-term vision of the Metaverse” which will help the company further develop connected social experiences.

But Facebook seems to be moving on its own. It has a platform, almost 3 billion users and they own Oculus which already has a metaverse feel though it is a virtual reality (VR) device. It allows you to move between the two worlds. Facebook's platform also includes WhatsApp and Instagram which may end up playing a part in the metaverse.

I recall working and exploring inside Second Life around 2004 which was seen as a virtual world. It seemed more similar to a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, Linden Lab always maintained that it was not a game. A friend who was an architect/designer in Second Life kept reminding me that "this is not The Sims." Second Life is still here but I haven't been there in a decade.

Are you ready for the metaverse? Whose metaverse entry point will you trust?


Cut the Cord, Narrow the Stream, Reconnect

data streams
Image by Yan Wong

A few years ago I was writing about how a lot of people were looking to save money on their TV entertainment by what was known as "cutting the cord" since it meant disconnecting from a cable service. Those services had boomed in the 1970s and 80s and had brought clear channels from local and distant services and led to the rise of services like HBO and Showtime. People are still cord-cutting, but things have changed.

We tired of $100+ per month channel bundles that included lots of channels we never watched. People wanted a cafeteria-style choice. Just pick the things you wanted. But cable companies didn't want to offer that. So, people began to drop their cable contract and replace it with streaming TV services and perhaps a TV antenna or device that offered local channels, news, and a kind of all-in-one bundle.

In 2015, I wrote about a group of people that I called "The Disconnected" and I did a presentation on how we might connect to the disconnected. The disconnections ranged from cord-cutting to ownership of things (home, cars, physical media) and possibly from education and the world. Since then, I have added other disconnected aspects of our lives.

The pandemic that forced disconnections in early 2020 has accelerated some of that. Ironically, as disconnected as we became to friends, offices, campuses and stores, most of us became more connected to media.

Cord-cutters still needed an Internet service and that connection became quite critical in these pandemic times. We needed it to continue working, learning and staying in touch with other people. Those connections are very important, but I also have been thinking about how connected we have become to those streaming services on our screens for entertainment.

The tech divide either got wider the past year or minimally became more obvious. Home Internet speeds should be at least 15Mbps (megabits per second) for each device you plan to have running at the same time. That means that those two TVs, the laptop and three smartphones and one tablet all playing at once would ideally have a connection of at least 105Mbps. That’s a lot to ask of a DSL or satellite service and from most cable company broadband services. Those people with access to fiber broadband or some other fast connection had a big advantage.

It is now almost a decade from dropping your cable connection and moving to streaming and now I am hearing more people complain about the cost of buying all the services needed to keep up with the content that all your friends are telling are essential viewing. 

What is the cost of having Netflix, HBO Max, Disney Plus, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Peacock, and others and also a bundle of live TV channels such as YouTube TV or Sling TV?

Yes, there are a bunch of free (ad-based) sources of streaming video too (Crackle, IMDb, Kanopy, Peacock, Hoopla, Pluto TV, the Roku Channel, Tubi TV, Vudu, etc.). 

You might also want a streaming device that connects to the Internet and allows you to show things on devices on bigger screens (Chromecast, Roku’s Streaming Stick, or Amazon’s Fire TV Stick. 

At one time, I could watch Disney films on Netflix, but Disney and most of the other content providers have now decided that they are better off offering their content on their own services. YouTube TV recently was removed from Roku. Battles will continue.

If you cut the cord, will you soon need to cut or narrow the streams flowing into your home?

The New World Normal


You are still going to hear more and more this summer and fall about the "new normal" or the "next normal" as we hopefully move out of the pandemic and return to something similar to but not the same as what we called normal in 2019.

Isn't normal always changing? What is normal anyway?

Normality for an individual is when your behavior is consistent with the most common behavior for that person. But normal is also used to describe individual behavior that conforms to the most common behavior in a society. Normal is also at times only recognized in contrast to abnormality.

In schools, we talk about individual student behaviors that are not normal because they contrast with the majority of students. We can talk about an entire college as not following the normal behavior of other colleges.

In March 2021, Rutgers University was the first university I heard announce that all students would be required to be vaccinated in order to be back on campus in September. I am a Rutgers College alum and I was happy to hear the announcement, but it was met with agreement and disagreement immediately. I thought back to when I attended Rutgers in the last century, and to when my sons went off to college in this century. Some vaccinations were required for me and for my sons. The meningitis vaccine was required and is typically given to preteens and teens at 11 to 12 years old with a booster dose at 16 years old. I don't recall any protests about vaccinations for students in K-12 and college being public events before. Typically, vaccinations are recommended for college for measles, mumps, and rubella, meningococcal, human papillomavirus, and influenza.

Talk about "vaccination passports" is a discussion well beyond school campuses.

Great Seal of the United States

I read something online (I'm not linking to it) connecting the post-pandemic normal to the New World Order (NWO), which is a conspiracy theory that hypothesizes a secretly emerging totalitarian world government. It's not a new conspiracy. Believers will point to "evidence" such as the reverse side of the Great Seal of the United States having the Latin phrase "novus ordo seclorum", since 1782 and on the back of the U.S. one-dollar bill since 1935. That translates to "New Order of the Ages." It is generally considered to allude to the beginning of the era where the United States of America became an independent nation-state. Conspiracy theorists claim this is an allusion to the "New World Order."

I also read online that PEW research feels that "A plurality of experts think sweeping societal change will make life worse for most people as greater inequality, rising authoritarianism and rampant misinformation take hold in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak." That is a harsh prediction. They do add that "a portion believe life will be better in a ‘tele-everything’ world where workplaces, health care and social activity improve."

Their research found that the next normal may "worsen economic inequality as those who are highly connected and the tech-savvy pull further ahead of those who have less access to digital tools and less training or aptitude for exploiting them." They also feel that the changes that may occur will include the elimination of some jobs and enhance the power of big technology firms. Some of that power was growing pre-pandemic through market advantages and using artificial intelligence (AI) in ways that seem likely to further erode the privacy and autonomy of their users.

Likewise, the spread of misinformation online was happening well before the pandemic, so I don't view this as a pandemic-caused issue. Some of the PEW respondents saw the manipulation of public perception, emotion and action via online disinformation as the greatest threat.

The WHO (World Health Organization) is talking about moving from the "new normal" to a "new future" in a "sustainable response to COVID-19." Some of their recommendations about global health could easily be recommendations for global education.

Recognizing that the virus will be with us for a long time, governments should also use this opportunity to invest in health systems, which can benefit all populations beyond COVID-19, as well as prepare for future public health emergencies. These investments may include: 1) capitalizing on COVID-19 enhancements to surveillance, lab, risk communications and other core capacities, 2) back casting to identify gaps and steer resources to future health needs like genetic sequencing and contact tracing with Information Technology, 3) building on COVID-19 innovations to accelerate recovery and address other pressing health problems, and 4) strengthening multi-sector collaboration to improve health services and reduce health inequity.

EDUCAUSE suggests that part of that next normal in education will be improved student engagement through lessons learned during the pandemic. For example, during COVID-19 teaching, breakout rooms emerged as one way to offer environments for collaborative learning. Their use both emerged from perceived "Zoom fatigue" and also contributed to that fatigue depending on how it was implemented.

Globally, writing on the World Economic Forum website suggests that this idea of a New Normal "must not be the lens through which we examine our changed world." Why? One reason is that what we call "normal" has not worked for a majority of the world's population. "So why would it start working now?" Then what should we do? The writer suggests that we "should use our discomfort to forge a new paradigm instead."

Large scale change - a new paradigm - is a lofty goal and what that new paradigm would be is still far from clear. Stay tuned.

The Last Bookstore on Earth

closed bookstore

My title - The Last Bookstore on Earth - sounds like science-fiction. In 2021, it is sci-fi future thinking, but it might well be true in 2071 and I wouldn't be shocked if it turns out to be true much sooner. We know that physical bookstores have been closing ever since Amazon and the age of online booksellers began.

This past weekend was Independent Bookstore Day and brick and mortar bookstores still have ardent supporters - me included - but it's tough to keep a store going just selling books. The pandemic didn't help them, but the pandemic did help online book sales.

There is a whole bookshelf worth of "the end of" books. I have read three: The End of Everything: (Astrophysically Speaking), The End of Historyand The End of Science. Of course, all those things are still going

Some young people may not know that Amazon.com started as a bookstore, but it fairly quickly expanded and now (especially by using third-party suppliers) it seems to sell everything and threatens not only bookstores but all kinds of stores.

My inspiration to write today came from watching the documentary The Last Blockbuster on Netflix. It tells the story of Blockbuster Video, the video rental company that put many independent video rental stores out of business. One way it did that was by making distribution deals with film studios.

It is an interesting history because movies on video were at first seen as a threat to movie theaters. That initial fear turned out to be less threatening than first thought because there were still plenty of people who wanted to see movies on a big screen and when they were released rather than months later when they hit video. This path has been traveled again, especially in the past pandemic year, with closed theaters and greatly increased streaming video use.

There were several indie video stores in my neighborhood when Blockbuster opened a large store. The indies could not compete with the wide selection and many deals. (About the only thing the indies could offer was pornography which was not in Blockbuster.)  Blockbuster had made revenue-share deals and so could negotiate lower prices than their local stores in exchange for a cut of the rental fees.

There is a nice irony in The Last Blockbuster being released by Netflix which wiped out the video stores of all sizes and helped wipe out the DVD market too.

But Netflix doesn't own the streaming business anymore. Hulu, Apple, Disney and Amazon Prime are examples of services that not only offer subscriptions but also additional rentals and, most significantly, are funding original content that they will own exclusively. Media companies, such as CBS, Paramount, that sold content to places like Netflix have now started their own streaming services and let their deals with the older services lapse.

VCRs were replaced by DVRs which are being pushed aside by streaming. Netflix pushed aside stores and DVDs. Online booksellers hurt bookstores, though most now offer online purchasing and during the pandemic offered curbside pickup and some offered virtual author events and readings.

People will return to movie theaters as pandemic restrictions disappear. People who went to bookstores to browse will return too. Students who were learning online for the past year are returning to their classrooms and predictions are that they will be back to a kind of normal this fall. But all of these institutions and businesses are changing because of moves online that occurred either because of technological evolution or pandemic necessity.

I hope the idea of the "last bookstore" is just an idea and that some online service will never be able to make a video about it.