When I opened Chrome on Wednesday morning, I was surprised to see a major OS overall of Gmail. Rolling remote software updates aren’t that shocking anymore, they’re a pretty normal part of modern big tech, but this one is notable for continuing Google’s never ending quest to assimilate the most popular advances of other tech companies like a particularly email-obsessed Borg collective.
Refer, for example, to exhibit A: that shiny new status dropdown in the upper right. Now where have I seen that before? Somewhere, with a darker color scheme…
So what, you say? Another big tech company is stealing features again, no surprise there. But this feature, oddly, is key to the internet’s buzziest word: metaverse.
So what is the metaverse? I remain convinced that WIRED Editor in Chief Gideon Lichfield said it best when he defined the term as “an ingeniously vague label for a bunch of overhyped things that will mostly fail,” but perhaps a more exact definition would be “a virtual space characterized by the persistence of users, objects, and interactions.”
Basically, a metaverse is a network that knows who you are, what properties you have, what you own, and how you relate to others, across all services and devices in the network. In the metaverse, you wouldn’t need to make a Gmail account and an Instagram account, you’d just have an Internet account, and all other services would recognize your identifiers automatically.
The obvious advantage of this is that it brings unity to the internet, with ease of access and consistency of data, identity, and work across all platforms, just like in the real world. Under the original vision of Neal Stephenson’s Snowcrash, which coined the word metaverse, this would emerge naturally from the collaborative spirit of the internet, with the free sharing of data creating an anarchist, open source metaverse owned by no one and everyone.
That may have been a little optimistic.
Consider that Google, and its parent company Alphabet, currently offer (and control):
- A search engine
- Email (Gmail)
- Word processing (Docs)
- Presentations (Slides)
- Spreadsheets (Sheets)
- Surveys (Forms)
- Video streaming and hosting (YouTube)
- Satellite scans of the entire planet (Maps)
- Video conferencing (Meet)
- An app store (Play)
- Language translation (Translate)
- The widely used “Sign in with Google” (so that you can still give them your data in the increasingly rare instances you have to leave Googleverse)
- “Spaces” (Google brand Discord servers?)
- Social media style statuses
Can we revisit the satellite-scans-of-the-entire-Earth thing? Why does Google, originally a search engine company, have that? Actually wait, I know exactly why, they stole it from a company called ART+COM which subsequently sued them for patent infringement and made a TV show about it.
Setting aside that particular weirdness of the modern world, it’s pretty clear that Google has exceeded the bounds of its brand as a search engine company. And as it does so, and it becomes increasingly unnecessary to have any non Google accounts, it moves ever closer toward big tech’s dream of holding all the data, all the time.
If the metaverse is more than an “ingeniously vague” distraction on the part of Mark Zuckerberg, which I’m still not entirely convinced of, it won’t be a more open and collaborative internet. It will be a more controlled and corporate one, without any of the grassroots creative spirit Stephenson’s world was supposed to idealize. And no matter how dramatically Zuckerberg draws attention to his company’s new name, it’s pointless to go looking for the metaverse. Its name is Google, and you already live there.