Snow Crash, Bored Ape, NFTs – are these the future or fads?

Amber and Steve presenting at 1 Mill Street

Recently Creative Futures hosted, The Reality of The Metaverse workshop at 1 Mill St, along with Steve Street who has over 30 years experience as an IBM architect, and Amber Macintyre, a technology and civil society researcher and lecturer specialising in data ethics, politics, privacy, and surveillance. This workshop touched upon Snow Crash, Bored Ape and other predictable developments, leading to an in-depth discussion on the trends and limits of artificial intelligence, augmented realities, NFTs.. and how the continuing story of digitalisation may impact you personally and in the business world.

Yogen Mudgal, University of Warwick

Yogen Mudgal, a final-year Accounting and Finance Student from the University of Warwick, with a keen interest in the Metaverse and it’s impacts on society, attended the workshop and wrote the following article below:

Opinion: Lessons for Meta from Cable Era

Amidst concerns about slowing growth, regulatory scrutiny from US Congress, and new technologies threatening its hegemony, TCI’s defiant President, John Malone declared his vision for the future of cable TV. “Television will never be the same” he said as he touted the idea of 500 channels on his cable network provider.

The largest of America’s cable companies, John Malone’s Telecommunications Incorporated had laid bare the idea of an interactive user experience on television with information flowing both back and forth and a whole new infrastructure on which commerce could be conducted. About two decades later, this was realised – not on cable TV sets but on internet-powered laptops and smartphones.

It is rather hard to overlook the stark similarities between Malone in 1993 and Zuckerberg today. Similar to cable in the 90s, social media is going from a period of hyper growth to a relative slowdown. That’s causing obvious concerns amongst tech investors that have assigned these companies massive values, in part because of their rapid growth. Added to that are the same anti-trust issues that cable faced through its time as America’s darling. Finally, akin to TCI’s sliding approval among the public (and in industry) in the early 90s, Meta faces the wrath of both its users and the wider industry – even if for different reasons.

Zuckerberg’s Metaverse promotion

Given the background, it becomes rather apparent why both Malone and Zuckerberg, albeit at different times in history, felt the need to lay out grand visions of what the future will be like; selling a story that investors and customers alike could buy. That’s not to say that the Metaverse is some fantasy without much grounding in the real world. Indeed, many have rightly argued that we might be much further along the road than most people realise. But the timing for Zuckerberg does seem rather suspicious. An even bigger question that investors must ask is just how much of Zuckerberg’s largesse will boost the company’s stock price. Because as time has evidenced, TCI never did realise its interactive TV set vision, nor is its later parent company, AT&T, the biggest beneficiary of the digital revolution.

Meta, formerly Facebook, doesn’t seem to have much of a record in fulfilling its visions and is blemished with failed enterprises. Famously late in creating and launching an app, the company has been in reactive mode for much of its recent history. Most of the company’s growth has come through acquisitions and effectively none of its organically created ventures have gone on to success. From its cryptocurrency to its fledging attempts in creating a vast ecommerce network on its platforms, and from its failures on privacy and harmful content to the now defunct “Home” app, the company hasn’t been able to do much beyond its core products. Even with the availability of its vast network infrastructure that can be used to offload new services, Facebook hasn’t been able to realise that.

In this sense, Facebook and TCI begin to diverge. Even when Malone wasn’t able to deliver on his large and grand design of an interactive TV, most of the ventures TCI undertook yielded results and shareholder value. While one could hold Liberty as a prime example, the list goes far beyond that in tens of billions of dollars he made in collaborations, partnerships, and transactions. It seems that for all their technological might, Californian techies don’t quite have the business savvy of the then cable cowboys. Even overlooking that, Malone never displayed the least bit need to build greater and mightier technology. He always believed that his job was to deliver shareholder value, and that he kept doing. So much for stakeholder theory when the best secrets to creating value can still be found in the lacklustre lectures from Milton Friedman.

But even when their stars align so rightly, it isn’t always fair to say Malone and Zuckerberg’s grand plans are always comparable. For a starter, Zuckerberg serves a much wider audience – in excess of 4 billion – something virtually unheard of before. He also has access to much deeper pools of capital, and Meta has significantly greater might than the entire cable industry from back in the day. And times have also changed. There is vastly more patient capital and availability of money to sacrifice in achieving the Metaverse vision. Unlike Malone, Zuckerberg isn’t constantly fighting for the control or his company; he is effectively unanswerable to his shareholders and his trillion-dollar company will likely not be bid on.

Zuckerberg’s challenges are different as well, though. For all the complains of high costs and bad servicing, Malone’s TCI was never a threat to the healthy functioning of American democracy, its infrastructure was not used in genocides, and its customers weren’t worried about their personal data being sold off. Most importantly, TCI’s customers and users weren’t different groups of people, and their needs weren’t ever competing with each other. For all its might, Facebook’s challenges are almost as big too. These matters don’t disappear for the company even when if it has moved on to creating the next generation of technology. It is only fair to say that the company’s vision looks ever more dystopian until it addresses these fundamental flaws in its model.

Can you imagine a world set in virtual reality?

A world set in virtual reality, a mecca for gamers and tech bros, a libertarian paradise with decentralised currencies and non-fungible tokens, digital avatars in an online universe trying on clothes to buy and walking the simulated grounds of Paris – the metaverse holds promises, anxieties, and everything in between. But above everything else, Metaverse is a platform for business and needs to be treated as such.

There is little doubt in Facebook’s technical abilities in facilitating such infrastructure. The question is whether it’ll ever be the primary beneficiary of this new universe its proposing. The company’s past actions are fast catching up with it. It doesn’t have much to show in way of a record in delivering value from similar undertakings. Investors need to step back and revaluate if Facebook is the best company to deliver value to them and give them a stake in the Metaverse. Other tech companies including Microsoft and Alphabet with longer histories and a better track record in deal making and delivering long-term value have already presented themselves as viable alternatives. Moreover, the opportunity cost of not investing in the next generation of Metaverse upstarts maybe too large to ignore

We’d welcome your comments, please join the debate below.

Comment on this...