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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In ‘The Metaverse,’ a leading evangelist shies away from prediction

(Washington Post illustration; Liveright Publishing)

When Matthew Ball first published an explainer in 2021 about the “metaverse,” the nebulous term had yet to appear in the dozens of investor relations calls of companies aiming to build the next internet. It hadn’t yet become associated with blockchain technology, nor fueled countless headlines in technology and financial publications. It would be half a year before Facebook would rename itself “Meta.”

Ball, a former Amazon Studios executive and strategist, is regarded by industry peers as one of the leading voices on the metaverse. With his new book, “The Metaverse: And How It Will Revolutionize Everything,” landing on shelves on July 19, he attempts to keep pace as the world charges after the term he helped explain. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

The metaverse is widely discussed, if poorly understood by most. (In the book, Ball entertains several different definitions of the metaverse, writing that executives and companies alike have not yet settled on one vision.) Still, Ball is bullish, writing that the industries creating the metaverse will be collectively generating trillions of dollars. Across 309 pages, he covers the visions described by various companies like Epic and Nvidia when pitching the metaverse, how the term was coined in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel “Snow Crash” and what it would take to build a connected digital world in which people can participate. He also writes that the video game industry is leading efforts to build the next version of the internet, working on real-time rendering of three-dimensional worlds.

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The book is encyclopedic, with touchpoints ranging from Pokémon to payment systems. Ball, however, avoids guessing at which definition of the metaverse will prevail, or laying out his opinion of which company (or companies) will create it first. In a phone interview with The Post, Ball explained why he passed on making predictions, and laid out his outlook for the metaverse.

This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.

Launcher: How did the book come about?

Matthew Ball: I had been writing about the metaverse since 2018. After I released my nine-part primer, which is about 32,000 words, I immediately started getting requests from a number of publishers, interested in republishing the primer and putting a little bit more around it. And I ended up agreeing to a book the next month. This was actually months before Mark Zuckerberg renamed the company, but it was also before he said publicly the goal was to transform Facebook into a Metaverse company. So that sudden surge of popularity certainly wasn’t the case at the time and certainly was not something I predicted.

Last July, even when you were getting interest from book publishers, people didn’t really talk about the metaverse as much. Then, it started to be more in the news. How did the fast-paced change of current events impact your work on the book? How did you make sure it was still relevant by the time that it hit publication?

Ball: Right after I submitted the final manuscript, Microsoft announced the Activision Blizzard acquisition, which of course, is the largest acquisition of big tech history. And in the final sentence of the first paragraph in the announcement, [CEO Satya Nadella] says that it will provide the building blocks for the metaverse. A few days after that, Brad Smith, the [Microsoft vice] chairman, outlined a policy memorandum that essentially outlined how Microsoft was going to be a positive force in the metaverse from a policy perspective. And so that’s an example of where I wrested the manuscript back from the publisher to make some changes.

There have been some announcements since. Meta has pushed out its AR glasses release. Obviously, the crypto crash happened after March as well. But the book was not intended to be hyper-specific to any one product or time or narrative. It’s designed to explain [the metaverse] to place it in the context of the 48-year-old internet thus far, and to talk about what’s going to be required to build it. That is intended to endure.

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In recent months, some companies’ enthusiasm for NFTs has waned, the price of bitcoin has crashed and the economy is not looking as good as it did last year. Were you thinking about that while working on the book, or was it too late to make changes at that point?

Ball: The crypto crash came after the book was locked. But you’ll note two things in the blockchain chapter: I outlined five different perspectives on blockchain, and I don’t personally weigh in on whether and to what extent I believe that blockchains are critical to the future. I also do say that some sort of crash is inevitable. The trillions of dollars in the crypto ecosystem in my mind exceeded the proven value and product market fit of the technology by some order of magnitude.

So that’s a good example of where events happened after the book was locked, but the book was written with that inevitability in mind.

Who did you picture as your target audience when writing the book?

Ball: I was imagining this book as having the same target audience that a book on the internet in 1995, or 2003, might have, which is a generalized audience. Those deeply interested in how technology and networking was going to transform nearly every facet of our economy over the unfolding decades.

What was your writing process? Did you have to go back and do more research? Or did you talk to other people about what the metaverse is?

Ball: The interesting thing about this book is, I was writing, researching and preparing for it for years without knowing it. Which is to say, I wrote the book over about four months. And it would never have been possible to have had the coverage, the depth and the examples during that time. But instead, it turned out that decades of playing games, reading science fiction, working in investing and partnering on projects relating to the metaverse was the primary research.

Part of my goal with the book was also not to express a single company’s perspective or give any specific theses on how and by whose hand the metaverse will unfold, but to talk about the many competing visions of the future. Different theses from a technological perspective.

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The book unfolds, as ‘This is what the metaverse is, here’s the topic and explanation,’ but I didn’t see much of your opinion, your perspective and analysis. I wonder if that was purposeful.

Ball: I’m mindful in the book about what you can and cannot predict. And when you go back in time, most specific [computing and networking] predictions were wrong. Because technology is recursive. Someone produces a new technology that leads to new behaviors or use cases, that is responded to with other technologies, and so on and so forth till you get to Instagram and Snapchat, TikTok, Salesforce and [Amazon Web Services].

As you kind of repeat throughout the book, nobody has a clear, single definition of the metaverse. Everyone’s definition is different and the value of these companies is also up in the air. Did you face any challenges around that while writing this book?

Ball: I highlight in the book that this uncertainty, confusion, conflation and disagreement over the metaverse is what produces the opportunity for disruption. A certain consensus and predictable transformation tends not to lead to much change. And so I see that as a feature, not a bug of the metaverse opportunity.

When you’re talking about the oscillating valuations, that, again, is a feature of change. There’s almost no way in the late 1990s or early 2000s, to imagine a future where Yahoo was immaterial. Where Skype had been surpassed by a dozen other messaging platforms several fold over. Where Microsoft was not the world leader in consumer or enterprise operating systems. And so the oscillations, to me, are emblematic of how the future is likely to be different.

Any parts of the book you’d like to highlight?

Ball: Chapter four. I talk a lot about how weird it seems that the next generation of the internet is being pioneered by a relatively small portion of the leisure economy — gaming. I then help to explain why the gaming industry, though niche thus far, is so important to our future. That was a lot of fun.

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I like the example you gave in the latter half of the book where you talked about whether an iPhone 12 could exist in 2008. And then you said that even if Apple spent as much money as it could, it still couldn’t make that happen.

Ball: That’s an important example to me, because I actually think it’s a point of inspiration that [Epic Games CEO] Tim Sweeney or Mark Zuckerberg or [Microsoft CEO] Satya Nadella can’t themselves build the metaverse. They can be powerful and important players. But this is an ecosystem. And that means that everyone has agency shaping this future, not just in which companies we patronize directly, but the millions of entrepreneurs and developers upon which all of those later products depend. And it’s really easy to forget that. We often distill or characterize these enormous technological transformations around a single product — Facebook, or the iPhone — and fail to recognize how many other things, creations, contributions, people, support them.

When structuring this book, did you have a particular vision of the metaverse in mind? Are you just careful not to say too much so as to not be wrong in the future, if things don’t go exactly as you predicted?

Ball: What everyone wants is a clean answer to what their life in the metaverse will be in 2032. ‘What will I do when I wake up? What will I do at work, what will I do when I get home?’ It’s important to me in the book, to be honest about what can and cannot be.

There will be some who read my hesitancy to answer that question directly as hedging, or a lack of confidence in the premise of the book. Instead, it’s informed by our lessons from the last 40 years. In my book, I’m not designing to avoid answering that question. I try to be very upfront about what I’m certain about, what I’m uncertain about, and what I believe we simply cannot know today.

Do you think that this book can deflect critics who would say that, once again, there is no standard definition of the metaverse, and it still seems like a buzzword that people use to throw around to raise money for their company?

Ball: I’m hopeful that it will help align people on some of the key concepts and provide a generally greater understanding of what the metaverse isn’t, such as the idea that it does not require VR headsets, even if they may become one of the best, most popular, preferred ways to access it. I think that clarity will help everyone and in particular, the entrepreneurs that are most deserving.

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