Welcome to the Machine: How is Digital Technology Transforming the World of Work and the World we Live in?
The Metaverse and the World of Work
There’s a classic interview on YouTube of Bill Gates explaining what the Internet is to a slightly unconvinced David Letterman in 1995. After Gates succinctly translates the Internet and its capabilities to a digital foreigner, Letterman questioned the point of computers. Why listen to a baseball game on your computer when radios exist? Okay, you can access the recording whenever you like but what about tape recorders?
While Letterman admits that ‘it’s easy to criticise something you don’t understand’, it’s still amusing to watch the interview almost thirty years later. The fact that I watched the interview on the Internet is ironic. Gates’ prophecy regarding the Internet’s ubiquity has come true.
Nowadays, it’s easy to draw parallels between Letterman’s scepticism of the Internet and people’s doubts about Web 3.0 (the vision for a decentralised version of the Internet). From cryptocurrencies to non-fungible tokens (NFTs) to the metaverse, there’s been so much hype surrounding blockchain technology (the database used to record cryptocurrency transactions) in the last few years.
If this jargon sounds strange to you, it’s because it is. Finance and computer science are notoriously esoteric fields. Unfortunately, buzzwords like cryptocurrency, blockchain and Web 3.0 combine both. In short, systems built on blockchain technology will challenge the way we view ownership in finance, art and ‘real’ estate.
Web 3.0 enthusiasts dream of a world in which we’re no longer governed by central authorities and envision tokens replacing money as we know it. Crypto critics however, question the usefulness of
bored apes in funny costumes and suspect that the metaverse will have the
same pitfalls as Big Tech governed social media.
Whether you believe the hype or not, this technology has capitalised on the changing nature of the world. While I’ve speculatively invested in cryptocurrencies and view NFTs as status symbols, the metaverse is the space that intrigues me the most.
Coined by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 science fiction novel, Snow Crash, the metaverse is the idea of a virtual reality that could succeed the Internet as we know it. We’ll experience the Internet through headsets, glasses and computers that take us to a virtual world. Instead of texting your friends in Australia, your computer will transport you to their (virtual) house.
Much of the focus so far has been on gaming and socialising but I wonder what possibilities it offers for work.
The dream Working from home or hybrid working has become the norm. Despite an easing of government restrictions, between 19th January to 30th January 2022, 36% of adults worked from home at least once, most likely in some form of shirt tracksuit combination.
Zoom calls were our best friend at the start of 2020 but many of us have become fatigued. It’s so easy to turn off your camera and microphone and pretend you’re not in the meeting. Some people aren’t even pretending. What if there was a better way to connect with colleagues in remote locations?
Mark Zuckerberg had a solution; on 28th October 2021 Facebook rebranded to Meta Platforms. The company, now focused on the metaverse, is the offspring of the pandemic and hybrid working. The prefix -meta denotes a position behind, after or beyond. The rebrand hence encapsulates this definition as the company attempts to take remote working further.
In Meta’s glorified advert, The Metaverse and How We’ll Build It Together, Zuckerberg tells us that ‘I think remote work is here to stay for a lot of people’. He then prompts us to imagine a reality where we can enter virtual workspaces, allowing for chance interactions in the ‘office’. A reality where your colleagues working from home appear as holograms so that they can interact with you in meetings.
I think this could be very positive for our society and economy. Giving people access to jobs and places no matter where they live will be a big deal for spreading opportunity to more people. Dropping our daily commutes will mean less time stuck in traffic and more time doing things that matter. And it will be good for the environment.
The (virtual) reality
Zuckerberg’s vision of the metaverse, which is certainly not the only vision, sounds ideal to a certain degree. Part of the attraction of the metaverse is that we have the chance to rip up the rulebook. We can create a more inclusive, efficient, sustainable world, even if it’s virtual. Accordingly, a world in which people have access to jobs and places no matter where they live seems like a step towards a true meritocracy.
In 2021 the government of Barbados announced that it will build a diplomatic compound in Decentraland, a virtual world in the metaverse. Diplomats from all around the world will be able to connect with each other while the island itself overcomes the limitations of its actual size and wealth. A virtual embassy is considerably cheaper and potentially more expansive (in virtual terms) than the real thing.
A digital future also bodes well for the fashion industry because substituting physical goods for virtual ones could reduce the 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon emissions released by the industry every year. Trying on outfits in the metaverse would save fashionistas from buying heaps of clothing just to be tossed in the trash, then landfill sites, after a few wears.
But let me play David Letterman here. The concept of the metaverse sounds like something straight out of a Black Mirror episode. Who would want to sit next to a digital version of their colleague? Also, why would someone want to spend more time in the office as a hologram? I thought the idea of working from home was that you work from home. We don’t have to spend more time together.
On a more serious note, while a transition to the metaverse seems like progress, I’m not sure if people are ready to fully immerse themselves in a digital world, especially if Silicon Valley bigwigs are leading the charge. People like Zuckerberg have previously come under fire for ‘misinformation, prioritising profits over people and the sale of people’s data’.
Although companies such as Meta have taglines about how we can build the metaverse together, 83% of executives in the US technology industry are White and male. With diversity and inclusion more important than ever, I’m sure the developers, analysts and engineers would consider other people’s experiences. Nonetheless, it doesn’t take long to find articles and videos about the perils of being a woman in the metaverse.
Even the environmental benefits of the metaverse are not as great as they seem on first glance. The reliance on computers and blockchain technology emits a great deal of carbon emissions. According to Ernst & Young, ‘the average single NFT transaction produced 48kg of CO2, the equivalent of burning 18 litres of diesel’. The reliance on computers and the Internet also excludes people without sustained access to either.
Suddenly, the vision of a more inclusive, efficient and sustainable world seems like as much as fantasy as the metaverse itself.
But there is hope and I believe it comes from young people. Since many of us will be working into our seventies, we should have a say in what we want the world of work to look like.
Companies, such as London-based, hundo, are providing Generation Z with a platform to do just that. Focused on ending global youth unemployment through Web 3.0, hundo plans to create a metaverse university, in which people can complete courses and assignments in exchange for NFTs (learn to earn). This way young people are encouraged to learn in a gamified environment simultaneously gaining the skills required for potential jobs in the metaverse. We can also transfer the business and marketing skills we’ve picked up through applications like TikTok and StockX to a more formal work setting.
I like hundo because it appears to genuinely value young people. Unlike Zuckerberg, hundo’s CEO, Esther O’Callaghan OBE doesn’t come from a tech background. She instead devoted years to eradicating youth unemployment so approaches the metaverse and the world of work from a purely human perspective.
As a result of hundo’s foundations and values, it addresses some of the issues previously mentioned in this essay. Just looking at the articles on its website, it champions Web 3.0 creators and entrepreneurs from a diverse range of backgrounds, in terms of ethnicity, gender and career path. It also uses the Polygon blockchain, which requires significantly less energy than the commonly used Ethereum blockchain.
But beyond moral motivations for her vision of the metaverse, in an interview with Jamie Burke on the Metaverse podcast, O’Callaghan explained that ‘employers need it’. They need young people equipped to meet the demands of work in the future.
The metaverse provides us with the opportunity to break down barriers. It has the potential to be an inclusive, sustainable space or an ugly, distorted version of reality. In thirty years we’ll teleport back to this moment, either laughing or crying