This week’s Attention Span is a little more industry-specific than usual.
The direction of the attention economy is one of the most important investment and cultural trends over the next decade. Here are a couple of the most interesting competing visions.
“Where Is The Attention Economy Going?- Mirrorworlds to Metaverses”
[9 minute read]
Back in 2017, The Economist famously declared that “data was the new oil.” Four years later I insist that we had it backwards. Attention is the new oil, and data is what consumes it.
We all know that FAANMG is one of the most economically explosive phenomena in human history. But understanding where we go next could be absolutely critical. With Blockchain, Non-Fungible Tokens, and now Decentralised Autonomous Organizations, the current tech zeitgeist is hurtling toward decentralization of power. It’s massively raising the stakes for the platform incumbents.
The number of hours in a day will always be finite, but the degree of competition is going to be increasingly aggressive.
Up until this point, the tech monopolies have largely interacted with us through screens. And they will continue to use aggressive techniques to make you do it even more. As Seth Stephens-Davidowitz puts it, “there are a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job it is to break down the self-regulation you have.”
The next stage of evolution may go well beyond traditional screens. Indeed- on a long enough timeline it’s hard to see how it won’t.
The two definitive articles to read on this topic are Matthew Ball’s Metaverse explainer and Kevin Kelly’s vision for the Mirrorworld.
The metaverse, in particular, is hardly an undiscovered theme; it spawned a thousand think-pieces and eye-rolls in 2020 alone. Talk of “The Third Platform” has been around since before Snow Crash in 1992. But the abundant hype also means that tech monoliths are more likely to aggressively compete to be the first to build it. It’s implicitly and explicitly the focus of a huge number of multi-billion dollar companies. Moreover, if it’s clear that the investment landscape is currently dominated by anything, it’s disruptive technology narratives. The Metaverse thematic ETF surely cannot be too far away.
The evolution of the “Third Platform” is likely going to be one of the most consequential developments in modern history. If something has the potential to be a decades-long trend and generate hundreds of billions of dollars, it’s worth paying attention to.
Very simplistically framed, I see the metaverse as an online world you enter, via a virtual reality headset or a traditional screen. The mirrorworld is an augmented reality overlay onto the existing offline world (think translucent goggles or glasses). One’s putting more of the real world in “cyberspace”, the other’s putting more of the virtual world in “meatspace.”
Essentially, the ecosystem variation of the metaverse is an online world that can operate as a proxy for the real world across gaming, commerce, and social interactions. Even today, this is not a purely theoretical concept. For example, an astounding eleven million people experienced Fortnite’s 2019 Marshmello concert that took place in real time within the game.
If the metaverse ends up being dominated by a single platform and world, the bounty for the winner is inconceivable. Moreover, the amount of marketable data generated by individual users would increase exponentially. The metaverse would capture the totality of your behaviour inside the virtual world, rather than just the places where your offline world meets the online world. Where fingertip meets screen.
Video games currently use aggressive “flow generating” tactics coupled with dopamine rewards and finely calibrated progression. Essentially they have used one of the largest A/B testing audiences in history to maximize engagement. About two thirds of American children aged 9–12 play Roblox, and a third of all Americans under the age of 16. Minecraft has 130 million monthly active users. If the same tactics can be successfully applied to the Metaverse, in an even richer environment, it could increasingly resemble an absolute attention monopoly. It’s all a little bit depressing, but then that’s my subjective view.
But on a slightly less dystopian note, last month’s Knall/Cohen/Pence Group speaker, Jaron Lanier, has talked about online worlds supporting more inclusive and decentralized digital economies. He actually helped develop an equivalent system within Second Life.
The converse of us entering into a virtual world, is bringing the virtual world into the offline world. A few notable runaway successes like Pokemon Go aside, Augmented Reality (AR) has thus far been a hype cycle casualty. Kevin Kelly’s 2016 Wired cover story on Magic Leap appears to have been premature at best. Although Magic Leap’s specific fortunes have been somewhat inauspicious so far, Kelly recently doubled down on the concept, using the term Mirrorworld. It’s a characteristically enthusiastic vision from Kelly.
“At first, the mirrorworld will appear to us as a high-resolution stratum of information overlaying the real world. We might see a virtual name tag hovering in front of people we previously met. Perhaps a blue arrow showing us the right place to turn a corner. Or helpful annotations anchored to places of interest. (Unlike the dark, closed goggles of VR, AR glasses use see-through technology to insert virtual apparitions into the real world.)”
The basic benefit of the mirrorworld relative to an online metaverse is that it overlays a digital format onto the experientially richer external world. It may also be more effective at facilitating “far transfer” than many video games have been up to this point. Do they make you more useful, skillful, employable, or vital in the external world? A game that makes you a magnificent dancer, a superb martial artist or master craftsman would seem to be of more intrinsic worth. But maybe that’s a subjective and outdated opinion. Economically, AR may be an even more lucrative proposition: rather than convince advertisers to come into your world, you can monitor users’ behaviour in the outside world. “Steve went to your restaurant six times, and his eyes looked at this menu item more than any others.” Privacy, for both wearer and the observed, is obviously a primary concern!
The race is on.
Both Kelly and Ball acknowledge that both of these universes will require unprecedented expansions of the internet’s existing infrastructure. They are both probably a decade away from the mainstream. Experts I’ve spoken to about the mirrorworld say that the external sensors required are nowhere close to existing right now. But the companies chasing the grail are among the richest ever created. Moreover, the cost of losing to a single winner is catastrophic, so the investments have already begun in earnest.
When war breaks out, you don’t pick sides, you buy shares in arms dealers. Powerful chips, 3D sensing, cameras, graphics engines, wireless technology; the range of potential suppliers is broad and the trend is secular.
Giving the last word to Kevin Kelly and his typically hyperbolic style:
“The first big technology platform was the web, which digitized information, subjecting knowledge to the power of algorithms; it came to be dominated by Google. The second great platform was social media, running primarily on mobile phones. It digitized people and subjected human behavior and relationships to the power of algorithms, and it is ruled by Facebook and WeChat.
We are now at the dawn of the third platform, which will digitize the rest of the world. On this platform, all things and places will be machine-readable, subject to the power of algorithms. Whoever dominates this grand third platform will become among the wealthiest and most powerful people and companies in history, just as those who now dominate the first two platforms have.”
Whether the future is a Metaverse, a Mirrorworld, or a combination of the two, there may not be many more important technological evolutions to understand in today’s world.
Further reading on this topic:
- Read: The Metaverse: What It Is, Where to Find it, Who Will Build It, and Fortnite by Matthew Ball. (55 minute Read)
- Why Read: As I said above, the Metaverse is an over-exposed concept, but still a valuable one. This piece is a good primer from one of the thinkers that was early to this theme, and I believe he’s worth following in general.
- Read: AR Will Spark the Next Big Tech Platform – Call it Mirrorworld by Kevin Kelly (paywalled).
- · Why Read: Kelly is always breathlessly enthusiastic to the point of techno-utopianism. But that makes him really fun to read. His 2015 book The Inevitable is really good on secular trends in tech. Unlike a lot of people, he’s thinking in decades, not quarters.
Finally- I’ve been really intrigued by a competing, contrarian vision articulated by the likes of Brian Roemmele. Essentially platforms that enhance the quality of our existing human experience, rather than expanding the influence of the digital world. It’s something I’ll hopefully be digging into with you over the next few months.
Have a good weekend!
Director of Communications and Content
The Knall/Cohen/Pence Group
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