Metaverse for Dummies

Metaverse for Dummies. photo credit: Motley Fool

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Can you help me make sense of what is going on with all these headlines about the metaverse, say the metaverse for Dummies? This week the company Microsoft jumped in, but I was confused before then. I am middle-aged, a fan of Twitter and Facebook, and keep up with technology on my folding Samsung Z phone. A long time ago, I built a SimCity and then I played Minecraft with my kids. But I still don’t understand what is going on.  Is the metaverse another name for games?  Keach, Sausalito

Dear Keach: This coming week I am teaching on Zoom and the students and I both know there Is room for improvement.  While games and avatars grab our imagination today, we know there should be a better interactive tool for future online education, telemedicine, etc. So, here goes my own version of the metaverse for Dummies!

A working definition, still vague, is that the metaverse will emerge as a Web 3.0. The first commercial public phase, Web 1.0, circa (1989-1995) facilitated the transmission of information and emails. Then, Web 2.0 connected people, creating the sharing economy dominated by companies like Amazon and Facebook. For a more formal timeline, visit here. The metaverse, Web 3.0 will connect people, locations and things- sometimes in a fully virtual, 3D, synthetic environment. Metaverse will not be a single platform or a single technology, although Microsoft and Facebook are angling for that.

The devices we use to connect to this metaverse will not be handheld, like today’s phones. Sensors, special glasses, or implants on our body and clothing are more likely. And, given the history of many new devices and technology, it’s not surprising that they make an entry through less serious pursuits like games.  

Creating Scarcity:

The business model for the metaverse is still under development, but I want to sound a note of caution. When the Internet began, pioneer listserv users expected that it would democratize people and bring them together. Over the past ten years we have seen the Internet become factional and fractional. The tools of the metaverse- e.g. buying virtual clothing, real estate, and NFTs,  supersize that division IMHO. The graphic for today’s column comes from a Motley Fool article, which is titled, 3 Ways Metaverse Mortgages Will Affect Virtual Real Estate.” They encourage prescient investors to jump in today.

The Internet is boundless but new products, particularly NFTs, have a business model to create scarcity.  Those early adopters setting up the metaverse  hope to barter and sell these like physical assets. There is an interesting dynamic going on here: we all want more sustainable products, and they can sell us virtual products that reduce consumption and the need for physical resources. 

But, to answer your question more- why the metaverse? Why has Microsoft followed suit after Facebook? 

External Games:

First, you mentioned that you were an ex-gamer. Did you play a few videogames during Covid? Multitudes did. According to MarketWatch, videogames grew to $180 billion in revenue, and this remains larger than revenue from the global film industry ($100 billion) and from North American sports industries ($75 billion).  Even if the full metaverse is meta-years in the making, the seeds sprout today in the gaming industry. 

A second push for the metaverse comes from 5G networks and its faster, speedier communications. It is a frontier for programmers that lets them transfer more data at the same time, or in a shorter time and get prompter feedback. So the code they write, particularly for mobile devices, can be pushed in directions previously unimagined. Thinking forward, we need these metaverse innovations to have truly useful at-home robots, and safe, predictable out-of-home autonomous vehicles. 

Internal States:

A third reason the metaverse pushes forward has less to do with the world outside and more to do with our mental state and health. There has been a recent spate of concern, linking social media like Facebook with teen stress, anxiety, and addiction. A metaverse avatar has the potential to release the user from physical realities. Again, I am speculating, but will communications in the metaverse allow people with these challenges to step outside themselves, and experiment with different roles?  Erving Goffman, the famed sociologist, wrote that our everyday encounters are akin to a stage, where we don pretend masks to try-out impression management.  Today’s  avatars on iPhone messaging are a tiny creep into a future arena where we better manage or manipulate our time and interactions with strangers. 

As for the future of the metaverse, I will surely need to revise many points made here. Right now it seems like the metaverse is the playground of gamers and techies, but when it moves into the territory of DearSmartphone, you can be sure this will evolve, perhaps slouch, to DearSmartverse!

 Meanwhile, I stand ground that the infinite resources of the Internet should not be greedily divvied into coveted things that can then be bought and sold like physical assets. Thanks for your curiosity and question.

Digital Passport on Smartphone?

Are Smartphones the New Requirement for International Travel?

Digital Passport on Phone or just Covid Record? the NHS

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I just helped my grandmother get ready for a plane trip to the U.K.  I am frankly worried when she has to return home next month. Most of the documents she needed to board the airplane and clear immigration got stored on her phone. We convinced her to carry a new smartphone instead of an old flip phone. But it took a lot of leg work and she said that a digital passport on a smartphone is just for nerds! I am not sure that she will be able to complete the document trail to get home! Chris, Mill Valley

Dear Chris:  I fully understand your question as my husband and I recently took a trip to Canada and experienced similar issues. We could print the boarding passes anywhere, but most of the other documentation had to reside on our smartphones. The traveler information/customs forms were initiated through emails and accessed by barcodes.  I think readers may be interested in the details, so I am going to get into the weeds of trip taking.

To travel internationally, say to the UK or Canada, you must show proof of a negative Covid test, often a PCR. For Canada, this test must be scheduled no sooner than 72 hours in advance of travel, so it involves an extensive search of available and fast testing sites. You probably had to help your Grandmother find a similar testing site. Scheduling both testing and  vaccination sites online became one of the first digital divides of Covid.   

Once you  secure a testing site, and prayers that it goes well, you need an email address or text for receiving the outcome. That might have been an electronic hurdle for your grandmother, but I hope not. 

Digital Declarations:

Now many countries, including the UK and Canda, require a digital declaration or a  passenger location form to enter. Canada asks that the named traveler set up an online account with a password, and then populate it prior to travel with the Covid test results, an image of the passport, and flight information. This means that your grandmother must be conversant not only with digital email, but also with taking and forwarding jpegs, and remembering those pesky passwords! 

These forms get reviewed by the authorities before you enter the country,  but to clear immigration at the airport the details will need to be retrieved by a barcode, or completely re-entered  into a machine. That’s where it could get tricky for Grandma if she tries to  retrieve them on her phone. Hopefully there will be staff standing by to help her.  By the way, if you remind her to  save these as images then she will not need to face the added complexity of  accessing WiFi at the airport. I find that lots of people don’t understand the differences when they travel of keeping the phone on local cellular service, using roaming, or jumping on local WiFi. The WiFi can unwittingly open up security vulnerabilities. 

Leaning on Others:

During my recent trip, I had a chat with the U.S. customs/immigration official who cleared my return. He agreed that smartphones were becoming as necessary as passports for international travelers. He anticipated that people who were less familiar with the technology like your Grandma would lean on a family member or aide to help them.  In a similar vein, my best friends travels with her spouse who is confined to a wheelchair. Because the disability network is incomplete and the travel accommodations for a wheelchair user are spotty she continually jumps in and does the heavy lifting (literally).  More and more younger people, like you, will need to do the digital lifting for those who are not so tech savvy.

Using phones for travel documentation has been growing for some time beginning with the online boarding pass. However, Covid greatly accelerated the trend because of the need for additional documentation. Several columns back @dearsmartphone had a discussion of the pros and cons of real-time online Covid passes. In this U.K. article there is a thoughtful discussion of whether the National Health Service Covid passport will induce digital creep and further surveillance. 

 And, on that topic, if your Grandma is using her new  smartphone in the UK this month, she probably has the GPS/location settings turned on. Through  that local authorities can follow her path and know if she comes in contact with any Covid-infected people. She will also have to figure out how to get a Covid test on short notice in the UK before she hops on her flight back home. Hopefully, by then, she will become a ‘digital passport smartphone’ pro user or find a willing accomplice.

Phone Detox #dryJanuary?

DryJanuary and DryPhone??

A stock photo. Instead of seeing a ladies face as she holds a smartphone in her handsd, we see a white cloud enveloping her face and features.
Phone Detox for January? Getty Images- Francesco Carta (ABC News)

Dear Ms. Smartphone: My brother-in-law encouraged me to try #dryjanuary and it got me thinking. Should I counter and tell him to take a phonedetox #dry January? Yes, I like my occasional drink but he is a maniac when it comes to being on his phone. He favors it over conversation, uses it as a shield to avoid difficult topics, and spends countless hours scrolling. When it comes to phones, he is the original addict. Maybe I’ll send him this column! Carlo, San Francisco

Dear Carlo: In the Bay Area there has been nothing dry this January. It rained, then  poured, then flooded. So, spending all this extra time indoors, many of us have turned to our phones more frequently. Excess time and attention on the phone can become a bad habit, like the need for #dryjanuary. Cutting back might improve our well being, mental health, and relationships with other people, right?!

But, while a digital detox sounds like an important regime change, it is also overrated and over promoted. We can’t go cold-turkey because we need our phones to do basic things, connect with others, and stay modern. But, there is a @dearsmartphone way to use the start of a New Year to evaluate our habits, and seek better ones.

I have invented a personal acronym for this. The acronym is even more potent than alcohol! It’s O-P-M and let your mind fill in the missing letters, an ‘I and U’. Catchy isn’t it?!

The goal of the O-P-M paradigm is to help you take stock of your phone habits and analyze how your time and energy are spent. You don’t have to be addicted to your phone, or have bad phone habits to pay attention- so yes, share with your brother in law. There are three main reasons why we reach for our phones. The O-P-M acronym identifies each one and helps you understand and control your habits.

O- operations

O stands for the multitude of Operations we use phones for. More and more activities from keyless entry to our cars, digital money on phones, and boarding passes for our travel trips- are enabled through the smartphone. There are also built in phone features that require no additional software like the flashlight, the alarm clock, a note taker- you get the picture.

It’s useful when you take the O-P-M test to count the number of ‘O’ activities (Operations) you do with your phone. If you want to scale back time on the phone and control the proliferation, carefully asses whether you want a particular function to be on your phone. Ask if there is an alternative to doing this activity on your smartphone. Not to pick on people who use their phone as an alarm clock, but health concerns about blue light and Melatonin would keep me up at night.

P- Person to Person

P stands for person-to-person activities we do on our phone. Within that, there are three main categories. Phones are person-to-person through text, through phone calls, and through email. Each one of these can be corrupted by non-persons, for example, robocalls, but for the most part, they are the bastions of connectivity. Two things increased a lot during Covid- one was alcohol consumption, hence the invention of #dryjanuary, and the other was picking up the phone to P-to P chats. When you are assessing your time and energy on smartphones in this New Year, P to P is the area you want to keep strong.

M- Media

M here is for Media- namely using our phones to access infotainment and social media. The difference between P-to -P and Media is that Media is more public. On Facebook you might receive messages from a group you belong to, or from a business that wants to reach you. And you might post to the group, or add photos to your wall. The point is that these messages resemble broadcasts, they are more public, and reach people beyond your personal acquaintances. Social media has made it possible for everyone to be a broadcaster and create messages that are intended for a wider audience. It has also made it possible to receive messages that are interesting and personalized, but designed with technology to grab attention and maximize the time we spend online and the number of click-throughs.

So, I recommend that you look at your media consumption, and evaluate whether the time you spend on the M is time well-spent.Say you read a print newspaper each day. In the past that might take 15 of 20 minutes of time and that would have created a daily picture of the outside world. In 2022, say you spend 20 minutes on social media. Will that help you understand the daily picture of the outside world, and create a composite view of what is taking place? One of the most insidious problems with the ‘M” of social media is that it reproduces what we like to see, and narrows our focus into so-called “filter bubbles.”

I-U

You will recall that the missing letters in the O-P- M are the ‘I and the U’. There will be overlaps between using social media to connect with a single individual or friend. Perhaps you want to tag this special person on social media or send them an image or meme through Facebook. Social media may be the currency you share in your P to P relationship. Our conversations are changing.

January is a good time to reflect on things we imbibe- both food, drink, and media. The latter is the one most easily overlooked. My own thinking on this has been improved by Dave Clear’s book called “Atomic Habits.” Old habits are not forever, and January is a fine time to shed some of them.