The Metaverse, Porn, and the Future

The fallback definition of porn has been “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it”. The definition of the metaverse may be “I’m in it, but I don’t know it.”

One of the most famous phrases in a Supreme Court opinion is: “I know it when I see it.” Those words were in Justice Potter Stewart’s concurring opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio, a 1964 case involving the showing of a supposedly risqué movie by Louis Malle at an Ohio theatre.  The Justice’s rationale for ruling the film was not pornographic was that, while he could not define pornography, he knew what it was. “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that,” he wrote.

“I know it when I see it” has become a colloquialism for moments when you want to make an observation, but the parameters to neatly categorize are not clear. It has become a comedian’s punchline, a meme before there were memes. Now, we can apply Justice Stewart’s words to the metaverse!

I’m In It and I Don’t Know It

In June, UTA and VOX Media released a study about the metaverse that showed 68% of consumers, and 88% of those between 13 and 25, already engage with metaverse platforms. That was even though 48% of people said they weren’t even familiar with the term “metaverse.”  Justice Potter’s words for metaverse times might be: “I wouldn’t know it when I see it, because I’m in it but I don’t know it.”

Like porn, the metaverse will likely not be a “there or not” sort of thing.  We’ve come to think of porn as residing on a continuum. The metaverse exists on a similar continuum. Like a spigot of immersivity, you’ll be dripped into it, often not realizing you’re there.  A little Roblox concert here, a tad of NFT art here, a new overlay in Pokémon, more immersive 3D maps, a VR class … the metaverse will creep into the picture without some great reveal. Regardless of what Mark Zuckerberg may think, the metaverse won’t have a launch date, in the way that PR-focused companies giving themselves a new name do.

Divided by the Metaverse

We may also be as divided about what the metaverse is as we are by the definition of porn. The Pew Research Organization does great work identifying emerging tech trends and tracking public sentiment. In its past research, there’s often been a resulting point of view – a takeaway to its research.  But in a recent study that queried a wide range of supposed experts on their expectations for what the metaverse might be like by 2040, there was surprisingly little consensus.  In fact, after interviewing more than 600 internet-savvy people from numerous fields, Pew found a great divide in opinion.

“About half of the respondents supported the idea that the metaverse will be a fully-immersive aspect of daily life for many by 2040. Many who expect augmented reality (AR), mixed reality (MR), and virtual reality (VR) to advance, predict that those advances will come from a natural evolution of the current innovations that are underway,” reads the report.

That means that there’s another half who felt otherwise. Some said the buzz about extended reality (XR) is mostly what one called “typical tech hype.” A share of respondents said, according to the report, “they expect this cluster of technologies is likely to make a few expected but fairly minor ripples in the stream of overall tech development.”

At the moment it happens, aptly, that the porn industry is heavily involved in creating the metaverse. The porn industry has pioneered tech revolutions before: CDs, DVDs, online bulletin boards (BBSs), chat rooms, and video chat, to name a few. Tech journalists often joke that if you want to see the future of tech, just watch the porn industry.

The question is, will we know the metaverse when we see it? Or will each one of us define it for ourselves?

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