The concept of virtual physical space has been around since long before the technology could live up to the vision. Books like Neuromancer, Snow Crash, and Lawnmower Man gave pop culture a view, for better or worse, how we would live if physical space wasn’t a constraint. IRC and AOL chat rooms, later, SecondLife, and now the Metaverse, are the practical applications of “what if out here, but in there?”
In the 21st Century, there hasn’t been a space yet that marketing didn’t want to monetize and make into billboards or other spaces made into pay-walled gardens. Back in February, The New York Times wrote this piece detailing the push to make the fetch that is digital real estate happen. The prices of the “properties” alone can make one’s eyes water, but reportedly sometimes they’re included as “freebies” to go along with physical real estate. (Those properties also tend to have eye watering prices, but at least they’re actual buildings a person can live in!)
So far, it seems like the people pushing the idea of digital real estate are the same people who invest in bitcoin by the server-load and are keen to show off their bored apes. In January of 2022, Dan Olson released his video, “Line Goes Up – The Problem With NFTs.” While he’d been researching, writing, and producing the video for the better part of a year, its release coincided with the NFT market’s first big stumbles. The consequences for the NFT market were dire, and it’s never really recovered.
Not quite a month after The New York Times digital real estate piece, Olson once again released a video essay that took deadly aim at an industry selling the intangible. “The Future Is A Dead Mall – Decentraland and the Metaverse,” like Line Goes Up before it, is a methodical takedown of the entire concept. While the Times piece tries to promote an exciting new investment opportunity, Olson’s video outlines how it’s not such a great opportunity after all. He focuses on how sparsely “populated” digital spaces are, and how Decentraland and the Metaverse are trying to capture what SecondLife succeeded at 20 years ago. (SecondLife launched in June of 2003.)
Ultimately, like any other gamble, the people who stand to make money are the ones who get in early and get out early. Historically, this favors people who have the capital to lose, and harms those who don’t. After the implosion of NFTs and the current state of interest rates, “it’s not real but you own it” may be too much a dealbreaker for savvy investors.