Avatars chat on AltspaceVR, Microsoft’s virtual reality program. (Courtesy/Microsoft)

Avatars chat on AltspaceVR, Microsoft’s virtual reality program. (Courtesy/Microsoft)

Yukonomist: Yukonaverse versus Metaverse

Are you tired of the Yukonaverse these days?

Is the ice dam on your roof transmogrifying itself via your window wells into a puddle of soggy drywall in the basement? Are you and your vehicle both covered in a thin uncleanable layer of brown Yukon road slime? Is your city council planning a $30 million dollar prestige headquarters for itself while simultaneously pushing to elongate the accountability gap between elections from three years to four?

If so, perhaps you should spend more time in the metaverse.

Neal Stephenson came up with the idea for the metaverse in his mind-bending novel Snow Crash in 1992. The original metaverse was a virtual world where your online self, or “avatar,” could hang out and escape the real world, which in the novel included fearsome Aleutian assassins armed with nuclear weapons and anarcho-capitalist mini-states floating in the Pacific Ocean.

The real estate in the original metaverse was owned by a tech tycoon who also controlled the digital access points. Poor people who couldn’t afford a high-bandwidth connection showed up in the metaverse as low-resolution black-and-white avatars. Addicted users known as “gargoyles” stayed connected all day, and wandered the real world wearing portable access goggles on their heads.

What was impossibly futuristic 30 years ago is now here. Or at least a proto version of it is. In fact, each rival tech giant seems to have its own metaverse for you to visit.

I saw an educator from Seattle (in real life) demonstrate a metaverse classroom in Altspace VR, Microsoft’s version. The student avatars sit at sleek Scandinavian tables arcing around the teacher’s desk. A globe with a pin for each student’s real-world location spins on the desk, and the class presentation appears on a giant screen on the wall. As a teaching aid, a 3D model of the solar system rotated quietly to one side.

Students can ask questions, and the teacher uses a Darth Vader-like laser pointer to illustrate key points.

You can also go to a huge variety of events such as Altspace Trivia Night, a Creative Writing Meetup or the Rainbow Bridge pet loss grieving meeting. You can choose a Bible study event where your avatar can pick up a cross and carry it, or a “taboo-free” 18+ dance party complete with virtual costume concierge and German Melodic Techno beats. I accidentally attended a coding seminar for people building new parts of the metaverse. Hundreds of comedy nights, meditation sessions, birthday parties and even weddings are on the menu.

If you’re having trouble getting your own house in Whitehorse, or just need some downtime between emotionally exhausting avatar events, the Altspace is adding new vacant lots known as “white spaces” every month. You can design and build your own home where you can hang out and host events with other avatars.

The new metaverses include features that you might like in real life. You can mute specific people at parties. You can adjust your jaw shape, hat accent or beard style with the click of a button. If you find yourself in an awkward situation at one of the Campfire events, where you meet new avatar friends and discuss everything from your feelings to how to use your laser pointer, you can just yank the plug out of the wall and disconnect.

There are many competing metaverses out there, each with a slightly different feel and set of rules.

If you feel you haven’t already donated enough personal data to enrich Silicon Valley billionaires, you can also try the version of the metaverse owned by Facebook’s parent company, Meta.

My Yukon guide to the Facebook metaverse helped me find a ski hill and head down the slopes, but it wasn’t really the same. On the plus side, when I wandered out of the gondola the computer just put me back in rather than letting me fall to my death.

Skiing is weird in the metaverse, since the graphics are cartoonish and no one has legs. Apparently coders haven’t yet figured out how to get legs to move realistically, so everyone floats through the metaverse like Baron Harkonnen in Dune.

We also looked for Yukon-related places to visit in the metaverse, but came up totally blank.

Perhaps Yukonstruct should build a snowy part of the metaverse where everyone can ski, watch virtual northern lights and power their snowmobiles off huge jumps before returning to their free chalets on white space lots.

Not all the metaverses are controlled by tech giants keen to vacuum up your personal data.

If you would like to participate in a digital democracy experiment in a world owned by its users, you can try Decentraland. Decentraland’s government is called the DAO, short for Decentralized Autonomous Organization. It owns the “smart contracts” that define land ownership, marketplace transactions and its metaverse currency, MANA.

Decentraland citizen-avatars get to vote on things like adding features to land, how to auction off new land, regulation of wearable devices and replacing members of the Security Council. The denizens of Decentraland have already made a bold move with their currency, deleting the private key to the account that controlled the smart contracts underneath MANA. Essentially, they abolished any way for humans to interfere with the algorithms running their digital central bank.

These rules seem obscure. But they will become increasingly important as people spend more time and, eventually, money on real estate and activities in the various metaverses.

Visiting a friendly campfire event today gives a hint of this. The disclaimer says that entering the event irrevocably grants the tech giant behind the platform the right to record your avatar and voice and use it for various commercial purposes without compensation “throughout the universe in perpetuity.” This includes all future tech platforms ever invented as well as waiving the right to sue.

The campfire I saw also included an avatar petition protesting how the platform had banned Dave, who was the original creator of the event. Apparently metaverse security banned Dave for being disruptive “whilst he was discussing the helpful info boards.”

The metaverse may need lots of lawyer avatars.

Today, the various metaverses feel gimmicky. But so did the early Internet. Give these platforms a few years to improve the coding, and their users a few years to invent new ways to use them, and many readers of this newspaper may find themselves spending more time with goggles on.

It will be years before we understand the economic implications of virtual worlds. Fewer tourists may visit, if people decide they would rather walk among dinosaurs in the metaverse instead of visiting Carcross. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be surprised in a few years if more than a few Yukoners were working in the metaverse while living in the Yukonaverse.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist, author of the Aurore of the Yukon youth adventure novels and co-host of the Klondike Gold Rush History podcast. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.