The metaverse is a trap. Oh sure, NFTs are fun, and the pink house on Dezeen is pretty. But design without users or constraints is a hollow fantasy. When we decouple design from reality, we take away its humanity and reduce it to its most meaningless traits.
If you haven't been keeping up with NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens, see the Lexicon below), or with Facebook's recent name change to “Meta” (to reflect their enlarged universe), or with the ubiquity of renders in lieu of real builds on architecture and design blogs, and the overall monetisation of the virtual—what we called 'cyberspace' in the 90's is now a digital world one can interact with through virtual reality, the internet or your bank account. Artists have profited handsomely from these very lucrative publicity stunts and now other creatives are jumping on board too. But, aside from the potential for a quick buck, the legitimisation of this trend threatens to trivialise design.
A render of a house that is not meant to be built, simply to be displayed, by Andrés Reisinger and Alba de la Fuente on Dezeen.
At its most basic, design is meant to contribute value to lives of people. Design solves problems, using human cleverness, a structured methodology and applied problem-solving to change the built environment, systems and make information available and easy to digest. Houses, hospitals, high speed trains and schools are designed and built. Every day through design we improve things like the dissemination of health information and government services, we protect people from climate change by designing better methods of predicting, by designing better technical gear, by sequestering carbon. New ways of doing things are invented: apps to help reduce food waste, electric cars to replace petrochemical consumption, and better forms of communication connect us globally at very low cost.
As we complete two years of living our lives online, it seems like reality is losing its real-ness. We are losing our grip on what matters, subsisting on a diet of ‘news’, social media and entertainment to replace family, friends and meaningful interactions with the real world. Technology offers more and more enticing fake realities to fill these voids. Tik Tok is building 'communities' business is conducted on Zoom and we can now live increasingly realistic lives in video games. The 'cyberspace' of the 90s is becoming increasingly a reality. The Metaverse, an entire online digital world, is everything the world around us is not: a world where there is no virus, where we can be whoever we want to be, and interact with other fictitious entities anywhere on the planet. The metaverse is a place where appearances are all that matter, where there are no physical constraints to building a fantasy.
Amsterdam-based designer Tereza Ruller (studio The Rodina) for Strelka2020Live referencing Isobel Harbison quote from Performing Image, 2019, MIT Press. Ruller develops the concept of “performative design” for a practice that incorporates graphic design, playfulness, bodies, action, and eventness.
Living inside a simulated reality might seem superficially soothing but it is utterly dystopic in light of professional design ethics. Decoupling design from reality is in essence doing what the financialisaton of markets did in the 80s. The core of design values—of making life better for people in concrete ways—is hollowed out. Beautiful renders can be shared on socials and even sold for large sums, but they are without consequence or meaning. Design becomes superficial, preening and egotist.
Before we jump right into exploring how to design for the Metaverse, designers should be deeply suspicious of where this is going. The commoditisation of 'design' as a purely aesthetic and commercial exercise, without practical application or benefit for people is immoral. And antithetical the values of design. Designers should think long and hard before contributing to this shift. What to some may seem winsome and fun, could very well lead our profession down a path towards irrelevance.
Welcome to the 'Polemics' section of our website. This is a place where we want to explore discourse and thought on the contemporary practice of design. We aim to take a critical view of the profession and the controversial issues that surround its practice. Much like the famed 'Design Crit' an examined practice is one that becomes more honed, better formulated and more meaningful.
NFT: A non-fungible token (NFT) is a non-interchangeable unit of data stored on a blockchain, a form of digital ledger, that can be sold and traded. Types of NFT data units may be associated with digital files such as photos, videos, and audio. Because each token is uniquely identifiable, NFTs differ from blockchain cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin.
NFT ledgers claim to provide a public certificate of authenticity or proof of ownership, but the legal rights conveyed by an NFT can be uncertain. NFTs do not restrict the sharing or copying of the underlying digital files, do not necessarily convey the copyright of the digital files, and do not prevent the creation of NFTs with identical associated files.
NFTs have been used as a speculative asset, and they have drawn increasing criticism for the energy cost and carbon footprint associated with validating blockchain transactions as well as their frequent use in art scams and claimed structure of the NFT market to be a Ponzi scheme. (Definition via Wikipedia under CC-BY-SA)
METAVERSE: Honestly, no one knows yet. WWD tries to define it here.
RATIONAL CONSUMPTION: the notion that a model of consumption is possible that need not be excessive and can be respectful of the environment, culture and society.