We are choosing real world experiences over virtual and digital ones. It says less about the end of the pandemic and more about human tendency and the role that technology plays in the hierarchy of things. For a long while, I believed that digital worlds, digital monies, and digital practices were evolutions of their physical counterparts. I don’t anymore, and neither do many others.
I do not shop for groceries through Amazon Prime because I believe that it’s a better, more evolved version of walking through a Whole Foods, Kroger, or Albertsons. I shop digitally to free myself up to be at my daughters’ practices, on a walk with my in-laws, or at a sporting event with neighbors. It frees me to do other, more important things in person. The operative words are “in person.”
Or here’s another example. I recently tried to explain a recent trip to an impoverished country to a friend who’d never been. I couldn’t explain the senses that I felt when I was there, nor could I properly relay the tension that I felt between fear of danger and gratitude that I had the opportunity to be there in the first place. A metaverse-like experience will walk you through an urban center but will it replicate its balance between chaos and potential? No.
The metaverse will never replace the real world as our primary means of communication, trade, and community. The same can be said of eCommerce and its role in retail: it won’t replace conventional shopping. I believe that we have a need for the types of interactions found within stores. I believe that we need offices. I believe that fiat currencies are at the core of our international bonds with another. But if you asked me two years ago, my answer wouldn’t have been nearly as direct (or seemingly skeptical).
I’ve been working to make sense of today’s retail and media ecosystems, where they intersect, and how human nature has contributed to the expansion and relative contraction in interest. The two worlds seem tethered in ways; at the core of both is Meta.
Between 2020 and and the first nine months of 2022, the company grew its workforce by hiring nearly 42,000, topping 87,000 workers. No tech company has laid off more than Meta over the previous two or three months. Fortune Magazine had an interesting take on this:
Three years into the pandemic, life is so close to back to normal that Ticketmaster is failing to process the wild demand for Taylor Swift tickets and e-commerce shopping has come crashing back to earth as people leave their homes to return to brick-and-mortar stores.
But I believe that it’s much deeper than pre- and post-pandemic. I believe that we learned that just because digital lives, currencies, and commerce are better doesn’t mean that they are better. How do you draw a line in the sand when the sand is moving beneath it? Think about that question for a moment. The definitions of everything that we do, are, say, and believe are changing by the year. But for now, the line in the sand separates the mostly conventional (better) from the passionately digital (better). Zuckerberg said it best in a recent staff email:
Many people predicted this would be a permanent acceleration that would continue even after the pandemic ended. I did, too, so I made the decision to significantly increase our investments. Unfortunately, this did not play out the way I expected.
Zuckerberg and Lutke and many other of the world’s finest CEOs believed that their technologies were an acceleration away from convention. What this period has proven is that technology must reinforce convention rather than leave it behind. Air travel accelerated time so that we could be with loved ones faster. Modern payments technologies accelerated transaction so that we could do more with the time that we saved. Shopify Chief Executive Officer Tobi Lutke wrote in a letter to employees:
It’s now clear that bet didn’t pay off. What we see now is the mix reverting to roughly where pre-Covid data would have suggested it should be at this point. Still growing steadily, but it wasn’t a meaningful five-year leap ahead. Ultimately, placing this bet was my call to make, and I got this wrong.
Two letters from two titans of industry are saying much the same. Both made bets on data that was incomplete; a black swan-level event will do that. Data-reliant and detail oriented, both believed that the data showed a future anxious to rid itself of the past. Many like myself agreed. But I also believed that the technology was better than the convention that it would replace. No, it was just better.
In this way, I think about the scene from The Matrix, a film that alludes to life within a fully-digital existence. Before Neo unplugged, he was within a world that was better that the conventional one that existed. The air, the aroma, the architecture, the safety, the careers, and the clothing were all better. But then he chose to wake up only to realize that he preferred conventional reality over the permanent acceleration into the future. In no way was life post-wake up better than his Matrix experience. But it was better.
I do believe that eventually the metaverse will be omnipresent. I agree that there’s a chance that cryptocurrencies and Web3 technologies will be as relied upon as the fiat and organizational structures that exist today. And, lastly, eCommerce will become as critical to daily life as picking up one’s mail from its box. But one of two things will happen to make these things so.
The first: preferences of the human relational experience will change so drastically, that those technologies are better and better than the conventional standards that we prefer today. And the second: leaders of the digital revolutions that defined the pandemic will set aside strategies of replacement. Rather, they will build worlds and systems that focus on making existing infrastructure and humanity more livable. Technology should enhance, not replace.
All of the Fortune 500’s might seems focused on accelerating us into a techno-centric future that quickly replaces the norms of the present. I am not sure it’s ever worked that way. For instance: trains, cars, and planes traverse the country in tandem. We have fewer trains, sure. But those trains maintain a vital role. Physical dollars, debit cards, and Apple Pay are used in the same lines of convenient stores. Each has an audience; each has role in the community of exchange. We should build atop of the systems that got us this far, not market these technologies as extinction-level asteroids. The metaverse should enhance our lives, not replace it. And eCommerce should make in-person shopping efficient and attractive; or it should provide us more time to do what we love. It’s a means to an end, not an end. The technologies that defined the pandemic should be great enough to improve the rest of our lives, not upend the whole of it.
I think that this philosophy will define the next decade of technological adoption.
By Web Smith | Edited by Hilary Milnes with art by Alex Remy and Christina Williams