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Cart’Afrik : “Will Africa embrace the Metaverse?”

Described as the next Internet revolution, the Metaverse gives rise to a number of questions, especially in Africa, where the youth must meet this new digital challenge, argues expert in creative industries Mohamed Zoghlami.  

By Mohamed Zoghlami*

What is the Metaverse? The short answer is that it doesn’t exist yet. It is a vision of what the future could be, a digital world where you could lead a digital life without leaving your home thanks to your avatar, and where the real and virtual worlds would eventually merge (work, go out, consume, study, meet your relatives…). 

As futuristic as it may seem, the concept of “Metaverse” is not new since it first appeared in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 science fiction novel “Snow Crash”. The American author imagines it as a three-dimensional virtual space, in which one can evolve and exchange, via an avatar or a hologram. The film “Ready Player One”, directed in 2018 by Steven Spielberg and inspired by the eponymous novel by Ernest Cline, also makes extensive reference to it.

The idea may sound like science fiction, but the world’s biggest tech players are already planning its practical development. Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO and founder of the social network Facebook, has announced the creation of a team of 10,000 employees to build such a universe, while Jensen Huang, the CEO of the American graphics card specialist Nvidia, told Time magazine he wanted to create“a virtual world that is a digital twin of ours.” As for the American Epic Games, the creator of the famous video game Fortnite, it recently raised 1 billion dollars to accelerate “the creation of connected social experiences,” referring to the concept of “Metaverse”.

“The Metaverse, a groundswell, that will drain new uses, new trends and profound changes in digital interactions between people and businesses”

The massive investments by the major players in the digital industry reflect the way the Metaverse is perceived: a groundswell of new uses, new trends, and profound changes in digital interactions between people and companies. 

Buoyed by several rapid developments taking place in the fields of Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), Internet of Things (IoT), Blockchain, Cloud Computing and 5G, the Metaverse is now entering a phase where it could capitalize on rapid consumer buy-in. These future consumers are primarily found within Generation Z, already accustomed to making friends, entertaining themselves and consuming prefiguration of Metaverse services such as online games Fortnite, Minecraft and Roblox. So how will the Metaverse change our lives in the future, and how should we deal with it? 

Aperitifs, concerts, meetings, conferences… With the coronavirus pandemic and our new confined and hyperconnected daily life, the health crisis has pushed for digitalizing many practices. In this context, the generalized confinements all around the globe have had a significant collateral effect, as we have moved our real-life events there.

“The Metaverse will unlock new social experiences free from the constraints of time, space and gravity

Comparatively, the Metaverse will certainly affect us even more, in the way we will live and interact with people. It will unlock new social experiences that are free from the constraints of time, space and gravity. These porous boundaries between real and virtual worlds have in fact already begun. In addition to the immersive entertainment experiences of certain video games (Fortnite, Minecraft and Roblox) and the opportunities provided (opening businesses, acquiring real estate based on blockchain) by certain virtual reality platforms (Decentraland), a German circus has, for example, managed to replace the wild animals in its shows with their virtual counterparts.

For its part, fashion house Balenciaga developed “Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow”, its own “game” in which it organized a fashion show and presented its latest collection. As for the car manufacturer BMW, it partnered with NVIDIA to create a virtual digital twin of its factory, located in Regensburg, Germany. The goal? Plan operations in this virtual copy before deploying changes in real time, in the physical factory. These private initiatives should lead to the emergence of new skills, new professions and new tools for an immersive economy.

“Who will build the Metaverse and how? Should we let the digital giants, whether American or Chinese, decide our future? Or, should we rather fight to impose a public virtual world open to all, and interoperable between different platforms?

The Metaverse nevertheless raises a number of questions. Who will build it? And how? Should we let the digital giants, whether American or Chinese, decide our future? Or, should we rather fight to impose a public virtual world open to all, and interoperable between different platforms?

There are also several ethical questions that arise in the context of equality, diversity and digital inclusion.These include the legal aspects – which organization will be responsible for compliance with applicable legislation in the Metaverse – the challenges of data privacy and security, defining technical protocols and standards, and the issue of digital identity.

These are the major challenges of today’s Metaverse, which is still in its infancy, but will ultimately emerge slowly as different products, services and capabilities integrate and merge. Just as the Internet and smartphones have changed our lives by steadily expanding, the Metaverse is following a similar path.

Will Africa […] be involved in this virtual world that will impact it? Or will it have to take it without reacting, and just went through an imposed model where our continent will be only a stooge?

In view of the expected developments, the question will also arise as to the model of society that will emerge from the use of the Metaverse, particularly on the African continent. Will Africa, which is growing steadily and showing resilience and digital innovation, be involved in this virtual world that will impact it? Or will it have to take it without reacting, and went through an imposed model where it will be only a stooge? Should we accept this cyber-colonization that is taking place behind the scenes, and of which we are spectators? 

In Africa, we no longer want to be only consumers, we want to be actors, to influence, to embrace technology, and to think about our future as well as that of the entire humanity. The COVID crisis, which revealed the innovations and skills of local start-ups,has brought about many advances in our African latitudes and demonstrated a real creative buzz, in key sectors related to AI, IoT, blockchain and or even cryptocurrencies.

Furthermore, it is crucial to ensure that Africa’s primary resource, its youth, can adapt effectively as the fourth industrial revolution, and soon the Metaverse, reshape the skills of the future. The statistics speak for themselves: Africa has a population of 1.3 billion, with an average age of only 19 years, compared to 44 years in Western Europe.

Since age tends to be an important barometer of digital savvy, technology adoption skyrockets as these born-digital come of age. When we know that in Africa, mobile plays a crucial role in the digital revolution, we can think that the “born-digital” of the continent will quickly meet the challenge of the Metaverse, by developing applications and services around a mobile digital space that resembles them. This is how we will be able to build our own virtual storytelling, based on our African traditions and values such as Ubuntu; this feeling of belonging and uniqueness of the human and African community leading to cooperation and sharing. 

“In light of the challenge posed by the Metaverse, why not carrying over to the virtual world the values so dear to our ancestors in order to successfully enter the upcoming digital world?

In light of the challenge posed by the Metaverse, why not carrying over to the virtual world the values so dear to our ancestors – respect, integrity, humility, sharing, community, generosity, benevolence, trust, determination, commitment, efficiency – in order to successfully enter the upcoming digital world? We have strengths in spite of our weaknesses, let’s build on them.

By becoming Epic Games’ sole Academic Partner for Africa, the Tunisian coding school Net-Info is supporting the emergence of African developers with the AfricGameDev program, an illustration among others of the African involvement in the Metaverse. In the end, the ambition here is to train, guide, share best practices and learn from others to give birth to an authentic African narrative. And who knows? Be a source of inspiration, no matter how small, for the next generation of designers, programmers and digital growth leaders on the continent.

*Mohamed Zoghlami is International Consultant in Strategy & Development – Specialist in creative industries in Africa – Co-founder of Afric’Up and Africa in Colors

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