Prior to 2020, the word ‘metaverse’ was not commonly used, especially not in daily discourse. That changed during the Covid-19 pandemic as many things transitioned online temporarily, and some for good. Suddenly, the metaverse became a buzzword people see and hear everywhere. Companies started hiring metaverse officers, and some people began claiming expertise in something that isn’t fully developed or realized. The beginning of any new technology is always a bit rough as the ideas advance quicker than the hardware and software, and it is always more expensive at first. But whatever the metaverse will become, it has begun to take shape.
The metaverse requires technology, business, commerce, government, and others to help its development. But these areas are a means to an end. They are not the motivation—other than people’s desire for money generally—for the metaverse. If people do not enjoy their experience in the metaverse, then the novelty will wear off quickly. And the metaverse will be just another fad that eventually sunsets.
What will drive the metaverse and sustain it? People will offer some different ideas, but one of the key elements will surely be aesthetics (and relatedly digital fashion). Aesthetic experience is a core motivation for human action. We invest time and money in our physical appearance (clothing, accessories, beauty products), and we also decorate our homes and offices in particular ways. Beyond our daily habits and lives, we travel around to experience natural and human-made objects that we believe will provide us with an aesthetic experience. This is not to say that aesthetics is the sole motivation, but it is foundational.
If the metaverse hopes to become a good environment for people, then it needs to retain important aspects of our humanity. Our feelings about our perceptions matter. While people cannot experience virtual worlds with all fives senses, sight and sound, which dominate virtual world experiences, are enough to make this experience meaningful. After all, vision remains our primary sense for gaining knowledge about the world. Humans, however, are more than sensing animals. We reason, contemplate, and introspect. And these mental activities are often guided or enhanced by what we perceive. Things that demand our attention for their aesthetic qualities will impact our feelings, which then influences our thoughts. So, any significant experiences in virtual spaces will be enhanced when the aesthetics of those spaces are appealing, which is also true for physical spaces.
Further, we have likely all been to physical spaces that lacked positive aesthetics. In other words, they were ugly, oppressive, or dismal. Sometimes this is sufficient, when the space serves a particular function, like a department store. But without some of those practical functions in a virtual world, the importance of aesthetics becomes elevated. People have already raised concerns about the negative impact of the metaverse on human well-being. It may be even more important in these spaces that tend to have a higher negative impact to be more intentional and careful about the aesthetics, in hopes to counterbalance the negative potential.
We tend to underestimate the importance of aesthetics in most areas of our lives, assuming that there is a special time or place for thinking about beauty. For virtual spaces to work well, we need to consider the role aesthetics will play from the beginning. Functionality is certainly important to make these worlds possible, but aesthetics makes them worthwhile.