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Wired’s top editor: Metaverse ‘feels like a terminological land grab’

By Kerry Flynn, CNN Business

The word “metaverse” is popping up everywhere. Facebook recently changed its name to Meta Platforms. Nike bought a virtual shoe company to help it expand to the metaverse. And other brands like Gucci and Ralph Lauren have been considering the future of fashion with digital personas.

With all the attention, it can be difficult for general news consumers to parse through what is a marketing gimmick versus what really matters. It requires journalists to approach the tech industry’s new favorite buzzword with an open mind and with nuance, something that the media hasn’t always been consistent with in years past, according to Gideon Lichfield, global editorial director of Wired.

“Every time the industry goes after a new name for something and tries to pivot, something new inevitably comes out of it. It’s just not clear yet what it will be,” Lichfield said. “I think one has to be really critical of this tendency and call out what is just marketing and hype, which is a large part of it, whilst remaining open-minded to the fact that something new does emerge.”

At Wired, Lichfield oversees how the preeminent tech magazine covers these topics and other new tech trends for its website and print magazine. The latest print issue, featuring actor Yahya Abdul-Mateen II on the cover, focuses on the future of reality.

Lichfield spoke with CNN Business about how tech journalism’s evolution, diversity in media and his predictions of next year’s biggest tech stories.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

You wrote in a recent editor’s letter that the tech industry is at “an inflection point.” What exactly do you mean by that, and where does the media fall into that turn of events?

I think we went from this period of a lot of hype about tech utopianism in the 90s, which is when Wired was created, then all the way over to the techlash of the 2010s and the tech industry became the big demon. I think the media coverage of the tech industry, which was focusing on the very real problems around tech has contributed to that. One of the things I saw coming out of the pandemic was what seemed like a surge of sentiment in the other direction.

I feel like it’s helpful for us to just try to get out of this swinging back and forth between tech is great, tech is bad, tech is great.

The tech press is in the middle of covering two massive scandals right now: The Facebook Papers and the Congressional hearings about Facebook, and then there’s the Elizabeth Holmes’ trial. How do you see these two events being covered? What is the press getting right? What could they improve on?

That’s an interesting one. I think I actually can talk more about the Facebook one. I don’t think I’ve followed the coverage of the Elizabeth Holmes trial as closely.

That’s okay. I just think with what you said [the Holmes trial] is a good example of someone who was lauded and changing the world and now she’s on trial.

What I can say about Elizabeth Holmes is I think that probably the early coverage of her — not talking about what’s happening now — there was probably a bit of this tendency, which Wired has been guilty of too in the past, of going, “Oh, wow, here’s this person doing this amazing thing, and it could be totally transformative.” And either not being able to or not wanting to look a little harder and say, “Well, you know, just how likely is it that this will succeed?” And I think there’s a certain style of tech coverage which has been this thing is really cool. It could be amazing, and we’re going to completely suspend judgment on how plausible it actually is. I think it behooves us to have that critical lens.

On Facebook, the thing that has struck me about it is we all, and Wired included, did a lot of coverage of the Facebook Papers and what came out of them. And that’s important, and I think that it probably drives the conversation on Capitol Hill, which ultimately is where this matters. That’s where the regulation is going to come out of. But part of me asked: How much does this actually talk to the general public? How much of this stuff are they reading? There was almost too much detail, too many revelations, too many little things. And as with other things in the past like the financial crisis or the health care reform, I think the public can get a certain amount of fatigue. There’s all this detail, but what am I actually supposed to just think about this?

I recently read a tweet from Sara M. Watson, a principal analyst at Forrester, who wrote, “[T]he media cycle shift toward crypto, web3, metaverse etc. increasingly feels like tech has architected a successful pivot to redirect attention on to the next thing, rather than dealing with what they’ve already built and broken.” Do you agree with that sentiment?

When people are talking about the metaverse, they’re appropriating a term from this novel that imagines the metaverse as a certain kind of thing and they’re trying to bring the idealism or that idea to a very different and very disparate set of experiences. Web3 similarly feels like an attempt to put a new, easy to understand catchy label on a bunch of stuff that is happening. And that was true Web2 as well, and yet, in hindsight, you can say that having that label helped coalesce or crystallize some shifts that were happening on the web and on the internet in industry in general. That did mark a real trend, mark some changes. So here again, I’m trying to inject nuance. I’m saying yes, I agree. It’s marketing. It’s relabeling. The same problems exist, and the same problems that we have on social media spaces today will carry over into virtual spaces and metaverse spaces. And so one should approach it with a great deal of caution and at the same time open to the question: What new stuff might emerge?

So good writing to you is making information easy to distill and nuance and also being very clear to the public?

Nuance and clarity and not flooding people with stuff.

The media and the tech industries have both suffered from a lack of diversity. The top leadership at Wired — you, the global editorial director, and your deputy Greg Williams — are white men. What effect do you think that has on your coverage?

I don’t know what effect directly it has on the coverage because the stories that we do on a day-to-day basis are being generated from all across the newsroom and at all levels. It’s not like me and Greg are sitting there handing down assignments.

What I do think it means though is that we have to absolutely make an even greater effort than we would otherwise to make sure that we’re recruiting as diversely as possible and continuing to fill the ranks so that the next generation of Wired leadership can be not white men. And also so that everybody in the newsroom does feel like they can work in an environment where there are no biases, there are no assumptions, there are no things that are affecting the work or leading to exclusionary decisions and making sure that whenever there are important decisions to be taken that there are people in the room who are a mix.

Do you keep an ongoing diversity report on your newsroom?

Wired was doing this before I arrived. We’ve done a staff diversity audit, and we’ve a couple of times taken a month and done a contributor diversity audit. And we’ve talked about doing the source diversity audit as well. That’s more intensive, but that’s something that we want to keep on doing periodically and just try to keep track of who’s writing for us.

Are there any platforms that you want to grow for Wired?

There’s no one particular platform where I can tell you, “Yeah, this is somewhere that we’re going to be.” But I just want to have from the ground up honest conversation about let’s say TikTok. What would it mean to be authentically Wired on TikTok, not to be a cringey form of Wired, right? Not to do something because it’s cool or just because it’s an audience grab but because we think this is a genuine way to express what Wired is about.

What do you see as the biggest tech stories of 2022? How would you say that the media industry, Wired included, should be covering these stories?

I think the crypto and NFT boom is going to continue to be a big one, and the way I want us to cover that is to try to, again, nuance. Sort the wheat from the chaff, sort the reality from the hype, but at least try to forge a path between these really polar opposites of discourse about the industry, which it’s either it’s all a scam or it’s going to completely change the world. There’s something in there that I don’t know what it is yet that is going to emerge. I’ve not yet seen a long-term application of crypto that really convinces me that is transformative. But that doesn’t mean that’s not there, and I want us to keep looking for it.

I think that the metaverse conversation will continue and at this point it feels to me it’s almost like a terminological land grab. In other words, people are fighting for the definition of what the metaverse is. I don’t think we’re going to get the answer to that, at least not in the next year. But I think we should continue to cover the companies that are claiming to be building the metaverse and asking the serious questions about what are you actually building and how is it different? And continue to ask the same questions we were asking before which is how is it going to be safe for people? Who’s benefiting from it?

I think the regulation of Facebook and tech regulation more broadly story in the US is going to continue to be really interesting. I don’t know whether it’s going to get out of partisan deadlock. And there will be some sort of breakthrough before the midterm elections or whether it will just stay stuck there, but I think that’ll really be interesting to watch.

Similarly, by contrast, the regulatory efforts that are going on in Europe. There’s actually more happening on tech regulation in Europe and has been for a while than there is in the US and to some extent that’s starting to set the agenda, I think, for US companies, and I think an interesting thing to watch.

The China-US rivalry over technology and in general, whether it’s on AI supremacy or export controls, trade barriers, intellectual property that I think is going to continue holding up and we have to keep covering that really closely.

What if anything gets implemented from COP26, very important climate story.

The continuing aftermath for the pandemic, both in terms of health, obviously, and how we manage the pandemic and whether or not we get vaccines to the places that need them, but also the continuing readjustment in work, how people work, the relation between employers and employees, the economic impact of people moving to different places, migrating, working remotely.

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