A Barbie doll is like a virtual reality (VR) headset. Both are made of plastic. Both are mass-produced retail products. And both have had the absolute crap marketed out of them in the name of consumerism. But also, both are gateways through which humans have found the capacity to transcend the limitations of our physical existence and explore manufactured worlds in pursuit of greater meaning and fulfillment in our lives.
Visitors to these worlds could be anyone or anything they wanted — no matter who they were or weren’t back in the so-called real world. And while VR has transported its users to places where they can be adventurers, warriors and heroes, Barbie seeded a world where women graduated from college, held independent careers, and earned income of their own. In 1959, when Barbie was invented, this was still a wild idea. Back then, women did little else with their lives than bear children, tend to household chores, and cater to their husbands.
Leah Callon-Butler, a CoinDesk columnist, is the director of Emfarsis, a consulting firm focused on the role of technology in advancing economic development in Asia.
Metaverses are about more than technology, just like Barbie is more than a piece of plastic. I realized this after reading a fabulous book called Virtual Society by Herman Narula. Narula, who co-founded Improbable, a metaverse technology company, argues that the metaverse has little to do with the devices or rails that we use to represent and reach it. He says it is defined by the experiences and social interactions that we have within it, the meaning that we derive from those experiences, and how the value created by those experiences is exchanged with other interconnected worlds.
Pointing to ancient monuments such as the Göbekli Tepe and Egyptian pyramids, which seem to have been erected by humans apparently for no other reason than to symbolize our coexistence between physical reality and other worlds, Narula says we have been traversing metaverses for many thousands of years already using “tools no more advanced than our language and our imagination.”
Removing digitalness from the definition really helped me grasp the true meaning of the metaverse and why it should matter to us at all. In blockchain, and the tech world more broadly, we have a tendency to pedestalize the technology as though it’s a use case in and of itself. But this is missing the point.
According to Narula, “virtual worlds are spoken into existence and sustained by the strength of our collective belief in them. As people come to believe in these other worlds, their faith expands the worlds’ parameters, and these realms can, effectively, come to life.” In other words, a metaverse is about more than a blockchain or whatever network it’s built on; it gains meaning from our communal interactions with it and its propensity to share value with the other worlds we inhabit, including (but not limited to) our everyday meatspace lives.
As such, Barbie fits the criteria for Narula’s metaverse. As a concept that spans multiple realities and many interconnected worlds — who else do you know that can simultaneously exist as an astronaut, a popstar, and President of the United States, all while pregnant?! — Barbie is a medium for reimagining who we are and could be. And through the collective strength of little girls’ imaginations worldwide, Barbie has merged with reality to become tangible over time.
Key to Narula’s definition is the notion of “value transfer.” Other worlds are useless if they do not interact with our own and interoperability is the feature that allows us to determine if something is actually a metaverse and not just a single virtual world or a standalone platform. If you watch Barbie over the decades, you see that a constant exchange of value has precipitated tangible progress in the real world, and in turn, expanded the limits of collective imagination in the virtual world.
Shortly after she was launched in 1961, Barbie was a flight attendant. By 1990, she was flying the damn plane. This progression to the cockpit demonstrates how Barbie’s imaginary world adapted to the changing times as women's societal roles evolved and their ambitions grew bigger and bolder. This continues today. When the world called for more women in STEM, Barbie became an entrepreneur, a computer engineer and a game developer.
Like, in 2014, when the aforementioned Entrepreneur Barbie starred in a children’s book about developing a video game where she had to rely on the boys to do the programming for her. It’s no wonder this mom was left questioning the meaning of Barbie’s bimbo bubble and the value it delivered to her two year old daughter growing up in a real-world that has changed dramatically since the 50’s.
Just as Santa’s sleigh might drop out of the sky if the Christmas Spirit runs too low, or how bank runs happen when people lose faith in the financial system, Barbie relies on her believers to will her into existence. Narula explores this phenomena in his book too, highlighting how people have become less preoccupied with the afterlife since global living standards improved — you no longer have to hold out for heaven to have the perfect life. You can buy it at Macy’s today.
But Barbie’s fluctuating influence only underscores how she is, indeed, a metaverse. Her world of make-believe relies on the faith of its participants to breathe life into the social construct. As long as we believe that her world has meaning, then it is real, and there can be mutual exchange of value between the spheres. My guess is that the incredible success of the recent movie has rescued Barbie from fading into cultural oblivion, as millions around the world are now buying back into the myth. A Barbie is much cheaper than an Apple Vision Pro anyway.