The pandemic has refashioned corporate dress codes
Suits v sweatpants
In an internal memo to staff in 2016 JPMorgan Chase relaxed its dress code. The American bank’s 240,000 employees could hang up their suits and don business-casual attire—once reserved for casual Fridays—all working week. Some garments remained beyond the pale (t-shirts, flip-flops, tank tops, yoga pants). But many—polo shirts, skirts (of appropriate length), dress sandals—became fair game.
JPMorgan was, sartorially speaking, ahead of its time among stuffy corporate giants (turtlenecks and hoodies have long been the fashion choice of Silicon Valley titans). Others followed suit, as it were. Men’s corporate uniform—and the female power suit designed to mirror it—increasingly came to be seen as a vestige of the male-dominated offices of yore and no longer fit for purpose in a world of greater (though still imperfect) workplace equality. As more and more people ran or cycled to work, they found that changing into a full suit was impractical, since jackets folded into rucksacks tend to lose their crispness.
These days ties are no longer de rigueur in client meetings even for pinstriped investment bankers at Goldman Sachs. Purveyors of formal wear have fallen on hard times. Last year Brooks Brothers, which had been sewing button-down shirts since 1818, filed for bankruptcy. Last month Marks & Spencer, a British retailer, announced it would no longer sell men’s suits in more than half of its bigger stores.
As the pandemic completely decoupled work and presence in the office, employees at many companies switched into something even less starchy. Unlike JPMorgan, however, most have not put any guidelines in place as to what is and isn’t appropriate. Although the Delta variant is forcing companies to delay a return to the office, that day will come. When workers are back at their desks, at least some of the time, new sartorial rules may be required.
Much has been written about what people wore on Zoom calls during lockdowns (and what they did not wear: some retailers report that tops significantly outsold trousers in the past year and a half). Fashion designers like Giles Deacon in Britain have launched “work from anywhere” fashion collections, aiming for slightly looser-cut clothing that nevertheless looks smart. Two Japanese companies, Aoki and Whatever Inc, created pyjama suits—a hybrid of a suit and soft, comfy loungewear—perfect for the video conference attended from home. Aoki uses the same fabric as pyjamas but with a suit-like cut. Whatever Inc’s wfh Jammies are “business on the top, loungewear on the bottom”.
That is not to say that business-casual Fridays have given way to athleisure work weeks. Indeed, some workplaces are already experiencing a backlash against informality. In 2017 Britain’s House of Commons decided that male mps were no longer required to wear ties when attending debates; previously they could go tieless only on hot summer days. But at the beginning of September this year Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker, announced that he expected all parliamentarians to smarten up. Jeans, chinos and sleeveless tops are out.
Looked at in the aggregate, individuals’ clothes speak to more than just personal preferences. People’s sartorial choices add up to a zeitgeist. It is no accident that the cheerful glitz of the 1920s came right after the despondency of the first world war and the Spanish flu. Today’s tailoring brands hope that when the pandemic recedes at last male and female professionals will feel a renewed desire to dress up.
So does Bartleby. Like Sir Lindsay, she would recommend that employees maintain a degree of formal presentation. Yes, some people can pull off a dishevelled look—but not everyone. Dressing with taste and elegance does not have to involve designer clothes or expensive watches. It signals commitment and seriousness. A freshly laundered, crisp shirt announces to the world that you have made an effort; a tracksuit does not.
And if going to the office is a ritual, styling an outfit can be a pleasure, not a chore. The way one dresses is part of his or her self-expression. It also separates the public and the private. Peeling off formal office clothes and slipping into something cosy marks a daily transition from work to non-work. That line was blurred during lockdowns and could do with some sharpening. A man in a suit and tie is a man loosening his tie at the end of the day.
Everything you never wanted to know about the future of talking about the future.
TO HEAR TECH CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg or Satya Nadella talk about it, the metaverse is the future of the internet. Or it's a video game. Or maybe it's a deeply uncomfortable, worse version of Zoom? It's hard to say.
Advocates from niche startups to tech giants have argued that this lack of coherence is because the metaverse is still being built, and it's too new to define what it means. The internet existed in the 1970s, for example, but not every idea of what that would eventually look like was true.
To help you get a sense of how vague and complex a term “the metaverse” can be, here's an exercise: Mentally replace the phrase “the metaverse” in a sentence with “cyberspace.” Ninety percent of the time, the meaning won't substantially change. That's because the term doesn't really refer to any one specific type of technology, but rather a broad (and often speculative) shift in how we interact with technology. And it's entirely possible that the term itself will eventually become just as antiquated, even as the specific technology it once described becomes commonplace.
Broadly speaking, the technologies companies refer to when they talk about “the metaverse” can include virtual reality—characterized by persistent virtual worlds that continue to exist even when you're not playing—as well as augmented reality that combines aspects of the digital and physical worlds. However, it doesn't require that those spaces be exclusively accessed via VR or AR. Virtual worlds—such as aspects of Fortnite that can be accessed through PCs, game consoles, and even phones—have started referring to themselves as “the metaverse.”
Many companies that have hopped on board the metaverse bandwagon also envision some sort of new digital economy, where users can create, buy, and sell goods. In the more idealistic visions of the metaverse, it's interoperable, allowing you to take virtual items like clothes or cars from one platform to another, though this is harder than it sounds. While some advocates claim new technologies like NFTs can enable portable digital assets, this simply isn't true, and bringing items from one video game or virtual world to another is an enormously complex task that no one company can solve.
It's difficult to parse what all this means because when you hear descriptions like those above, an understandable response is, “Wait, doesn't that exist already?” World of Warcraft, for example, is a persistent virtual world where players can buy and sell goods. Fortnite has virtual experiences like concerts and an exhibit where Rick Sanchez can learn about MLK Jr. You can strap on an Oculus headset and be in your own personal virtual home. Is that really what “the metaverse” means? Just some new kinds of video games?
Well, yes and no. Saying that Fortnite is “the metaverse” would be a bit like saying Google is “the internet.” Even if you spend large chunks of time in Fortnite, socializing, buying things, learning, and playing games, that doesn't necessarily mean it encompasses the entire scope of what people and companies mean when they say "the metaverse." Just as Google, which builds parts of the internet—from physical data centers to security layers—isn't the entire internet.
Tech giants like Microsoft and Meta are working on building tech related to interacting with virtual worlds, but they're not the only ones. Many other large companies, including Nvidia, Unity, Roblox, and even Snap—as well as a variety of smaller companies and startups—are building the infrastructure to create better virtual worlds that more closely mimic our physical life.
For example, Epic has acquired a number of companies that help create or distribute digital assets, in part to bolster its powerful Unreal Engine 5 platform. And while Unreal may be a video game platform, it's also being used in the film industry and could make it easier for anyone to create virtual experiences. There are tangible and exciting developments in the realm of building digital worlds.
Despite this, the idea of a Ready Player One-like single unified place called “the metaverse" is still largely impossible. That is in part because such a world requires companies to cooperate in a way that simply isn't profitable or desirable—Fortnite doesn't have much motivation to give players a portal to jump straight over to World of Warcraft, even if it were easy to do so, for example—and partially because the raw computing power needed for such a concept could be much further away than we think.
This inconvenient fact has given rise to slightly different terminology. Now many companies or advocates instead refer to any single game or platform as “a metaverse.” By this definition, anything from a VR concert app to a video game would count as a “metaverse.” Some take it further, calling the collection of various metaverses a “multiverse of metaverses.” Or maybe we're living in a “hybrid-verse.”
It's at this point that most discussions of what the metaverse entails start to stall. We have a vague sense of what things currently exist that we could kind of call the metaverse if we massage the definition of words the right way. And we know which companies are investing in the idea, but after months, there's nothing approaching agreement on what it is. Meta thinks it will include fake houses you can invite all your friends to hang out in. Microsoft seems to think it could involve virtual meeting rooms to train new hires or chat with your remote coworkers.
The pitches for these visions of the future range from optimistic to outright fan fiction. At one point during Meta's original presentation on the metaverse, the company showed a scenario in which a young woman is sitting on her couch scrolling through Instagram when she sees a video a friend posted of a concert that's happening halfway across the world.
The video then cuts to the concert, where the woman appears in an Avengers-style hologram. She's able to make eye contact with her friend who is physically there, they're both able to hear the concert, and they can see floating text hovering above the stage. This seems cool, but it's not really advertising a real product, or even a possible future one. In fact, it brings us to the biggest problem with “the metaverse.”
Why Does the Metaverse Involve Holograms?
When the internet first arrived, it started with a series of technological innovations, like the ability to let computers talk to each other over great distances or the ability to hyperlink from one web page to another. These technical features were the building blocks that were then used to make the abstract structures we know the internet for: websites, apps, social networks, and everything else that relies on those core elements. And that's to say nothing of the convergence of the interface innovations that aren't strictly part of the internet but are still necessary to make it work, such as displays, keyboards, mice, and touchscreens.
With the metaverse, there are some new building blocks in place, like the ability to host hundreds of people in a single instance of a server (idealistic metaverse predictions suppose this will grow to thousands or even millions of people at once, but this might be overly optimistic), or motion-tracking tools that can distinguish where a person is looking or where their hands are. These new technologies can be very exciting and feel futuristic.
However, there are limitations that may be impossible to overcome. When tech companies like Microsoft or Meta show fictionalized videos of their visions of the future, they frequently tend to gloss over just how people will interact with the metaverse. VR headsets are still very clunky, and most people experience motion sickness or physical pain if they wear them for too long. Augmented reality glasses face a similar problem, on top of the not-insignificant issue of figuring out how people can wear them around in public without looking like huge dorks. And then there are the accessibility challenges of VR that many companies are shrugging off for now.
So, how do tech companies show off the idea of their technology without showing the reality of bulky headsets and dorky glasses? So far, their primary solution seems to be to simply fabricate technology from whole cloth. The holographic woman from Meta's presentation? I hate to shatter the illusion, but it's simply not possible with even very advanced versions of existing technology.
Unlike motion-tracked digital avatars, which are kind of janky right now but could be better someday, there's no janky version of making a three-dimensional picture appear in midair without tightly controlled circumstances. No matter what Iron Man tells you. Perhaps these are meant to be interpreted as images projected via glasses—both women in the demo video are wearing similar glasses, after all—but even that assumes a lot about the physical capabilities of compact glasses, which Snap can tell you isn't a simple problem to solve.
This kind of glossing over reality occurs frequently in video demos of how the metaverse could work. Another of Meta's demos showed characters floating in space—is this person strapped to an immersive aerial rig or are they just sitting at a desk? A person represented by a hologram—do they have a headset on, and if so how is their face being scanned? And at points, a person grabs virtual items but then holds those objects in what seems to be their physical hands.
This demo raises so many more questions than it answers.
The confusion and disappointment surrounding most “metaverse” projects are so pervasive that when a video from 2017 of a Walmart VR shopping demo started trending again in January 2022, people immediately thought it was yet another metaverse demo. It also helped demonstrate how much of the current metaverse discussion is built on hype alone. Walmart's VR shopping demo obviously never went anywhere (and for good reason). So why should anyone believe that it's the future when Chipotle does it?
This kind of wishful-thinking-as-tech-demo leaves us in a place where it's hard to pinpoint which aspects of the various visions of the metaverse (if any) will actually be real one day. If VR and AR headsets become comfortable and cheap enough for people to wear on a daily basis—a substantial “if”—then perhaps a virtual poker game with your friends as robots and holograms and floating in space could be somewhat close to reality. If not, well you could always play Tabletop Simulator on a Discord video call.
The flashiness of VR and AR also obscure the more mundane ways that our existing, interconnected digital world could be improved right now. It would be trivial for tech companies to invent, say, an open digital avatar standard, a type of file that includes characteristics you might enter into a character creator—like eye color, hairstyle, or clothing options—and let you take that data everywhere, to be interpreted by a game engine however it chooses. There's no need to build a more comfortable VR headset for that.
But that's not as fun to imagine.
What's the Metaverse Like Right Now?
The paradox of defining the metaverse is that in order for it to be the future, you have to define away the present. We already have MMOs that are essentially entire virtual worlds, digital concerts, video calls with people from all over the world, online avatars, and commerce platforms. So in order to sell these things as a new vision of the world, there has to be some element of it that's new.
Spend enough time having discussions about the metaverse and someone will inevitably (and exhaustingly) reference fictional stories like Snow Crash—the 1992 novel that coined the term “metaverse”—or Ready Player One, which depicts a VR world where everyone works, plays, and shops. Combined with the general pop culture idea of holograms and heads-up displays (basically anything Iron Man has used in his last 10 movies) these stories serve as an imaginative reference point for what the metaverse—a metaverse that tech companies might actually sell as something new—could look like.
It's important to keep all this context in mind because while it's tempting to compare the proto-metaverse ideas we have today to the early internet and assume everything will get better and progress in a linear fashion, that's not a given. There's no guarantee people will even want to hang out sans legs in a virtual office or play poker with Dreamworks Mark Zuckerberg, much less that VR and AR tech will ever become seamless enough to be as common as smartphones and computers are today.
In the months since Facebook's rebrand, the concept of “the metaverse” has served as a powerful vehicle for repackaging old tech, overselling the benefits of new tech, and capturing the imagination of speculative investors. But money pouring into a space doesn't necessarily mean a massive paradigm shift is right around the corner, as everything from 3D TVs to Amazon's delivery drones and Google Glass can attest. The history of tech is littered with the skeletons of failed investments.
That doesn't mean there's nothing cool on the horizon. VR headsets like the Quest 2 are cheaper than ever and finally weaning off of expensive desktop or console rigs. Video games and other virtual worlds are getting easier to build and design. And personally, I think the advances in photogrammetry—the process of creating digital 3D objects out of photos or video—is an incredibly cool tool for digital artists.
But to a certain extent, the tech industry writ large depends on futurism. Selling a phone is fine, but selling the future is more profitable. In reality, it may be the case that any real “metaverse” would be little more than some cool VR games and digital avatars in Zoom calls, but mostly just something we still think of as the internet.
4/25/2022: This story has been updated with additional reporting.
Eric Ravenscraft is a product writer and reviewer at WIRED, based in Austin, Texas. He's guided readers on how to use technology for nearly a decade for publications including Lifehacker, OneZero, and The New York Times. He also streams on Twitch for WIRED occasionally and can be found on YouTube... Read more