With his social media company embroiled in scandal, Mark Zuckerberg went on the offensive on October 28th by rebranding his company with the new moniker “Meta” and laying out a futuristic vision of a cybernetic utopia. At the heart of this vision was the notion of the so-called “metaverse”—a virtual reality that takes the various apps of social media and turns them into immersive sensory experiences. By donning a piece of computerized headgear, one leaves the ostensibly limited material objective word of physical objects and people and enters an electronically generated universe of virtual objects and people that is infinitely changeable and far less constrained by the time and space of the “real world.”
In his video introduction to the metaverse, Zuckerberg hints at some of the ways the metaverse would impact the daily lives of its users. One’s living space in the metaverse (or “homespace”) is an elaborate customized patch of virtual reality where one can generate almost any imaginable living arrangement—luxurious mansion festooned with opulent ornamental furniture, quaint lakeside bungalow with a calm lake visible out the window, rustic cabin with electronically generated wildlife meandering by, urban condominium with a famous skyline in the background, or whatever else would make the user feel at home. In Zuckerberg’s video, the Meta CEO appears to attend a meeting in a room on an orbiting space station—complete with the effects of zero gravity. But the physical environment is not the only thing malleable in the metaverse—the users themselves can assume any form they wish as they maneuver through this electronic realm. We see Zuckerberg going through various costume choices for his avatar ranging from his standard jeans and hoodie to an assortment of exotic costumes. When he arrives at his meeting on the space station, it appears one of his colleagues/friends has assumed the identity of a large robot. As with the landscapes, the only limit on what form the user can take is limited only by that user’s imagination.
To the casual observer, this has the appearance of a rather novel and visionary form of social engagement. The video goes on to detail how the metaverse could be the new way to organize workplaces and offices, with employees able to remain physically home to do their work but still reporting to their offices in the metaverse and continuing to engage in faux face to face contact with their fellow workers and bosses. Beyond the workplace, Zuckerberg’s metaverse is also primed to open-up a completely new dimension of video gaming experiences with players able to interact with immersive competitive environments with players from around the world. Gaming would be only one of a panoply of recreational opportunities in the metaverse—one might imagine a program where a subject would be able to place themselves in an ultra-realistic historical simulation from the early nineteenth century taking charge of Napoleon’s armies during the Battle Austerlitz then fast-forwarding a century and a half and be walking on the moon for the first time as Neil Armstrong. And since the metaverse can create its own unique and original worlds, one now has the ability to enter into unexplored cyberscapes simulating lost continents on earth or planets and galaxies of the extraterrestrial world. Zuckerberg even suggests the world of science, medicine and academic research could get a boost from the metaverse and its endless applications.
Lost in all of this utopian fantasizing, however, is the troubling fact that Zuckerberg’s metaverse is still tethered to the realities of the actually existing world. Whatever one wishes to call Zuckerberg’s company, it still epitomizes the business model of most other large Silicon Valley technological pseudo-monopolies and their functional imperatives to maximize the platforms’ interaction with mass audiences from around the world and collect that user data and process it so as to allow Facebook’s (or Meta’s or whomever) clients to generate ads and promotions for the metaverse’s consumers. Stated another way, everything that sucks about current social media platforms will be exponentially enhanced and intensified in the metaverse. Indeed, when one considers that the average American spends on average 8.5 hours a day staring at a screen, then the metaverse represents more of a quantitative change in how people consume social media than a qualitative one. The metaverse is already here—all Zuckerberg is really proposing here is a Metaverse 2.0 (now with surround sound, immersive hologram imaging and more interactive cybernetics). When one realizes that the metaverse is social media on steroids, then one can quickly grasp how the metaverse does not represent a new form of human interaction, but a platform poised to exacerbate all the contradictions and absurdities already present in the society of the spectacle.
Of course, there are no shortages of dystopian visions when critiquing the idea of the metaverse. The pop culture genres of science fiction, horror and action/adventure have already played around with all the ways an immersive virtual reality would make life less enjoyable and possibly apocalyptic. Within hours of Zuckerberg posting his video introducing his metaverse idea, an array of writers and posters across social media began making the obvious connections to the films like The Matrix, Ready Player One, Lawnmower Man, Disclosure and Brainscan, and many others that played around with the idea of alternative virtual realities wreaking havoc on society in general or in the personal lives of the film’s characters. Television shows like Black Mirror and the holodeck of Star Trek were also frequently referenced or cited. Popular books include the aforementioned Ready Player One as well as Warcross and Snow Crash. In most cases, the plots of these stories highlight the profound problems and potential society-destroying hazards of mass virtual reality alterna-worlds where most people spend most of their time. Yet if Zuckerberg’s metaverse is merely the extension of social media applications in a virtual reality space, then the evils of the metaverse are likely to be far more banal than what one can read or watch in the pop culture treatments of this subject.
To get a sense of this, try to imagine what a Zuckerberg style metaverse would actually look like based on how current social media works. Imagine one decides to throw a party in the “homespace” in Zuckerberg’s metaverse. Going off some of the things in Zuckerberg’s video, it is likely many of one’s friends will arrive at the party in exotic avatars—robots, pirates, unicorns, and virtual impressions of almost anyone imaginable: famous celebrities, star athletes, politicians, historical figures, fictional characters and just about anything else that can be plausibly anthropomorphized. So far everything seems harmless and even fun. But one must remember that this is a platform designed with the Silicon Valley imperatives of collecting data and using it to generate “ad experiences.” The host will likely have to decide what kind of settings they wish to place for the party they are throwing. For a “premium fee,” the invitees can enter without giving up their data (through the answering of questions or filling out marketing surveys), but if the host does not want to pay the fee or cannot afford it, then anyone who wants to attend will have to jump through any number of data-sucking interrogatory hoops to attend. Already one can see how this would limit or restrict certain aspects of the metaverse and how one might have to pay some kind of subscription fee for a “premium experience” that allows one to use the platform beyond its basic functions.
Like the “influencers” on Instagram or the “blue checks” on Twitter, the metaverse will be a tiered society of those who are at the center of the metaverse’s social gravity and whose activities in the metaverse may become monetized if they attract enough metaverse “followers” (who will literally follow them around in the virtual spaces of the metaverse like a sycophantic electronic mob), Mobs—both in the real world and in the virtual world—might also be common when rare items or access to rare worlds become available and their access is tied to some activity in the material world. One might recall a few years ago the large crowds of Pokemon Go players moving in packs around major cities when reports of a rare Pokemon became available at a certain location. Something similar is likely to happen as business tie sales and promotions to their physical store space in the real world to a special limited access virtual space. One might imagine shoppers being able to find 50% off coupons in this limited virtual space (where they must, again, provide personal data to access) that could only be redeemed at a particular store in the physical world. Of course, even this might be too much of a burden for most metaverse users, who will likely be content to shop in the virtual stores these retailers will be compelled to create.
Returning to the party, however, the host might have to deal with another problem—uninvited guests. Like YouTube or Facebook suggestions, the metaverse will likely track who is attending the party and, based on the demographic and consumption data of the attendees, the metaverse may generate customized messages and AI “guests” to interact with the “real” guests. Imagine the metadata of the host and attendees determines that there a likely a lot of beer drinkers in the crowd. The virtual background of the walls will suddenly become festooned with the logos and slogans of beer companies who have paid to advertise in the private spaces of the metaverse in the same way Google can deliver tailored e-mail messages to a user’s private inbox. Beyond logos in the background, a particular beer company’s jingle will start playing in the background at random moments. Before long a group of tall supermodels arrive at the party wearing suggestive outfits bearing the beer company’s logo. Governed by an artificial intelligence, these guests who are complete computer-generated holographic simulations begin to engage with some of the guests at the party—some of whom may not realize they are computer holograms. Like in real world bars where promotional models will mingle with the crowd and give out free samples of a particular product, these virtual models will initiate conversations in a way that leads the small talk to mentioning the name of the product the virtual model is promoting and when a pre-determined message has been given in the course of the conversation, the virtual model walks away and engages with another guest. Alternatively, based on the interaction, the virtual model may begin a new thread of conversation to promote a different product. With advanced enough technology, a “real” guest could talk to AI holograms the entire evening without actually interacting with a fellow flesh-and-blood person. Like the YouTube suggestion bar feeding an endless number of videos to a user who winds up wasting hours watching online videos, a denizen of the metaverse may engage in hours of pseudo-conversations with a computer-generated figure who is always ready to extend the conversation indefinitely based on the interests of the individual. Indeed, one could remove all the real-world guests and the party could still go on. Instead of suggested videos on YouTube, the metaverse provides a room full of suggested avatars to interact with endlessly.
Further thought reveals even more nefarious aspects of this phenomenon. Like the phenomenon of social media creating hermetically-sealed information bubbles allowing an individual to curate their own customized worldview (that may bear little to no resemblance with the so-called “real world”), the metaverse turns the metaphor into a virtual reality. An individual entering their homespace is immediately greeted by computer-generated holograms of content-creators the user regularly indulges. A conservative Trump-supporter is met with computer avatars of famous Trump-supporting television and radio personalities like Ben Shapiro or Tucker Carlson eager to convey their latest conspiracy theories and dispense their analysis of everything that the “liberals” are doing to destroy America. Liberal supporters of Joe Biden encounter a similar virtual reality of computer-generated avatars representing the opinion of anti-Trump “Resistance.” Any real-world person who enters this space will be subject to these same interactions whether wanted or not. Opting out of these endless solicitations will be nearly impossible save for the now familiar paying of a hefty fee.
Because social media has burrowed so far into people’s lives, there is almost no real-world experience that does not involve these platforms. This being the case, the metaverse will also have access to people’s most intimate moments. Imagine someone’s partner has broken up with them and are deeply heartbroken as a result. In the despair-induced madness of the immediate aftermath of the break-up, they retreat to the metaverse in a desperate effort to address the countless questions that have gripped their conscious mind—When did everything go wrong? What did they do to push them away? Was their lover with someone else? In the immersive world of the metaverse, one can physically enter life-sized projections of old photos and videos and analyze them like a detective looking for some obscure clue that would provide the explanation for why the person left. This person could spend hours, if not days literally walking through these images both reliving the happier times and scouring for information that would provide their grieving mind some fragment of hope the relationship can be recovered. Worse, one can still enter the accessible parts of their former partner’s metaverse crawling through every pixel of every new image or video they have posted. Content detailing a trip to the beach is scoured for any sign the ex went on vacation with someone else. A photo showing the ex with another person is rotated in all three dimensions in the search for a detail that might reveal the new face as someone who is more than friends. As one confides in their friends about their feelings and begin the process of recovery, the metaverse is collecting all those messages and video calls to friends and web searches for “how to get over a broken heart” they have entered into a web browser in a moment of relapse. Before long, the metaverse starts generating new messages, avatars and experiences to take advantage of the bereaved vulnerable state. Attractive avatars generated by dating websites appear inviting them to open an account and look for someone who resembles the attractive avatar. Media companies place ads for dating coach services throughout the “homespace.” Even explicit sex sites alerted to their new single status will start sending them immersive pitches for them to purchase their services. Indeed, a highly advanced metaverse may be able to alter sexual experiences themselves making people question the need for intimate relationships in the first place.
Despite this, however, when one looks over the full possibilities of the metaverse, the overall impression is not one of a post-apocalyptic hell world where humans spend most of their time at the expense of their “real-world” lives, but an extension of the already problematic world of social media that already exists replete with its aggressive data collection, information and image manipulation and restriction, invasive advertising techniques and countless other issues. The metaverse will obviously have some useful applications especially in the world of arts, recreation and leisure. But to see it as either utopia or dystopia is to confuse the most optimistic (or pessimistic) visions of the technology with how the technology will be commercially and socially viable. The answer to this question has already been answered by the impacts of social media on the lives of its users which tends be mixed at best. At its worse, social media makes a generally sucky world suck even more, and the most likely impact of the metaverse, despite its impressive technological capabilities, will be that it will make the world suck still more than before.