The Metaverse Has Always Been a Dystopia
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The Metaverse Has Always Been a Dystopian Idea

Silicon Valley CEOs keep hailing its imminent arrival as they hawk digital goods, but the metaverse was a dystopian idea from its inception.
July 30, 2021, 1:00pm

A big shift is apparently underway in Silicon Valley. 

The company that operates the world’s largest and most profitable social media network will not, according to its CEO, be a social media company much longer. In an announcement that inspired a fervid wave of speculation, analysis, and mockery, Mark Zuckerberg proclaimed that Facebook is going to become a “metaverse company” instead. 

Facebook will pivot from being a website that is accessed through phones and laptops, Zuckerberg says, to a next generation computing platform where the focus is on a user’s “presence,” and is accessed through VR via Facebook’s Oculus headset, or other Facebook products like Portal. “I think over the next five years or so,” Zuckerberg told the Verge’s Casey Newton, “we will effectively transition from people seeing us as primarily being a social media company to being a metaverse company.”

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Elsewhere in the big tech landscape, Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft—at the time of writing the second largest company in the world in terms of market capitalization—has been promoting his aim to build an “Enterprise Metaverse.” At a Microsoft Inspire keynote talk back in May, and on a July earnings call, Nadella described this as “a new layer of the infrastructure stack” where “the digital and physical worlds converge.”

It’s not just Microsoft and Facebook. A widening swath of Silicon Valley’s investor class, cheerleading pundits, and influential founders have been hyping the so-called metaverse, too. Tim Sweeney, the CEO of Epic Games, which runs Fortnite, has for years been promoting the metaverse as the fast-arriving future. The venture capitalist Matthew Ball attempted to chart its potential and explain why it is “likely to produce trillions in value.” David Baszucki, the founder of the gaming platform Roblox, sung its praises and underlined its import in a January piece for WIRED. 

“The Metaverse is arguably as big a shift in online communication as the telephone or the internet,” he wrote.

“The metaverse is a vision that spans many companies—the whole industry,” as Zuckerberg put it. “You can think about it as the successor to the mobile internet.”

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We’ve seen this movie before, of course: a host of Silicon Valley companies uniting to embrace a new and nebulous concept, a la the Internet of Things, that sounds both adequately future-y and freshly attractive to big picture-loving investors. This has not stopped those companies from fomenting a new air of inevitability within the industry, or its advocates from trumpeting its imminent arrival. “The metaverse is coming,” one futurist enthused in Forbes in a widely viewed story, “and it’s a very big deal.” In fact, a quick Google search reveals that everyone from WIRED to the Economist to TIME Magazine to InvestorPlace.com to Verizon’s “News Center” has published stories titled “The Metaverse Is Coming,” which helps to offer a snapshot of who has an interest in its arrival. 

If it is coming, and if it is a big deal, then surprisingly few have paused to carefully consider the actual source of the metaverse, an undertaking which seems like a good idea, especially because that source is a deeply dystopian novel about a collapsed America that is overrun by violence and poverty. The metaverse was born in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 Snow Crash, where it serves as entertainment and an economic underbelly to a poor, desperate nation that is literally governed by corporate franchises. 

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You will see no trace of the metaverse’s origins in these strategy announcements, which so far seem to hint mostly at creating and uniting more immersive digital environments in which entertainment might be consumed and work carried out—and advertising displayed, workers surveilled, and branded NFTs and loot boxes sold. No trace, that is, unless maybe you read about it on your Twitter feed, where a news item about a metaverse product is likely to be sandwiched between stories about crushing health care debt or anecdotes about rampant inequality. 

So I think it is worth examining why it may be that our real-world CEOs’ next big high tech concept is sprung from an overtly dystopian context of mass poverty and violence; one where an immersive, shared 3D digital environment where anything goes offers most people’s only opportunity to escape from an intolerable reality. 

“This imaginary place is known as the Metaverse,” as Neal Stephenson wrote. 

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The hero of Snow Crash is named Hiro, and he is a gig worker delivery driver who moonlights as a hacker, and lives in abject poverty in a 20x30 storage unit he shares with an alcoholic roommate. “Hiro spends a lot of time in the metaverse. It beats the shit out of the U-Stor-It.”

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The U.S. as we know it has ceased to exist, and corporate entities and organized crime control whole city-states. Workers like Hiro can be killed for taking too long to deliver a pizza, and they are driven into the metaverse underworld to find extralegal work and enough money to make ends meet. The only reasonably safe places in the physical world are heavily fortressed “burbclaves” where the wealthy reside behind batteries of guns and gated communities. 

The metaverse, which users access through VR goggles, is the kind of 3D digital environment that should be familiar to most people who are aware of video games today, except that it’s massive—the majority of the metaverse’s real estate is developed along The Street, a huge virtual thoroughfare that encircles thousands of miles of its digital world—there are no rules, and there are no set objectives. Users select an avatar (Stephenson also coined the popular usage of that term, too) to represent their digital selves. A higher resolution representation costs more, thus stratifying class in the virtual world, too.

And what do people build in the metaverse?

“Like any place in Reality, the Street is subject to development,” Stephenson explains. “Developers can build their own small streets feeding off of the main one. They can build buildings, parks, signs, as well as things that do not exist in Reality, such as vast hovering overhead light shows, special neighborhoods where the rules of three dimensional spacetime are ignored, and free-combat zones where people can go to hunt and kill each other.” 

“…the metaverse itself is a place that is addictive, violent, and an enabler of our worst impulses”

Okay! So the metaverse is for light shows, people tired of existing on the space-time continuum, and mass murder. (Come to think of it, this sounds a bit like the extant internet, or just Fortnite.)

Finally, it should be noted that there is an entire class of people, users derisively known as gargoyles, who become so hooked on existing in the metaverse that they rig themselves to be permanently plugged-in, and are permanently disfigured in reality as a result. In the years since Snow Crash’s publication, gargoyles have been viewed as a prescient commentary on the pitfalls of screen addiction.

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Thus, in the book from which the current metaverse craze originates, not only is our world in ruins and most people are eking out precarious lives in dire poverty, but the metaverse itself is a place that is addictive, violent, and an enabler of our worst impulses. 

It’s an exceedingly dark vision, if a satiric and somewhat cartoonish one (there are also lots of swords). So it’s a little remarkable that precisely none of this is acknowledged in the paeans to the metaverse that have emerged from founders and cheerleaders over the last few weeks and years, even as the vision of computing advancing as the world falls apart becomes all the more salient.

In the world of Snow Crash, the metaverse is not viewed as particularly cool—it is necessary, because the real world has become so unbearable. Ditto in the most famous book to update the metaverse’s architecture for our modern, pop culture-saturated era: Ready Player One. Its Oasis is basically the Metaverse if it were written by a neural net trained on 80s movies and 00s video games. 

That book too is set in a nearish dystopian future where desperate people are driven to escape their unpleasant lives into a vast virtual environment—it is insinuated that either the Oasis is so popular because the world is so bad, or the world is so bad because the Oasis is so popular. This is a weird nexus at which to want to build out your company’s future! And yet for a time, new recruits to Facebook’s Oculus division were handed copies of the book as required reading.

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Both books’ metaverses get at a common truism: there is something inherently dystopian in a future where humans abandon the real world in favor of an escapist and consumerist-oriented fully immersive digital one. To want to spend any serious amount of time in a metaverse, it must be made more appealing than reality, a feat which can be accomplished in one of two ways—either the world outside is already shitty enough to drive you into a glitch-prone, murder-filled alternative, or the fantasy of becoming someone else is compelling enough to consume you totally. 

Both configurations are fraught. It is easy to see the metaverse making a more compelling sales pitch in the days of pandemics and wildfires and increasingly limited real-world experiences available to the non-rich. But my guess is that the reason the metaverse vision inspires founders like Zuckerberg is not, primarily, the new network of market opportunities it presents, which is certainly there—but the personal interest in fulfilling the fantasy element. Zuck has mentioned that he has been thinking about the metaverse since middle school, when he may well have read the science fiction that described it. 

It could well be that the metaverse represents to the next generation of founders what, say, space travel and off-world colonies on Mars do to the likes of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. It is a science fictional construct that perhaps captured their imagination at an impressionable moment in their lives—in the metaverse, you can be anyone, do anything, and vanquish foes, regardless of real-world social status or physicality. As the writer and media studies professor and video game designer Ian Bogost noted, “The metaverse was never a fantasy about virtual reality, but just one about power.” And now that these founders have the capital and power to pursue the fantasy, that is exactly what they are doing.

When I interviewed an executive at Magic Leap in 2018, at what was arguably the company’s peak in popularity thus far, I asked him what an ideal use case of the headset would be for him. The first thing he said was “I want the Star Wars universe in my life… I want to look up at the sky and see Tie Fighters and X-wings fighting.” The aim was pure, youth-inspired science fictional fantasy. 

Of course, the broader contours of both visions will likely remain fantasies—as David Karpf points out in WIRED, virtual reality, and the metaverse it presumes to enable, is a perennial “rich white kid technology” that has been around for decades, keeps failing upwards, and seems destined for novelty rather than ubiquity. And it’s worth adding that the metaverse as Zuckerberg describes it—a shared 3D space where we live and work and view advertising in an embodied internet—would be an actual nightmare if it were to be designed, built, or administered by Facebook, perhaps the most notoriously drab, misinformation-littered, and aesthetically unappealing environment on the web. 

Fortunately, we do not need to fear this coming to pass in concrete terms very much, as the metaverse vision is inherently somewhat ludicrous. But even if it is, the big swing earns Zuck and co. some credulity and latitude in the press, unlocks some venture capital for third party developers, and offers a little distraction from the myriad unresolved issues that still plague its much less exciting Newsfeedverse right now. In this sense, the biggest impact of announcing intentions to pursue the metaverse is that it may win Facebook, Microsoft, and other tech giants some leeway, a chance to deflect criticisms of its conduct and policies towards the fact that they are again in the midst of major evolution, so cut them some slack, you know? Many tech companies have realized they are harder to criticize if they are constantly evolving their ambitions and shooting for the rafters, and a massive metaverse moonshot certainly qualifies.

But as usual with such amorphous concepts and platform aspirations, there’s very little there. None of these luminaries, from Zuck to Nadella to Boz, seem capable of painting a coherent vision for what their particular metaverse will look or feel like, beyond gesturing at “presence” and a collection of apps, keywords, and old science fiction tropes. It is an odd vision built from a compendium of juvenile fantasies, perceived market opportunities, and overt dystopias.

Silicon Valley is often criticized for failing to anticipate the critiques of the new technologies and ideas it lionizes, and for failing to anticipate the adverse social impacts of its products. With its aspirations to construct a metaverse, it is obliviously aspiring to develop the critique itself, direct from the source.