While his fellow tech CEOs try to usher in an era of mass interplanetary travel, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is dreaming of expansion not into outer space but cyberspace. The lords of Silicon Valley are all done with earthly reality, but as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos arrange plans to physically leave, Zuckerberg wants to program a better earthly experience — one curated by Facebook.
In July, Zuckerberg announced that Facebook is in the process of transitioning into a “Metaverse” company over the next half decade. The social media giant wants to morph into an all-consuming, all-encompassing platform with relationships, work, commerce, and entertainment commingling under one big tent.
If that’s vague, it’s because the Metaverse is an octopus with a nearly infinite number of arms and no single blueprint, which is why many are calling it the Web 3.0. It’s “the successor to the mobile internet,” Zuckerberg told the Verge last month. “You can think about the Metaverse as an embodied internet, where instead of just viewing content — you are in it.”
As part of his initial Metaverse media blitz, the Great Hoodied One appeared on CBS News last month to play show-and-tell with Horizon Workrooms and demonstrate what being “inside the internet” actually means.
Workrooms, Facebook’s attempt at trumping Zoom, is an immersive conference call program where coworkers don an Oculus VR helmet and share a virtual office space to, say, scribble notes on a digital whiteboard using hand gestures while their avatars mimic their own movements. The demo looks laughably underwhelming (the cartoonish avatars look like what would happen if Nintendo made an app called Wii Work), but it’s easy to see why management might flock to a gentle, brightly colored panoptic workplace where it’s impossible to escape the gaze of your boss, even in your own bedroom.
According to Zuckerberg, Horizon Workrooms is just a taste of what’s to come. “Five years from now, people will be able to live where they want and work from wherever they want but feel present when they do it,” he said.
If the Metaverse idea expands beyond the goofy CGI-driven trickery seen through the goggles of an Oculus helmet, the idea of “being present” may change altogether over the coming years (though Zuckerberg’s half-decade timeline seems optimistic). Many of the Metaverse’s architects envision a future in which physical, augmented, and virtual realities converge into a single enhanced reality governed by a shared economic and media consumption system.
Venture capitalist Matthew Ball outlined the Metaverse concept in an influential essay last January. The Metaverse “would revolutionize not just the infrastructure layer of the digital world, but also much of the physical one, as well as all the services and platforms atop them, how they work, and what they sell,” he wrote. In other words, the Metaverse would create a whole new ownership realm of consumer goods.
Imagine, for instance, that you buy a Rick and Morty–themed skin for your digital avatar in the video game Fortnite. That’s currently possible, but only by purchasing 1,500 of Fortnite’s in-game currency V-Bucks. Suiting up as Rick Sanchez only works in the popular battle royale shooter. A Metaverse infrastructure would theoretically enable you to transfer the digital outfit to wear it at an online Lady Gaga concert (planned for Fortnite next year) or during a group Peloton workout with friends.
Let’s say you took the prank too far, and the boss is annoyed that you show up to a real-life meeting as the cartoon scientist, which everyone sees through their Ray-Ban smart glasses. You then sheepishly decide to trade the costume for currency in the form of a “Cool Cats” non-fungible token (NFT) and a handful of Dogecoin. Or perhaps the opposite happens, and you come to love it so much that you want to not only keep the Rick skin forever, but put it in your will and pass it on to your kids when you die. All of this and more would be possible in the Metaverse.
If this vision sounds like something ripped from the pages of a science-fiction novel, that’s because it was.
The term Metaverse first appears in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash, which follows the futuristic adventures of Hiro, a pizza delivery driver for the Mafia who moonlights as a hacker, immersed in what’s described as “a computer-generated universe that his computer is drawing onto his goggles and pumping into his earphones.”
The book has long been a Bible for the priests of high tech. Stephenson is revered as a prophet, credited for inventing the concepts of avatars and cryptocurrency in addition to the Metaverse. Snow Crash was once required reading for Facebook’s management team. Stephenson was befriended by Bezos and hired by the augmented reality company Magic Leap in 2014 to help actually build the Metaverse.
Apparently, no one in Silicon Valley has a sense of irony. Snow Crash is a dystopian novel, not a utopian one.
The digital realms of Snow Crash’s Metaverse are even more insidious than the playground-like purgatories it helped inspire in pop culture offerings like the Matrix movies or the novel Ready Player One. Swallowing the red pill in The Matrix means piercing the veil of illusion and experiencing an authentic world. Likewise, Ready Player One’s OASIS is akin to being plugged into the world’s most advanced PlayStation, one which you can easily leave.
Some users log in and out of terminals in Snow Crash, but “gargoyles,” a class of characters who wear reality-enhancing devices at all times, never truly do. For gargoyles, who inhabit the Metaverse at all times, there is no “logging on” and “logging off.” Stephenson writes:
Gargoyles are no fun to talk to. They never finish a sentence. They are adrift in a laser-drawn world, scanning retinas in all directions, doing background checks on everyone within a thousand yards, seeing everything in visual light, infrared, millimeter-wave radar, and ultrasound all at once.
By making real designs to usher in the Metaverse, Silicon Valley is trying to turn us all into gargoyles.
French philosopher Jean Baudrillard had a word for this condition: hyperreality, where reality and simulation are so seamlessly blended together that there’s no clear distinction between worlds. Ultimately, he speculated, the difference wouldn’t matter because people would derive more meaning and value from the simulated world anyway.
If the Metaverse can’t be separated from real life, then the Metaverse is real life, to the point where the term “Metaverse” itself eventually fades away and the constructed reality is rendered invisible. Consider how capitalism became something like the West’s version of Windows, an operating system quietly running in the background in the neoliberal era. The End of Reality could become the new End of History.
Can you imagine the power of those pulling the strings of this new reality? Zuckerberg can.
Some regard the Metaverse as nothing but vaporware. After Zuckerberg’s announcement several critics, including on the Left, have dismissed it as “digital hokum” or a boondoggle “for babies,” as Gawker sneered.
A generation ago, many boomers and young Gen Xers shrugged off news about the coming of the original internet or laughed at the idea that it would change society forever. I know this personally because, in the winter of 1994, I wrote a feature for my high school newspaper with the headline, “What Is the Internet?” and it earned a lot of confused looks. But then a funny thing happened: The nerds won, and the internet actually did change everything.
The evidence that Web 3.0 is on its way is everywhere. Over the last two decades, we’ve increasingly abandoned shared physical and public spaces — what Baudrillard called the “desert of the real” — for the ecstasies of hyperreality and experiences mediated through screens. Ever wonder why we need the word “lived” as a modifier placed before “experience” now?
When Vanity Fair asked Stephenson about his novels predicting the current age, he said, “The practice of going around hunched over a rectangle in your hand is completely normal now, and when I see somebody in a car or walking down the street hundreds of feet away, I can tell that they’re texting just by their posture.”
COVID-19 pandemic policies like quarantine and social distancing have shifted the move to a digital-first society into hyperdrive. During lockdown, average digital device usage increased by five hours a day, with heavy users glued to their devices for about 17.5 hours a day. Zoom now has 300 million users, compared to just 10 million in December 2019. Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon — the Big Four of the information economy — are now “too big to fail,” just as the nation’s top-tier banks and manufacturers were in the late aughts.
Even many protest groups like QAnon, the boogaloo bois, and antifa have a hyperreal quality, as if they emerged from the fringe corners of the internet and onto the streets like costumed online avatars come to life. The surge in popularity of Reddit-driven meme stocks, cryptocurrency, and NFTs hint that our economy is headed that way too, with Elon Musk able to make or break fortunes with a single tweet. In a very real sense, digital work, play, shopping, socialization, and politics are already replacing rather than supplementing their physical world equivalents.
Video games already have a Metaverse-like quality. In 2020, rap star Travis Scott performed five virtual concerts in Fortnite, which Epic Games claims were attended by 27.7 million players. Roughly 1.5 million people a day play Axie Infinity, a game in which users fork over hundreds of real dollars to raise Pokémon-like creatures on their PCs in the hopes of breeding a rare type that can earn high amounts of crypto. A not-insignificant number of young people are dropping out of the formal economy to farm Axies all day. To phrase it in Twitter-speak: the gig economy is tired; the leisure economy is wired.
Silicon Valley sees the foundation for the Metaverse already in place, and perhaps with good reason. A change as fundamental as this “is always a multi-decade, iterative process,” Ball wrote, “and yet, despite that fact, there is an unmistakable sense over the past few years that the foundational pieces are coming together in a way that feels very new and very different.”
Silicon Valley titans like Bezos, Musk, and Zuckerberg believe they’re ultimately mankind’s saviors, not its villains. They grew up fans of Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek, a work of televised science fiction that envisioned space as a blank canvas for an improved society that favored exploration without colonialism, diplomacy over war, and commerce minus greed.
Bezos and Musk aren’t so bold as to reach for space socialism-lite. They seem to have resigned themselves to the grim fact that the earth is dying and, therefore, humanity needs an escape pod to a brave new world operating under the same old free-market capitalism, only with an even greater emphasis on the “free” part.
But while space is fascinating to study from afar, as a place to live, breathe, and thrive, well — it sucks. Perhaps that’s why Mark Zuckerberg is opting out of this particular space race and focusing on the Metaverse. After all, Facebook’s own history proves that it’s much easier to colonize minds than Mars.
Zuckerberg’s own brand of techno-utopianism isn’t new. It’s a reboot of the ideology of the post-’60s cyber-prophets who saw the World Wide Web as a potential nether realm of New Age liberalism and liberation, an almost spiritual journey that would free us from borders and laws and break the chains of body and mind. But his version is watered down.
“I believe the world is better when more people have a voice to share their experiences, and when traditional gatekeepers like governments and media companies don’t control what ideas can be expressed,” Zuckerberg said in 2019. Notice that he speaks of individual free expression and not capital, labor, or even democracy. That’s the kind of internet we’ve inherited: a monopolistic digital shopping mall rather than a commune. And the society it’s helped produce resembles Snow Crash, not Star Trek.
A careful reader of Stephenson’s novel will know this is tragic. In the bleak universe of Snow Crash, the government has retreated into irrelevance and the land is divided up into franchised city-states ruled by big businesses. The triumph of anarcho-capitalism has in turn led to skyrocketing inequality and deteriorated material conditions, while the Metaverse provides the masses with a refuge — or at least a distraction — from the fallen society around them.