Is the Metaverse an Empty Promise?

Tech titans say the metaverse will open up new dimensions of human connection and creativity, but the reality is much bleaker as platforms exploit and monetize more and more of users’ lives and data.

The scene is supervillain chic: a sterile midcentury aerie perched somewhere on the highest point of a private island, surrounded by glassy, frictionless water. Mark Zuckerberg gazes out into the lifeless nothing of it all. His avatar stands on a ledge just outside the window, dead behind the eyes, just like him. With a studied flick of his wrist, he shuffles through a few iterations of his avatar, through which we behold the limited reach of his imagination. Mark Zuckerberg in a skeleton onesie. Mark Zuckerberg in a space suit. No, this is a work thing: He settles on an avatar dressed exactly as he is, in a fitted crewneck and black pants. 

Mark steps into his new reality, a virtual place in cyberspace that the folks in marketing have decided is called the “metaverse.” The word, of course, is cribbed from Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, a novel about a massively multiplayer online game that entertains desperate people in a world owned by corporate overlords and overrun by mercenaries. It’s an escape from the meat-a-verse (the real world), but not really. The poor wear low-resolution avatars, the rich gate their virtual communities, same as it ever was. This isn’t the first time Silicon Valley has missed the point of its favorite science fiction novels—don’t get me started on cyberpunk—but it may be the most blatantly illiterate. 

Meta’s marquee product, Horizon Worlds, just came out of beta. It’s been described as Roblox–meets–Ready Player One, a cartoon VR world in which users are encouraged to build custom spaces and items. It’s a similar structure to other metaverse platforms like The Sandbox, Decentraland, and Mirandus. As an innovation, these platforms are nothing new: Second Life has existed for nearly 20 years, and multiplayer virtual realities predate social media, even the Web itself. Zuckerberg’s vision is superficial. “Our creative tools were built to help you bring your wildest dreams to life,” the Horizon site promises. But this is still Facebook, despite the name change. Its users remain the core product—only now they’re expected to build the platform, too.

In a 1978 lecture, the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick proposed a provisional definition for reality itself: that which doesn’t go away when you stop thinking about it. By this metric, the metaverse, stored on secure servers, is quite real. In fact, the definition of reality as mere persistence seems to be key to Zuckerberg’s conception of the metaverse, not to mention that of his tech colleagues. It’s a place where the fixed identities imposed on us by the old Web, already entangled with the programmatic advertising machine, are given a more machine-readable form. 

This metaverse isn’t a new world, only a way of prolonging the grift of social media. The data we will generate building our so-called “wildest dreams” will be hugely valuable, and when the targeted ads come, they will be impossible to escape. A skeleton onesie may hang in the closet, but it’s just there to suggest fun, like a Burning Man outfit stashed away with the memory of freedom. This is a work thing. Put on the same outfit you’re wearing right now. 

Claire L. Evans is a writer and musician. She is the singer and co-songwriter of the Grammy-nominated pop group YACHT; the founding editor of Terraform, VICE’s science fiction vertical; and the author of Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women who Made the Internet.

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