The Metaverse Is Dystopian – But For Big Tech, It’s A Business Opportunity | John Naughton
OOnce upon a time, a very long time ago – until Thursday, October 28, 2021 to be precise – the term “metaverse” was known only to lexicographers and science fiction enthusiasts. And then, suddenly, it was everywhere. How come? Simply this: Mark Zuckerberg, the supreme head of Facebook, pissed off to see only bad news about his company in the media, announced that he was changing his name to Meta and would now put all his efforts – plus 10 billion dollars ( £7bn) and thousands of engineers – to build a parallel universe called the Metaverse.
And then, because the tech industry and the media that chronicles its doings are essentially herds of mimetic sheep, the metaverse has suddenly become the newest thing. It was news to Neal Stephenson, the writer who coined the term in his 1992 novel, Snowfall. “Since there seems to be growing confusion about this,” he tweeted, “I have nothing to do with anything FB is implying in the metaverse other than the obvious fact that they use a term that I coined in Snow Crash.There was no communication between me and FB and no business relationship.
In a 2017 interview with vanity loungeStephenson modestly said of Snowfall that he was “just doing shit”. If so, shit. The book is not only a great read, but oddly prescient. It takes place in a United States where the government has more or less disintegrated and where everything is run by societies that function like principalities in medieval Europe. The CIA merged with the Library of Congress to become the CIC, a for-profit, all-knowing organization (Palantir, anyone?)
The novel opens with an unforgettable car chase in which the main character, Hiro Protagonist, who works for the Mafia’s pizza delivery conglomerate, races desperately to deliver a pizza on time (Deliveroo?). Failure to deliver within 30 minutes of placing an order earns you a death sentence. The chase is therefore a life-and-death struggle as Hiro pilots his GPS-equipped electric car through the streets of Los Angeles before running out of time and facing the wrath of the crowd. And this was written in the early 1990s.
But the really intriguing thing about the new metaverse obsession is that it seems to have missed the fact that the future envisioned in Stephenson’s novel is deeply, deeply dystopian. Its metaverse is a vision of how a virtual reality-based internet, resembling a massively multiplayer online game, could evolve. Like many multiplayer games, it is populated by user-controlled avatars, as well as system daemons. And status in this virtual world is a function of two things: access to restricted environments like the Black Sun, an exclusive metaverse club, and technical acumen, which is often demonstrated by the sophistication of one’s avatar.
The irony of this metaphor solemnly promoted by the boss of a powerful technology company seems to have escaped the industry. The original video in which Zuckerberg shows himself in the metaverse defies parody. “Imagine,” he grumbles, “you put on your glasses or headphones and you’re instantly in your home space. [sic]. There is a part of your physical home recreated virtually. It has things that are only possible virtually and it has an incredibly inspiring view of whatever you find most beautiful. It continues like this for 11 minutes. Keep a sick bag handy in case you decide to check it out.
If it was a parody, you’d give it full marks, but apparently it’s meant to be serious. And because Zuck is surrounded by the reality-distorting field created by vast wealth, other seemingly rational tech moguls are scrambling to pay homage to his fantasy. The other day, for example, Microsoft, until then a serious computer company, shelled out nearly $70 billion of shareholders’ money to buy computer game company Activision Blizzard. Various rationalizations have been offered for this madness. The logic is that computer gaming is a huge industry in which Microsoft already has a significant presence. Owning Activision, which makes some of the most popular titles, including Call of Duty and candy Crush Saga, would make it an even more important player. CQFD.
But there is another, more intriguing interpretation, which is that Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella caught the metaverse bug. On the one hand, metaverses are, by Stephenson’s definition, essentially immersive virtual reality environments and the gaming industry specializes in creating such environments. On the other hand, Nadella has been heard talking about his desire to create a “corporate metaverse”. From this perspective, feverish visions loom – avatars of tech moguls in pinstripe suits and chinos stalking each other in virtual boardrooms, battling with lightsabers. And then you realize that these people don’t need a parallel universe, meta or otherwise. They already live in one.
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