From Dystopia to Facebook: How Desirable is the Metaverse?

Lidia Zuin


Disclaimer: This text is a translation. The original can be found here.

By the end of June, Mark Zuckerberg declared that Facebook’s next step is to become a metaverse-oriented social media platform. In other words, Mark is stepping closer to virtual reality and immersive technologies in general.

By scaling from text to images, videos and immersive media, Facebook has been following the same steps of other Silicon Valley companies, but this is no news if we consider that Zuckerberg bought Oculus in 2015 as a means to add this knowledge to his enterprise. The return to this discussion happened, however, under a new light: maybe the metaverse isn’t so desirable if we consider that this technology was envisioned in fictional stories that have a dystopian background.

Cyberpunk was a science fiction genre that made the concept of virtual reality popular through the term “cyberspace” proposed by William Gibson in the 1980s. Metaverse came later, as a proposition made by Neal Stephenson in the 1990s. Before that, other works like “Simulacron-3” (1964) have also investigated this idea, but it was in the 80s that the concept of a new immersive technological space, with no limits to imagination, colonized the popular imagination.

Despite the fact that the popularity of the topic reduced during the following decades, it is still latent for the fact that virtual reality never really established itself as a widely adopted technology. When Facebook bought Oculus and HTC released Vive, however, there was a new perception in the market — being it from the investors’ perspective or in the fandom.

In an analysis published by Vice, Brian Merchant ponders that the premise behind metaverse and the business of making this technology a reality is not necessarily something positive and desirable. While briefly describing the plot of “Snow Crash,” novel where the term metaverse was proposed, Merchant ignores the fact that Stephenson wrote the book as a satire to cyberpunk. Additionally, the writer was later hired as chief futurist at Magic Leap, a company that Merchant criticizes in his essay, by the way.

Still, cyberpunk was born a genre that includes contemporary discussions such as the emergence of cybernetic technology and the developments of capitalism to its latest stages. As in the case of other cyberpunk titles, certain actual questions are exaggerated to serve a metaphorical effect, but this is a resource that does not necessarily suggest an intensification of such issues.

All in all, we must always remember that science fiction writers do not foresee the future — something that Merchant seems to ignore in his analysis. After all, he uses as a main argument the important fact that many tech entrepreneurs have spent their early years reading science fiction stories and that, consequently, they might have developed a dream (or fetish) to live or immerse themselves in worlds such as those imagined ones.

It is thus no coincidence that the novel “Ready Player One,” by Ernest Cline, describes Oasis as a neural network inspired by 80 movies and 2000s games. However, this nostalgia can be better explained by psychoanalysis than from a technological perspective, same when it comes to science fiction as an artistic genre.

In another similar analysis, David Karpf argues that virtual reality is, among technologies, the one that best represents a white rich kid, with famous and wealthy parents (hey there, X Æ A-12?). The fact that so many issues, failures and disappointments were faced throughout the history of virtual reality and immersive technologies as a whole is something that makes Karpf believe that the persistence and faith in the metaverse is a view of the future that is much more oriented by a whim than necessarily by a desirable or beneficial plan.

However, both Merchant and Karpf do not consider the following two points: Amara’s Law (“we tend to overestimate the effects of technology in the short term and underestimate the effects in the long term”) and the fact that, if the metaverse really fulfills its prophecy, it won’t be the responsible for the intensification of violent behavior and personality deviations, for example.

At first glance, the argument here looks very similar to that one which says that videogames are responsible for incentivizing crimes and violence. But, in fact, human beings never needed a computer, internet or virtual reality to venture into these deviations — the difference is that, maybe, the internet only made this more accessible.

This video summarizes much of this idea that I just mentioned (warning: NSFW); it is a somewhat shocking content that no longer surprises those who are used to navigating through the “chans” and the deep web. In other words, reality online is unfortunately much worse than influencers fasting for seven days to lose weight while people are starving in their own country.

Merchant also mentions that both “Snow Crash” and “Ready Player One” envision a metaverse under one same 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.”

Well, if that is the case, then Unity doesn’t need to invest in research and development of immersive realities anymore: welcome to the “metaverse” of social media. I believe that the decision to develop a metaverse is not as dichotomous as some may suggest. Even in Spielberg’s movie for “Ready Player One,” we are invited to reflect about the fact that the protagonist lives in a precarious residential complex and that both he and his romantic interest use avatars that transcend their actual physical appearance and “offline” personality.

However, this is not the central point of the history and, as a matter of fact, this topic is indeed shadowed by the lights of the metaverse and its nostalgic references. Still, this does not mean that only flatten and dichotomous narratives written to condition their audience are efficient to provoke criticism and discern between what is supposedly good or bad. The truth is that the narrative behind the arrival of the metaverse is dangerous because it is now a corporate effort of billionaires and not a subcultural effort anymore — just like the internet used to be.

Douglas Rushkoff is an author that has been stressing this transition of scenario from the 90s to these days when it comes to the so-called exponential technologies. In the 90s and beginning of the 2000s, there was an almost utopian faith in the cyberspace or the metaverse as something that could rather enable the transcendence of human species. Currently, however, Rushkoff sees this context under a more critical light as a matter of class struggle and late capitalism.

Consequently, criticism rotates around the same cliche that these wealthy people should be using their fortune to end hunger and social inequality, when, in fact, they are already donating part of their wealth to social projects (take Bill Gates, for instance). But these donations do not make them less millionaires or incapable of achieving the rank of a billionaire eventually. This was the same discussion raised months ago when Jeff Bezos went to space, when, in fact, we forget that, historically, technologies are always expensive and inaccessible in the beginning, but they tend to grow cheaper with time, as argued by the physicist Michio Kaku in “Physics of the Future.”

Just or unjust, this is nevertheless what has been observed throughout history. Still, that does not mean that we can not or should not criticize such logic and try to subvert it. After all, to oppose the mechanics of capitalism as it has been working until these days does not mean we need to opt for primitivism. I say that because, oftentimes, people understand that the opposite of capitalism is objectively communism or socialism and that both systems necessarily implicate an elegy to precariousness. However, increasingly more theorists are inviting people to consider the possibility of a technological future that could be run under a more equal and prosperous economic and political regime.

Finally, an important point raised by Karpf is that more than being able to develop the metaverse to the letter as it was described in science fiction, these companies first need to understand what is the purpose of creating the technology anyways. More than satisfying a childhood dream, what is the purpose and what benefits does it bring to people in the short, medium and long run? This is about weighing proposals and future scenarios, it is about pondering what is desirable or not.

This is the task that some futurologists are pursuing while using methodologies such as design fiction as a means to envision scenarios inspired by science fiction, but enriched by the analytic lenses of social sciences, for instance. In other words, this is much more than deciding if the metaverse is something inevitably negative or deliberately impossible to avoid. We must consider what agreements and adjustments shall be made in order to make technology(ies) beneficial for more sides and profiles.

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Lidia Zuin

Brazilian journalist, MA in Semiotics and PhD in Visual Arts. Researcher and essayist. Technical and science fiction writer.