Take my hand, darling, and off we go into the metaverse. It’s a whole new world…or at least it’s a new world…maybe a brave new world?
Enter Mark Zuckerberg, that Titanic captain of industry, who last week released a video introducing his latest plan to leave his Nike shoeprint upon reality. It’s called the metaverse, and while even the savviest tech writers are grasping to explain what it is, it appears to be the fusion of our world with the virtual. Big Zuck wants what’s on our screens to spill over into real life. We lived on farms, then we lived in cities, now we will live in “home spaces” with digitally rendered pterodactyls flying just outside the windows.
The fact that Zuckerberg uses the term “home space” in his video is your first sign that this is all headed in the wrong direction. Still, the metaverse as he shows it does look pretty cool. Zuckerberg hopscotches from a space station with a holographic robot to SoHo where 3D art springs off a wall to a forest where for some reason fish are flying around. All the while, an annoying number of people are attempting to call and message him, perhaps in an effort to make the metaverse seem as comfortably similar to current online life as possible. Yet as Zuckerberg makes clear, he has far bigger designs than just that Slack channel where no one ever shuts up.
The most remarkable quality in the metaverse, Zuckerberg says, will be presence. It will feel like your friends are there with you, right down to their body language and tics, even if they’re just avatars, even if the real people are on the other side of the planet. You’ll be able to change your appearance, too, test out new skins and clothes. Gender and racial fluidity will presumably become a reality; Rachel Dolezal will grow wings and turn purple. And there won’t be anything so primitive as “walking” in the metaverse; instead you’ll be able to teleport around at will.
It’s fitting that as Zuckerberg explains all this, the backdrop is of a lush Caribbean island with palm trees. The man comes off as no one so much as John Hammond in Jurassic Park, except without Jeff Goldblum on hand to tell him to knock it off before he gets the fat guy killed. And just as Hammond tried to play God, is that not what Zuckerberg is doing? What he proposes is a fundamental reordering of reality, seeking to abolish qualities that are inextricably human, from skin to spatial distance to the immutability of race and sex.
Zuckerberg might counter that it’s more democratic than that, that he’s allowing everyone to play God, to create their own realities as they see fit. Yet it seems inevitable that pantheism will ultimately give way to monotheism here. Someone will have to rule over the metaverse, enforce the rules and make sure the BDSM LGBTQIA2S+ kink holograms are up to code. And why do I get the feeling that our new overlord will be clad not in a flowing robe but a tight-fitting T-shirt?
As author of the metaverse, Zuckerberg is thus claiming more power for himself than anyone in history has ever wielded. If the whole world can be, and does become, infused with the virtual, then he who controls the virtual will control the world. And that power will need to be exercised once the possibilities come to fruition. Scene: several white nationalists are sitting around a table. One of them summons up a hologram of a black man and they stand and begin to close in. Scene: a boy has just been rejected by a girl. Sulking, he goes home and summons up the closest virtual version of her that he can before proceeding to remove her clothes one by one.
If all that seems farfetched, consider that a livestreamed Capitol riot and OnlyFans would have sounded equally implausible 30 years ago. And even if those exact scenarios never come to pass, there’s no question that whatever the metaverse ends up looking like, it will result in unintended consequences the likes of which we can’t now comprehend. And that’s the thing: Zuckerberg has been here before. He is here now, with his current social media platforms. Facebook has upended our politics and blurred the very concept of truth. Instagram has bequeathed a rash of body image issues in teenage girls. We still haven’t figured out how to tame these technologies, yet on we hurtle towards the next innovation.
It’s as though Dr. Frankenstein, instead of chasing his monster across the tundra, decided the real problem was that it wasn’t texture-immersive enough. It’s here that a metaverse-positive libertarian with leopard spots and two Gamorrean bodyguards might object: you don’t have to consent to the virtual world. You can just shut it off and go about your day amid the passé solids and liquids and gases. Yet sympathetic though I am to that argument, I just don’t think it’s enough here. The way technological innovation works is that eventually there isn’t a choice. If the metaverse works out as planned, soon companies will be requiring holographic meetings, grocery stores will integrate the virtual into the shopping experience…
And something very fundamental will have been lost. Coleridge famously contrasted a man who calls a waterfall “sublime” with one who calls it “pretty.” In the metaverse, we’ll soon be yawning at the waterfall altogether and wondering where in the hell that holographic Aquaman got off to. Reality ought to be enough on its own, without augmentation, without risking all the Michael Crichton-esque repercussions. I can show you the world, honey. Just don’t look over the side and glimpse all the flying fish riots breaking out below.