Metaverse Madness

Late last month Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that the company was changing its name to Meta Platforms Inc., or simply Meta for short. The timing of the announcement led many commentators to interpret the re-branding as an attempt by Facebook leadership to direct attention away from the leaked documents and whistleblower testimony that were drawing scrutiny to the company at the time. Zuckerberg himself downplayed the coincidental timing and described the primary motivation of the name change as minimizing confusion that may be generated by the corporate entity sharing a name with one of its many app services.

The October re-branding announcement sparked a deluge of commentary and a spike in usage of the term “metaverse.” Yet the notion of the metaverse has been floated by Zuckerberg and others far in advance of the recent name change. In January of last year venture capitalist and essayist Matthew Ball penned an oft-cited overview of the looming metaverse. Ball’s primer presents a definition of the metaverse and surveys the fundamental characteristics of what the metaverse both is and is not. The primary case study in this account is Epic Games, purveyor of the uber-popular Fortnite. Part of what sets Fornite apart, Ball says, is its role as a virtual gamespace where players engage and interact with an unparalleled range of pop culture intellectual property (IP).

“To this end, Fortnite is one of the few places where the IP of Marvel and DC intersects. You can literally wear a Marvel character’s costume inside Gotham City, while interacting with those wearing legally licensed NFL uniforms. This sort of thing hasn’t really happened before. But it will be critical to the Metaverse.”

The image of gamers clad in licensed superhero regalia while interacting in pop culture themed environments brings the movie Ready Player One to mind, and Ball actually refers to Ready Player One to illustrate how aspects of the metaverse may be reflected in the popular imagination. Last Spring, in the halcyon early pandemic days when I still thought my stay with my family would only last a month or two, I watched Ready Player One with my mom and sister. I had seen the film once before, and the story itself was the same bland trifle that I remembered. However, watching the movie in 2020, in the context of a global pandemic that has sent everyone indoors to more fully interface with virtual fantasy worlds mediated by various screens, the film seemed chillingly vital. When the film concluded I stated to my viewing companions that while the movie wasn’t very good, it might be among the most important in terms of reflecting the zeitgeist.

The not-too-distant future of Ready Player One seemed shockingly more possible in 2020 than when it was first released in 2018. Drones deliver pizzas amidst the ramshackle housing towers comprised of motley stacks of mobile homes. Within these rickety domiciles the inhabitants don VR headsets that enable users to ignore their deteriorating real world surroundings by immersing their consciousness in virtual dream worlds. Furthermore, the film’s emphasis on recognizable pop culture artifacts, decontextualized media signifiers, and reverence for the minutiae of fictional worlds seems highly resonant with our contemporary media and consumer culture. Our cultural landscape is dominated by an endless proliferation of cinematic universes most pervasively characterized by the remediation or reinvention of established franchises or IP, a cynical appropriation of memory and experience where nostalgia is mined for brand recognition. Our collective imagination seems bereft of novel or alternative visions to an extent that does not merely portend a stultifying homogenization of entertainment content but also implicates our very capacities for imagining and the horizons of our possible futures.

Facebook signaled a clear interest in Ready Player One-style VR gaming when it bought virtual reality company Oculus in 2014. Following the Meta name change Zuckerberg talked about research into material for a body suit like the characters wear in the movie, and the company is also working on haptic gloves.

Gaming applications do seem like a ripe avenue for metaverse initiatives. I’ve talked about Niantic on this blog for several years, not only in relation to the role of Pokemon Go in popularizing augmented reality but also regarding their ambitious plans for further AR ventures. Earlier this month Niantic announced that it was launching an AR developer kit designed to support development for a “real-world metaverse.” This news is not interesting in and of itself; what I did find interesting was that Niantic CEO John Hanke’s announcement of the initiative described the metaverse as a “dystopian nightmare.”

“As a society, we can hope that the world doesn’t devolve into the kind of place that drives sci-fi heroes to escape into a virtual one — or we can work to make sure that doesn’t happen. At Niantic, we choose the latter. We believe we can use technology to lean into the ‘reality’ of augmented reality — encouraging everyone, ourselves included, to stand up, walk outside, and connect with people and the world around us. This is what we humans are born to do, the result of two million years of human evolution, and as a result those are the things that make us the happiest. Technology should be used to make these core human experiences better — not to replace them.”

While I remain ambivalent about Niantic’s operations and ultimate goals, it is nice to see Hanke acknowledge how these dominant metaverse imaginaries seem to support a retreat from our physical environments in favor of purely virtual spaces. Zuckerberg’s promotion of his metaverse ambitions arrived shortly after his fellow billionaires like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Richard Branson were criticized for their respective vanity space-faring projects, activities that seem like extremely expensive and indulgent rocket hobbies in light of the ongoing precarity and existential anxiety being experienced by people around the world. While the space-faring billionaires seem to have elected to abandon the doomed Earth by escaping to another planet, Zuckerberg offers escape into the metaverse. As James D. Walsh put it in an editorial:

“There are some very uncomfortable things about all of this. We live in a capitalist society — money equals options. The people with the most options in the world, specifically Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Mark Zuckerberg, either want to be off the planet or they want to create a different universe on this planet. It feels like the mother of all abdications. “We don’t want to improve the world, we want to go to a different world.” It seems somewhat nihilistic and strange.”

There are obvious ideological implications here (it is also depressingly unsurprising that Zuckerberg’s demo video announcing the metaverse centered around a work meeting…even after more than a year of the horrors of remote work and endless zoom meetings, Zuck can’t imagine an application of the metaverse beyond what amounts to a Second Life room for interacting with colleagues and being surveilled by your boss.). Some notable differences between these two visions of escape routes from civilizational collapse: the metaverse at least offers greater accessibility in the sense that many more people could realistically gain access to the technology as compared with the elite few who might end up migrating to Mars. However, the rocket jockeys have the benefit of actually having somewhere to go. The metaverse (which, it should be noted, is nascent at best) might promise virtual spaces for gaming, interacting, and (*sigh*) working, but it cannot offer a space to sleep, or food to eat, or air to breathe. In light of the social strains, environmental catastrophes, and other existential threats posed by the ideology of limitless growth meeting its inherent contradictions, the ultimate difference between these two abdications of capital may just be their respective timeframes.

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