If you’ve skimmed the tech press in recent months, it’s been difficult to escape articles about the breathlessly overhyped promise of “the metaverse,” a vast digital space that combines virtual and augmented reality. For the consumer tech and entertainment industries, the metaverse has been deputized as the next big thing, hybrid virtual/physical worlds that provide environments for people to socialize, live, and work.
There is potentially nothing that can’t happen in the metaverse, from buying a virtual house to playing games with friends to having a meeting with your fellow remote colleagues. If that sounds like a recipe for banality, some major companies are hoping you’ll think otherwise and be willing to spend hours each day in their boutique digital worlds, while spending some cash as you go. Sure, you could have a regular Zoom meeting with a colleague, but imagine sitting next to them at a virtual table, in an embodied avatar with movable arms. Excited yet?
For Facebook, which has helped lead the metaverse charge (different companies are competing to establish their own monetizable metaverses), this experiment is supposed to be a new great frontier, a way to combine the company’s disparate investments in virtual reality, social media, messaging, and collaboration tools. Mark Zuckerberg has told interviewers that Facebook, in the coming years, “will effectively transition from ... being a social media company to being a metaverse company.”
But for Facebook, the metaverse also serves another crucial purpose: allowing the company to distract from its proliferating legal, regulatory, and reputational problems. Even as antitrust regulators circle, Facebook is attempting to sell itself as hugely ambitious and transformative, rather than a surveillance-capitalist juggernaut deserving of being broken up. Every article about Facebook’s metaverse initiative—including this one, perhaps—is an article that doesn’t focus on the company’s deleterious impact on democracy and public life. At the same time, it’s important to understand where the metaverse propaganda fits into the company’s plans—not least its plans for all of us—and why billions will be spent to try to convince us to take it seriously.
So far, Facebook’s flagship metaverse product is a virtual office space that works with the company’s Oculus goggles. Called Horizon Workrooms—a successor to the morbidly named Infinite Office—it’s part of a growing suite of tools that will combine various screen experiences into one seamless digital world. Zuckerberg himself has been on a vigorous media tour, demonstrating the technology in virtual tête-à-têtes with people like CBS’s Gayle King. “It basically gives you the opportunity to, you know, sit around a table with people and work and brainstorm and whiteboard ideas,” said Zuckerberg, never one to refuse a platitude. “It’s this pretty amazing experience where, you know, you feel like you’re really right there with your colleagues.”
While virtual meetings may hold little charm, the metaverse, in its potentially all-encompassing nature, clearly offers some unusual possibilities. Maybe it could be fun to attend a concert with millions of people, or to go to a theme park and then continue the experience at home. (And think about the advertising and upselling opportunities if someone is spending most of their waking hours fully immersed in a virtual world!) But it is also largely digital hokum, another way for tech companies to colonize even more of our attention and shape the contours of our lives. After all, it’s hard to turn away from a screen when it’s strapped to your face.
There are many reasons why all of this might simply collapse in a heap of overblown marketing and wasted R&D budgets. There is the initial problem of the headsets—their cost, especially, and the discomfort some people feel wearing them, which can include dizziness or other motion sickness. (VR sickness has a gender divide, typically affecting women more than men.) There are other practicalities, including that not everyone wants to strap one of these devices onto their faces, and that many people lack the quiet space and computer power to have a full VR experience. Putting on a VR headset to take part in a meeting also implies an almost bodily devotion to work in a time when many are preaching new forms of flexibility. For a work-from-home parent, for example, life in the metaverse may interfere with parenting and the many other duties they juggle.
Whether the metaverse is worthwhile is almost secondary to the fact that it’s coming, if not already here. Tech and video game companies like Epic, Roblox, Disney, and, of course, Facebook are investing billions in these virtual worlds. One could imagine companies deciding to subsidize their own VR goggles and other devices—much in the way they have done with smart speakers like Google Home—in order to get consumers to step foot in their world. If the metaverse now has a distinctly early adopter feel, it may soon be “democratized” by offering inducements for less moneyed users to spend time and attention in these environments. And if you can’t afford a nice piece of digital property, or the goggles with which to view it, surely there will be opportunities to earn one’s keep by performing virtual tasks, mining cryptocurrencies, surrendering personal data, watching ads, or minting NFTs. These kinds of microlabor, which have been one of the more depressingly innovative aspects of the internet economy, lend themselves all too well to the metaverse and its form of overheated digital capitalism.
The tech industry has been singularly successful at producing things that occupy our time and attention without solving fundamental problems. (Why fix something when you can exploit and monetize it?) The metaverse is, depending on one’s view, a thrilling digital escape from our world or a candy-coated overlay on our existing, flawed one. Either way, it is a carefully constructed fiction, Silicon Valley’s way of ignoring the inequities and indignities of daily life in favor of collective digital fantasies. As the world heats, the chasm of inequality widens, our infrastructure crumbles, and the pandemic continues to disrupt social and work life, tech companies are asking us to retreat inward. In the name of some dubious ethic of virtual sociality, they want us to stay in our homes, put our preferred corporate goggles on, and—what? Play house and do work under the all-seeing gaze of Zuck and company?
However innovative the underlying technology, it is a pitiful vision. With Covid showing no signs of being eradicated, we are undoubtedly headed toward a new normal. But if the metaverse is supposed to be part of it, we should demand something better, something we actually need.