The metaverse promises to bring us an abundance of realities. There’ll be the recalcitrant old status-quo-ante reality — the hard-edged one that Dr. Johnson encountered when he kicked that rock to refute Bishop Berkeley’s theory of radical solipsism. (Let’s call that one “OG Reality.”) Then there’ll be Virtual Reality, the 3-D dreamscape you’ll enter when you strap on VR goggles or, somewhat further in the future, tap your temple thrice to activate your Oculus Soma brain plug-in. Then there’ll be Augmented Reality, where OG Reality will be overlaid with a transparent, interactive digital-interface layer that will act kind of like the X-Ray Spex you used to be able to order through ads at the back of comic books, but with better optics. And there’ll be something called Mixed Reality, which actually encompasses a spectrum of realities with different blends of OG, Augmented, and Virtual. These will be the four main categories of what might be termed Shared Realities — realities that can be inhabited by many people (or their avatars) simultaneously. Along with the Shared Realities there will be a more or less infinite number of Personal Realities — ones of the Berkeleian type that will be inhabited or otherwise experienced by only a single mind, either embodied or disembodied. (Things get a little tricky here, as a Personal Reality can, and often will, be coterminous with a Shared Reality.) All of these realities will also exist in a plethora of brand-name variations — Apple Augmented, Meta Augmented, Microsoft Augmented, Google Augmented, QAnon Augmented, and so on. I suspect that there will also be a wide array of Deep Fake Realities ginned up by neural-net algorithms for various political or commercial purposes. Maybe Open AI will even come up with an online Deep Fake Reality Generator that will democratize reality creation.
If T.S. Eliot was correct when he wrote, in Four Quartets, that “humankind cannot bear very much reality,” then we’re going to be screwed. I mean, I got a headache just writing that last paragraph. But maybe what Eliot really meant has more to do with quality than quantity. Maybe he was saying that what we can’t bear is too much depth in reality, not too many variations of reality. If that’s the case, then everything should be cool. The reality explosion will suit us just fine. The metaverse will do for reality what the web did for information: give us so many options that we don’t have to experience any of them very deeply at all. We’ll be able to reality surf, zipping out of a reality whenever it becomes too “heavy,” as the hippies used to say. Remember how happy Zuckerberg’s avatar looked when he was flying around the metaverse during that Facebook Connect keynote last fall? That’ll be us. Untethered, aloof, free. The great thing about the metaverse is that when you kick a rock in it, nothing is refuted.
This is the fourth installment in the series “Meanings of the Metaverse,” which began here and continued here and here. The fifth installment will appear in due course.
In the fall of 1917, the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, now in middle age and having twice had marriage proposals turned down, first by his great love Maud Gonne and next by Gonne’s daughter Iseult, offered his hand to a well-off young Englishwoman named Georgie Hyde-Lees. She accepted, and the two were wed a few weeks later, on October 20, in a small ceremony in London.
Hyde-Lees was a psychic, and four days into their honeymoon she gave her husband a demonstration of her ability to channel the words of spirits through automatic writing. Yeats was fascinated by the messages that flowed through his wife’s pen, and in the ensuing years the couple held more than 400 such seances, the poet poring over each new script. At one point, Yeats announced that he would devote the rest of his life to interpreting the messages. “No,” the spirits responded, “we have come to give you metaphors for poetry.” And so they did, in abundance. Many of Yeats’s great late poems, with their gyres, staircases, and phases of the moon, were inspired by his wife’s mystical scribbles.
One way to think about AI-based text-generation tools like OpenAI’s GPT-3 is as clairvoyants. They are mediums that bring the words of the past into the present in a new arrangement. GPT-3 is not creating text out of nothing, after all. It is drawing on a vast corpus of human expression and, through a quasi-mystical statistical procedure (no one can explain exactly what it is doing), synthesizing all those old words into something new, something intelligible to and requiring interpretation by its interlocutor. When we talk to GPT-3, we are, in a way, communing with the dead. One of Hyde-Lees’ spirits said to Yeats, “this script has its origin in human life — all religious systems have their origin in God & descend to man — this ascends.” The same could be said of the script generated by GPT-3. It has its origin in human life; it ascends.
It’s telling that one of the first commercial applications of GPT-3, Sudowrite, is being marketed as a therapy for writer’s block. If you’re writing a story or essay and you find yourself stuck, you can plug the last few sentences of your work into Sudowrite, and it will generate the next few sentences, in a variety of versions. It may not give you metaphors for poetry (though it could), but it will give you some inspiration, stirring thoughts and opening possible new paths. It’s an automatic muse, a mechanical Georgie Hyde-Lees.
Sudowrite, and GPT-3 in general, has already been used for a lot of stunts. Kevin Roose, the New York Times technology columnist, recently used it to generate a substantial portion of a review of a mediocre new book on artificial intelligence. (The title of the review was, naturally, “A Robot Wrote this Book Review.”) Commenting on Sudowrite’s output, Roose wrote, “within a few minutes, the AI was coming up with impressively cogent paragraphs of analysis — some, frankly, better than what I could have generated on my own.”
But the potential of these AI-powered automatic writers goes far beyond journalistic parlor tricks. They promise to serve as new tools for the creation of art. One of the most remarkable pieces of writing I read this year was Vauhini Vara’s story “Ghosts” in The Believer. While locked down in 2020, Vara became obsessed with GPT-3. “I sought out examples of GPT-3’s work, and they astonished me,” she writes in an introduction to her piece. “Some of them could easily be mistaken for texts written by a human hand. In others, the language was weird, off-kilter — but often poetically so, almost truer than writing any human would produce.” Yeats would have understood.
Vara’s older sister contracted cancer in high school, and died a few years later. The experience left Vara traumatized, and, though an accomplished writer, she had never been able to write about it. But with GPT-3 she began to find the words. “I found myself irresistibly attracted to GPT-3,” she explains “— to the way it offered, without judgment, to deliver words to a writer who has found herself at a loss for them.” She began to feed GPT-3 some sentences about her sister’s illness, and the system started to weave those sentences into stories — fantastical and uncanny, but also stirring, and ultimately heartbreaking. The Believer story chronicles eight of her sessions with GPT-3. It reads as a conversation between a writer and her muse, a conversation that begins tentatively and grows richer and truer as it goes on.
At one point, after Vara confesses to feeling like “a ghost” after her sister’s death, GPT-3 continues the thought:
So I can’t describe her to you. But I can describe what it felt like to have her die. It felt like my life was an accident — or, worse, a mistake. I’d made a mistake in being born, and now, to correct it, I would have to die. I’d have to die, and someone else — a stranger — would have to live, in my place. I was that stranger. I still am.
What gives the exchange all the more resonance is the sense that, in drawing on its corpus of past human speech to generate its mysterious new pastiche, GPT-3 is expressing the pain of others who have suffered unbearable losses. Spirits are talking.
In 1987, two years before James Beniger wrote The Control Revolution, his seminal study of the role information systems play in society, he published an article called “Personalization of Mass Media and the Growth of Pseudo-Community” in the journal Communication Research. Beniger’s subject was the shift from “interpersonal communication” to “mass communication” as the basis of human relations. The shift had begun in the eighteenth century, with the introduction of high-speed printing presses and the proliferation of widely circulating newspapers and magazines; had accelerated with the arrival of broadcasting in the middle of the twentieth century; and was taking a new turn with the rise of digital media.
Beniger argued that interpersonal, or face-to-face, communication encourages the development of small, tightly knit, tightly controlled communities where individual interests are subordinate to group interests. For most of human history, society was structured along these intimate lines. Mass communication, more efficient but less intimate, encourages the development of large, loosely knit, loosely controlled communities where individual interests take precedence over group interests. As mass communication became ever more central to human experience in the second half of the twentieth century, thanks to the enormous popularity of radio and television, society restructured itself, with individualism and personal freedom becoming the governing ethos. The trend seemed to culminate in the free-wheeling, self-indulgent 1970s.
The arrival of the personal computer around 1980 put a twist in the story. By enabling mass media messages to be personalized, computers began to make mass communication feel as intimate as interpersonal communication, while also making mass communication even more efficient.* Imbuing broadcasting with an illusion of intimacy, computers expanded media’s power to structure and control human relations. Observed Beniger:
Gradually each of us has become enmeshed in superficially interpersonal relations that confuse personal with mass messages and increasingly include interactions with machines that write, speak, and even “think” with success steadily approaching that of humans. The change constitutes nothing less than a transformation of traditional community into impersonal association — toward an unimagined hybrid of the two extremes that we might call pseudo-community.
Beniger emphasized that, for broadcasters and advertisers, contriving a sense of intimacy had always been a central goal, as it served to give their programs and messages greater influence over the audience. Even during the early days of radio and TV, the performers who seemed most sincere to listeners and viewers tended to have the greatest success — whether their sincerity was real or feigned. With computer personalization, Beniger understood, individuals’ sense of personal connection with mass-media messages would strengthen. The glue of pseudo-community would be pseudo-intimacy.
Although Beniger wrote his article several years before the invention of the web and long before the arrival of social media, he was remarkably prescient about what lay ahead:
The capacity of such [digital] mass media for simulating interpersonal communication is limited only by their output technologies, computing power, and artificial intelligence; their capacity for personalization is limited only by the size and quality of data sets on the households and individuals to which they are linked.
The power of “sincerity” — today we would be more likely to use the terms “authenticity” and “relatability” — would also intensify, Beniger saw. Overwhelmed with personalized messages, people would put their trust and faith in whatever human or machine broadcaster felt most real, most genuine to them.
Mass communication skills would thereby prove as effective in influencing attitudes in behavior as would the corresponding interpersonal skills in a true “community of values.” Electorates of large nation states might even entrust mass media personalities with high public office as a consequence of this dynamic.
Beniger did not live long enough to see the rise of social media, but it seems clear he would have viewed its expansion and automation of personalized broadcasts as the fulfillment of his vision of pseudo-community. Digital media’s blurring of interpersonal and mass communication, he concluded in his article, was establishing a “new infrastructure” for societal control, on a scale far greater than was possible before. The infrastructure could be used, he wrote, “for evil or for good.”
*For a different take on the consequences of the blurring of personal and mass communication, see my recent New Atlantis article “How to Fix Social Media.”
In “Beautiful Lies: The Art of the Deep Fake,” an essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books, I examine the rise and ramifications of deep fakes through a review of two books, photographer Jonas Bendiksen‘s The Book of Veles and mathematician Noah Giansiracusa‘s How Algorithms Create and Prevent Fake News. As Bendiksen’s work shows, deep-fake technology gives artists a new tool for probing reality. As for the rest of us, the technology promises to turn reality into art.
Here’s a bit from the essay:
The spread of ever more realistic deep fakes will make it even more likely that people will be taken in by fake news and other lies. The havoc of the last few years is probably just the first act of a long misinformation crisis. Eventually, though, we’ll all begin to take deep fakes for granted. We’ll come to take it as a given that we can’t believe our eyes. At that point, deep fakes will start to have a very different and even more disorienting effect. They’ll amplify not our gullibility but our skepticism. As we lose trust in the information we receive, we’ll begin, in Giansiracusa’s words, to “doubt reality itself.” We’ll go from a world where our bias was to take everything as evidence — the world Susan Sontag described in On Photography — to one where our bias is to take nothing as evidence.
The question is, what happens to “the truth” — the quotation marks seem mandatory now — when all evidence is suspect?
I like to think of Marc Andreessen as the metaverse’s Statue of Liberty. He stands just outside the virtual world’s golden door, illuminating the surrounding darkness with a holographic torch, welcoming the downtrodden to a new and better life.
You might remember the colorful interview Andreessen gave to Substack trickster Niccolo Soldo last spring. At one point in the exchange, the high-browed venture capitalist sketches out his vision of the metaverse and makes a passionate case for its superiority to what he calls “the quote-unquote real world.” His words have taken on new weight now, in the wake of Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement that Facebook is changing its name to Meta and embarking on the construction of an all-encompassing virtual world. Andreessen, an early Facebook investor and one of its directors since 2008, is a pal of Zuckerberg’s and has long had the entrepreneur’s ear. He is, it’s been said, “something of an Obi-Wan to Zuckerberg’s Luke Skywalker.”
In describing the metaverse, Zuckerberg has stressed the anodyne. There will be virtual surfing, virtual fencing, virtual poker nights. We’ll be able to see and smile at our colleagues even while working alone in our homes. We’ll be able to fly over cities and through buildings. David Attenborough will stop by for the odd chat. Andreessen’s vision is far darker and far more radical, eschatological even. He believes the metaverse is where the vast majority of humanity will end up, and should end up. If the metaverse Zuckerberg presents for public consumption seems like a tricked-out open-world videogame, Andreessen’s metaverse comes off as a cross between an amusement park and a concentration camp.
But I should let him explain it. When Soldo asks, “Are we TOO connected these days?,” Andreessen responds:
Your question is a great example of what I call Reality Privilege. … A small percent of people live in a real-world environment that is rich, even overflowing, with glorious substance, beautiful settings, plentiful stimulation, and many fascinating people to talk to, and to work with, and to date. These are also *all* of the people who get to ask probing questions like yours. Everyone else, the vast majority of humanity, lacks Reality Privilege — their online world is, or will be, immeasurably richer and more fulfilling than most of the physical and social environment around them in the quote-unquote real world.
The Reality Privileged, of course, call this conclusion dystopian, and demand that we prioritize improvements in reality over improvements in virtuality. To which I say: reality has had 5,000 years to get good, and is clearly still woefully lacking for most people; I don’t think we should wait another 5,000 years to see if it eventually closes the gap. We should build — and we are building — online worlds that make life and work and love wonderful for everyone, no matter what level of reality deprivation they find themselves in.
It’s tempting to dismiss all this as just more bad craziness from Big Tech’s fiercely adolescent mind. But that would be a mistake. For one thing, Andreessen is revealing his worldview and his ultimate goals here, and he has the influence and the resources to, if not create the future, at least push the future in the direction he prefers. As Tad Friend pointed out in “Tomorrow’s Advance Man,” a 2015 New Yorkerprofile of Andreessen, power in Silicon Valley accrues to those who can “not just see the future but summon it.” That’s a very small group, and Andreessen is in it. For another thing, Big Tech’s bad craziness has a tendency, as we’ve seen over the past twenty-odd years, to migrate into our everyday lives. We ignore it at our eventual peril.
In Andreessen’s view, society is condemned, by natural law, to radical inequality. In a world where material goods are scarce and human will and talent unequally distributed, society will always be divided into two groups: a small elite who lead rich lives and the masses who live impoverished ones. A few eat cake; the rest get, at best, crumbs. The entire history of civilization — Andreessen’s “5,000 years” — bears this out. Any attempt, political or economic, to overcome society’s natural bias toward extreme inequality is futile. It’s just magical thinking. The only way out, the only solution, is to overturn natural law, to escape the quote-unquote real world. That was never possible — until now. Computers have given us the chance to invent a new world of virtual abundance, where history’s have-nots can experience a simulation of the “glorious substance” that history’s haves have always enjoyed. With the metaverse, civilization is at last liberated from nature and its constraints.
The migration from the real world to the virtual world, some would argue, is already well under way. The masses — at least those who can afford computers and lots of network bandwidth — are voting with their thumbs. Most American teenagers today say they would rather hang out with their friends online than in person. And large numbers of people, particularly boys and young men, are choosing to spend as much time as possible in the hyper-stimulating virtual worlds of videogames rather than in the relative tedium of the physical world. In her influential 2011 book Reality Is Broken, Jane McGonical argues that this choice is entirely rational:
The real world just doesn’t offer up as easily the carefully designed pleasures, the thrilling challenges, and the powerful social bonding afforded by virtual environments. Reality doesn’t motivate us as effectively. Reality isn’t engineered to maximize our potential. Reality wasn’t designed from the bottom up to make us happy. … Reality, compared to games, is broken.
McGonical holds out hope that reality can be “fixed” (by making it more gamelike), but Andreessen would dismiss that as just another example of magical thinking. What you really want to do is speed up the out-of-reality migration — and don’t look back.
Andreessen is not actually suggesting that the metaverse will close the economic gap between haves and have-nots, it’s important to note. At a material level, there’s every reason to believe that the gap will widen as the metaverse grows. It’s the Reality Privileged, or at least its Big Tech wing, who are, as Andreessen emphasizes, building the metaverse. They will also be the ones who own it and profit from it. Andreessen may expect the Reality Deprived to see the metaverse as a gift bestowed upon them by the Reality Privileged, a cosmic act of noblesse oblige, but it’s self-interest that motivates him, Zuckerberg, and the other world-builders.
Not only would the metaverse expand their wealth, it would also get the Reality Deprived out of their hair. With the have-nots spending more and more of their time experiencing a simulation of glorious substance through their VR headsets, the haves would have the actual glorious substance all the more to themselves. The beaches would be emptier, the streets cleaner. Best of all, the haves would be able to shed all responsibility, and guilt, for the problems of the real world. When Andreessen argues that we should no longer bother to “prioritize improvements in reality,” he’s letting himself off the hook. Let them eat virtual cake.
Even within the faux-rich confines of the metaverse, there’s every reason to believe that inequality would continue to reign. The metaverse, as envisioned by Andreessen and Zuckerberg, is fundamentally consumerist — it’s the world remade in the image of the experience economy. As Zuckerberg promised in his Facebook Connect keynote, the Meta metaverse will, within ten years, “host hundreds of billions of dollars of digital commerce.” Money will still exist in the virtual world, and it will be as unequally distributed as ever. That means that we will quickly see a division open up between the Virtuality Privileged and the Virtuality Deprived. While Zuckerberg was giving his keynote, Nike was, as the Wall Street Journalreported, filing trademark applications for “digital versions of its sneakers, clothing and other goods stamped with its swoosh logo.” In the metaverse, the rich kids will still get the cool kicks.
The paradox of Andreessen’s metaverse is that, despite its immateriality, it’s essentially materialist. Andreessen can’t imagine people aspiring to anything more than having the things and the experiences that money can buy. If the peasants are given a simulation of the worldly pleasures of the rich, their lives will suddenly become “wonderful.” They won’t actually own anything, but their existence will be “immeasurably richer and more fulfilling.”
When we take up residence in the metaverse, we’ll all be living the dream. It won’t be our dream, though. It will be the dream of Marc Andreessen and Mark Zuckerberg.
This is the third installment in the series “Meanings of the Metaverse,” which began here and continued here. The fourth installment, “Reality Surfing,” is here.
Q: “Will I be able to bring my body into the metaverse?”
A: “You bring your body into your dreams, don’t you?”
Even today, nearly two years into the pandemic, one holds onto certain expectations about how a Big Tech company’s Big Reveal event will unfold. There will be flashing lights. There will be loud, bass-heavy music. There will be a crowded auditorium. The CEO, dressed in some version of Steve Jobs garb, will stroll onto a large stage. The audience of fanboys will erupt in raucous applause.
So it was disconcerting last week when Facebook Connect opened with a quiet, domestic tableau: Mark Zuckerberg sitting alone on a neutral-toned armchair in a neutral-toned living room. He made a few introductory comments — blandly grandiose, as always — then stood up and started walking slowly around the room. Behind him, propped carefully and conspicuously against a wall, a bicycle came into view. And then, a few seconds later, a surfboard appeared, also placed prominently in the camera’s field of view. Très sportif, I thought. And then it struck me: Those aren’t sporting goods. Those are symbols.
Symbols of what? Symbols of physicality. Symbols of the outdoors, the open road, sea and shore. Symbols of bodies in motion, in friendly combat with nature. Symbols of fitness, healthfulness, ruddiness, sweat. In short: Symbols of embodiment.
“Embodiment” has replaced “community” as Zuckerberg’s go-to word. It’s on a constant loop in his brain. “You can think about the metaverse,” he toldThe Vergein July, “as an embodied internet, where instead of just viewing content — you are in it.” “Since I was in middle school,” he went on, “one of the things that I really wanted to build was basically the sense of an embodied internet.” He hit the same note in his Stratecheryinterview last month: “I think the metaverse is this embodied Internet, where instead of looking at the Internet, you’re in it.” And he hit it again in describing the metaverse in his keynote: “It’s just a fundamentally different experience from staring at a screen, this quality of being physically embodied and able to interact with the world and move around inside it.”
This all comes off as typical Zuckerberg b.s. — lofty rhetoric that makes sense as marketing-speak but is otherwise absurd. I mean, how does one become “physically embodied” in a virtual world? A “virtual body” is an oxymoron. Right?
One of the most interesting things about computers is the way they hold a mirror up to us, a mirror that reflects not nature but our conception of nature. Attempts to create artificial intelligence force us to grapple with questions about our own natural intelligence — what it is, where it comes from, what its limits are. Programs for natural language processing raise hard questions about the origins and character of natural language. And in our attempts to create virtual worlds with virtual inhabitants — the metaverse, for instance — we confront profound questions about our being: What is a world? What does it mean to be in a world? What’s the relationship of mind and body? As Michael Heim wrote in his 1991 essay “The Erotic Ontology of Cyberspace,” collected in the book Cyberspace: First Steps, “cyberspace is a metaphysical laboratory, a tool for examining our very sense of reality.”
A human body, as we experience it from inside, is actually two bodies. It is the physical body (the flesh and the blood), and it is the mind’s representation of that body (which draws on the brain’s complex neuronal map of the body). Normally, we feel no divide between the physical body and its mental representation; the two act as one. But when we dream, they separate. We feel fully embodied in our dream, and yet our actual body lies more or less inert on the bed. Although the mind requires a body to create a representation of the body, once that representation exists, the mind seems able to create a virtual body that can have, so to speak, a life of its own.
It may be that the mind wants a body — that it is by nature a body-maker — and that when given the opportunity, or the necessity, it will happily conjure up a body to be its instrument. Anyone who has spent a long time controlling an avatar in a well-designed first-person videogame knows how the mind will habituate itself to a virtual body and begin to make that body feel real. It’s one of the closest experiences we now have to being in a waking dream. That transference happens with just a two-dimensional screen and a handheld controller. Imagine what the mind will do when set loose in an elaborate three-dimensional simulation and flooded with artificial sensory stimuli.
So maybe the idea of virtual embodiment is not as absurd as it seems. Maybe Zuckerberg is onto something.
Still, it would be an error, a profound ontological error, to think that virtual embodiment is the same as actual embodiment. A mental representation of a physical body is not a physical body, even if it feels like one. Walter J. Ong’s concept of “secondary orality” becomes helpful here. In his 1982 book Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, Ong examined the popular notion that electronic technologies like the telephone and the television were returning society to an “oral culture” — like the one that existed for most of human history, until the invention of reading and writing brought “literate culture” into dominance. Ong showed that while the “secondary orality” engendered by modern electronic media shares certain important characteristics with preliterate “primary orality,” it is nonetheless a fundamentally different phenomenon. Underlying it is a different state of consciousness. Once technologized, neither speech nor consciousness can be de-technologized.
Virtual embodiment may be best understood as secondary embodiment. It may seem like natural, or primary, embodiment, but it is fundamentally different. I don’t think we know what all the differences are yet, but one of the major ones, I would suggest, will manifest itself in our social relations. When embodied as an avatar in virtual space, we may feel as though we have a physical body, but because that feeling of embodiment is purely a projection of our own mind, we will not experience other avatars as physical, full beings. They will remain shadows, cartoon figures — like the characters in videogames. Virtual embodiment, in other words, is essentially and inescapably solipsistic. Present only to ourselves, we will be embodied but estranged.
We are adaptable creatures, mentally and physically. The danger with secondary embodiment is that, indulged in too long, it may come to supplant primary embodiment. It may become our way of being. “The more we mistake the cyberbodies for ourselves,” warned Heim, with considerable prescience, “the more the machine twists ourselves into the prostheses we are wearing.” The metaverse will be the only world we know, and we will be alone in it.
This is the second installment in the series “Meanings of the Metaverse.” The first installment, “Productizing Reality,” is here.
Facebook, it’s now widelyaccepted, has been a calamity for the world. The obvious solution, most people would agree, is to get rid of Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg has a different idea: Get rid of the world.
Cyberutopians have been dreaming about replacing the physical world with a virtual one since Zuckerberg was in Oshkosh B’gosh overalls. The desire is rooted in misanthropy — meatspace, yuck — but it is also deeply idealistic, Platonic even. The world as we know it, the thinking goes, is messy and chaotic, illogical and unpredictable. It is a place of death and decay, where mind — the true essence of the human — is subordinate to the vagaries of the flesh. Cyberspace liberates the mind from its bodily trappings. It is a place of pure form. Everything in it reflects the logic and order inherent to computer programming.
Hints of that old cyberian idealism float through Zuckerberg’s conception of the metaverse — he’s big on teleportation — but despite his habit of reminding us that he took philosophy and classics courses in college, Zuckerberg is no metaphysician. A Mammonist rather than a Platonist, he’s in it for the money. His goal with the metaverse is not just to create a virtual world that is more encompassing, more totalizing, than what we experience today with social media and videogames. It’s to turn reality itself into a product. In the metaverse, nothing happens that is not computable. That also means that, assuming the computers doing the computing are in private hands, nothing happens that is not a market transaction, a moment of monetization, either directly through an exchange of money or indirectly through the capture of data. With the metaverse, capital subsumes reality. It’s money all the way down.
Zuckerberg’s public embrace of the metaverse, culminating in last week’s Meta rebranding, has been widely seen as a cynical ploy to distract the public from the mess Facebook has made for itself and everyone else. There’s truth in that view, but it would be a mistake to think that the metaverse is just a change-the-subject tactic. It’s a coldly calculated, high-stakes, speculative bet on the future. Zuckerberg believes that several trends are coming together now, commercial, technological, and social, that justify big investments in an all-encompassing virtual sphere. He knows that Facebook — er, Meta — needs to act quickly if it’s to become the dominant player in what could be the biggest of all markets. As one of his lieutenants wrote in a recent memo, “The Metaverse is ours to lose.”
For Meta, Facebook and Instagram are cash cows — established, mature businesses that throw off a lot of cash. The company will milk those social media platforms to fund billions of dollars of investment in metaverse technologies ($10 billion this year alone). Much of that money will go into hardware, including virtual-reality headsets, artificial-reality glasses, hologram projectors, and a myriad of digital sensor systems. Facebook’s greatest vulnerability has always been its dependence on competitors — Apple, Google, Microsoft — to provide the hardware and associated operating systems required to access its sites and apps. The extent of that vulnerability was made clear this year when Apple instituted its data blockade, curtailing Facebook’s ability to track people online and hence making its ads less effective.
If Meta can control the hardware and operating systems people use to frolic in the metaverse, it will neutralize the threat posed by Apple and its other rivals. It will disintermediate the intermediaries. Beyond the hardware, though, the very structure of the metaverse, as envisioned by Zuckerberg, would make it hard if not impossible to prevent a company like Meta from collecting personal data. That’s because, as Zuckerberg emphasized in his Facebook Connect keynote Thursday, a universal metaverse requires universal interoperability. Being in the metaverse needs to be as seamless an experience as being in the real world. That can only happen if all data is shared. Gaps in the flow of data become holes in reality.
And what data! Two of the most revealing, and unsettling, moments in Zuckerberg’s keynote came when he was describing work now being done in the company’s “Reality Labs.” (Does Facebook have a Senior Vice President of Dystopian Branding?) He showed a demo of a woman walking through her home while wearing a pair of Meta AR glasses. The glasses mapped, automatically and in precise detail, everything she looked at. Such digital mapping will allow Meta to create, as Reality Labs Chief Scientist Michael Abrash explained, “an index” of “every single object” in a person’s home, “including not only location, but also the texture, geometry, and function.” The maps will become the basis for “contextual AI” that will be able to anticipate a person’s intentions and desires by tracking eye movements. What you look at, after all, is what you’re interested in. “Ultimately,” said Abrash, “her AR glasses will tell her what her available actions are at any time.” The advertising opportunities are endless.
But that’s just the start. Meta has designs on our bodies that go well beyond eye-tracking. Zuckerberg explained that Reality Labs is at work on “neural interfaces” that will tap directly into the nervous system:
We believe that neural interfaces are going to be an important part of how we interact with AR glasses, and more specifically EMG [electromyography] input from the muscles on your wrist combined with contextualized AI. It turns out that we all have unused neuromotor pathways, and with simple and perhaps even imperceptible gestures, sensors will one day be able to translate those neuromotor signals into digital commands that enable you to control your devices. It’s pretty wild.
Wild, indeed. If Facebook’s ability to collect, analyze, and monetize your personal data makes you nervous now, wait till you see what Meta has in store. There are no secrets in the metaverse.
There is, however, private property. One of the obstacles to the computerized productization of reality has always been the difficulty in establishing and enforcing property rights in cyberspace. Fifteen years ago, a company called Linden Lab took a stab at building a proto-metaverse in the form of the much-hyped videogame Second Life. The company promised its users, including many of the world’s biggest businesses, that they would be able to buy, sell, and own virtual goods in Second Life. What it failed to mention was that those goods, being composed purely of data, could be easily and perfectly copied. And that’s exactly what happened. Second Life was invaded by the so-called CopyBot, a software program that could replicate any object in the virtual world, including people’s avatars. An orgy of piracy ensued, dooming Second Life to irrelevance. Today, thanks to blockchains, cryptocurrencies, and non-fungible tokens (NFTs), the copyability problem seems to have been solved. Property rights, including identity rights, will be able to be enforced in the metaverse, which vastly expands its commercial potential.
Just because Zuckerberg wants a universal metaverse to exist doesn’t mean that it will exist. Anyone who’s been on a Zoom call knows that, even at a pretty basic level, we’re a long way from the kind of seamless, perfectly synchronized virtual existence that Meta is promising. As Michael Abrash himself cautioned, “It’s going to take about a dozen major technological breakthroughs to get to the next-generation metaverse.” That’s a lot of breakthroughs, and no breakthrough is foreordained.
But Zuckerberg has one thing on his side: When given the opportunity, people have shown themselves to be willing, even eager, to choose a simulation over the real thing. The metaverse, should it arrive, may feel like home, only better.