Meanings of the metaverse: The Andreessen solution

We’ll be happier there.

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 Yorker profile 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 BrokenJane 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 Journal reported, 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, “World Enough and Time,” will appear here shortly.