From dystopia to Facebook: to what extent is metaverse desirable? | by Lidia Zuin | September 2021

Lidia Zuin

Disclaimer: This text is a translation. The original can be found here.

In late June, Mark Zuckerberg stated that Facebook’s next step is to become a metaverse-oriented social networking platform. In other words, Mark is approaching virtual reality and immersive technologies in general.

Scaling text to images, videos and immersive media, Facebook has followed in the footsteps of other Silicon Valley companies, but this is nothing new if we consider that Zuckerberg bought Oculus in 2015 as a means to add that knowledge to his company. The return to this discussion came, however, in a new light: perhaps the metaverse is not so desirable if we consider that this technology was predicted in fictional stories that have a dystopian background.

Cyberpunk was a science fiction genre that popularized the concept of virtual reality through the term “cyberspace” proposed by William Gibson in the 1980s. Metaverse came later, as a proposal made by Neal Stephenson in the 1990s. Earlier, other works such as “Simulacron-3” (1964) have also investigated this idea, but it was in the 1980s when the concept of a new immersive technological space, without limits on the imagination, colonized the popular imagination.

Although the popularity of the topic declined over the following decades, the fact that virtual reality was never really established as a widely adopted technology is still latent. However, when Facebook bought Oculus and HTC launched Vive, there was a new perception in the market, either from the perspective of investors or fandom.

In an analysis published by Vice, Brain Merchant argues that the premise behind metaverse and the business of making this technology a reality is not necessarily something positive and desirable. While briefly describing the plot of “Snow Crash,” a novel proposing the term metaverse, Merchant ignores the fact that Stephenson wrote the book as a satire of cyberpunk. In addition, the writer was later hired as the futurist head of Magic Leap, a company Merchant criticizes in his essay, by the way.

However, cyberpunk was born in a genre that includes contemporary debates such as the emergence of cyber technology and the evolution of capitalism to its final stages. As with other cyberpunk titles, some real questions are exaggerated to produce a metaphorical effect, but this is a resource that does not necessarily suggest an intensification of these issues.

All in all, we must always remember that science fiction writers do not foresee the future, which Merchant seems to ignore in his analysis. After all, he uses as his main argument the important fact that many tech entrepreneurs have spent their early years reading science fiction stories and that, as a result, they may have developed a dream (or fetish) to live or dive into. in worlds like those imagined.

It is therefore no coincidence that Ernest Cline’s novel “Ready Player One” describes Oasis as a neural network inspired by 80 films and games from the 2000s. However, this nostalgia can best be explained by the psychoanalysis than from a technological perspective, the same when it comes to science fiction as an artistic genre.

In another similar analysis, David Karpf argues that virtual reality is, among technologies, the one that best represents a rich, white child, with famous, wealthy parents (hey there, X Æ A-12?). The fact that so many problems, failures and disappointments have been faced throughout the history of virtual reality and immersive technologies as a whole makes Karpf believe that persistence and faith in metaverse are a vision of the future very much. more driven by a whim than necessarily by a desirable or beneficial plan.

However, both Merchant and Karpf do not consider the following two points: Amara’s law (“we tend to overestimate the effects of technology in the short term and underestimate the effects in the long term”) and the fact that if the metaverse actually meets by his prophecy, he will not be responsible for the intensification of violent behavior and personality deviations, for example.

At first glance, the argument here is very similar to what he says video games are responsible for inciting crime and violence. But in fact, humans never needed a computer, internet, or virtual reality to venture into these deviations; the difference is that perhaps the Internet just made it more accessible.

This video summarizes much of this idea I just mentioned (warning: NSFW); it’s a somewhat shocking content that no longer surprises those who are used to navigating the “soils” and the deep web. In other words, online reality is unfortunately much worse than influencers fasting for seven days to lose weight while people starve to death in their own country.

Merchant also mentions that both “Snow Crash” and “Ready Player One” foresee a metavers under the same truism: “There is something intrinsically dystopian in a future in which humans leave the real world in favor of a fully immersive digital oriented to escapists and consumers “. a. To want to spend any amount of serious time in a metaverse, you have to become more attractive than reality, a feat that can be accomplished in one of two ways: either the outside world is already shitty enough to driving yourself into a problem, an alternative full of murder, or the fantasy of becoming someone else is compelling enough to totally consume you. ”

Well, if that’s the case, Unity no longer needs to invest in research and development of immersive realities – welcome to the “metaverse” of social media. I think the decision to develop a metaverse is not as dichotomous as some may suggest. Even in Spielberg’s “Ready Player One” film, we are invited to reflect on the fact that the protagonist lives in a precarious residential complex and that both he and his romantic interest use avatars that transcend his real physical appearance and his “offline” personality.

However, this is not the central point of the story and in fact this theme is overshadowed by the lights of the metavers and its nostalgic references. However, this does not mean that only flattened and dichotomous narratives written to condition the audience are efficient in provoking criticism and discerning between what is supposedly good or bad. The truth is that the story behind the arrival of the metaverse is dangerous because it is now a corporate effort of multimillionaires and not a subcultural effort, as the Internet was.

Douglas Rushkoff is an author who has been emphasizing this stage transition from the 1990s to the present day when it comes to so-called exponential technologies. In the 1990s and early 2000s, there was an almost utopian faith in cyberspace or metaverses as something that could rather allow the transcendence of human species. Today, however, Rushkoff sees this context in a more critical light as a matter of class struggle and late capitalism.

Consequently, the critique revolves around the same cliché that these rich people should use their fortunes to end hunger and social inequality, when, in fact, they already give part of their wealth to social projects ( for example, Bill Gates). But these donations do not make them less millionaires nor are they unable to finally reach the rank of billionaire. This was the same discussion that arose months ago when Jeff Bezos went into space, when, in fact, we forget that historically, technologies are always expensive and inaccessible at first, but they tend to be cheaper with the time, as the physicist Michio Kaku argues in “Physics of the Future.”

Fair or unjust, this is, however, what has been observed throughout history. However, this does not mean that we cannot or will not criticize this logic and try to subvert it. After all, opposing the mechanics of capitalism, as it has been working to this day, does not mean that we should opt for primitivism. I say this because, many times, people understand that the opposite of capitalism is objectively communism or socialism and that both systems necessarily imply an elegy to precariousness. However, more and more theorists are inviting people to consider the possibility of a technological future that can be run under a more egalitarian and prosperous economic and political regime.

Finally, an important point raised by Karpf is that rather than being able to develop the metaverse to the letter as described in science fiction, these companies must first understand what the purpose of creating the technology is. anyway. Rather than fulfilling a childhood dream, what is the purpose and what benefits does it bring to people in the short, medium and long term? It is a matter of weighing proposals and future scenarios, it is a matter of reflecting on what is desirable or not.

This is the task that some futurologists perform while using methodologies such as design fiction as a means to imagine scenarios inspired by science fiction, but enriched by the analytical lenses of the social sciences, for example. In other words, this is much more than deciding whether the metaverse is something inevitably negative or deliberately impossible to avoid. We need to consider what agreements and adjustments will be made so that the technologies are beneficial for more slopes and profiles.

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