It was last New Year’s Eve, during that dismal winter proxy-lockdown, that my fear of the metaverse really began.
I was trying to make the most of the total vibe collapse around me – getting ready for a pad thai and a pint in a Perspex pub – when I decided I needed a little mood booster, something to summon up the ghosts of parties lost. I remembered an old YouTube video I’d seen before: a fly-on-the-wall Channel 4 documentary about a World Dance/Ministry of Sound rave that took place at the Millennium Dome on that very date in 2000.
The film is a monument to Y2K ease and excess, packed to the rafters with whistles, lollipops, lasers, pedal-pushers, Paul Oakenfold and The Dreem Team. There are foghorns, fairground rides, 50 DJs and 18,000 people packed across four arenas. And even though I was barely into big school when the event originally took place, the footage still managed to conjure up that woozy kind of nostalgia, the sort that occasionally whacks you in the belly when your bus crawls past a nightclub’s smoking area on the way to work.
But in a time of ticketed brunch events, temperature checks and abject paranoia, it wasn’t an easy watch.
About halfway through, I turned to my girlfriend and said, somewhat facetiously: “This is cool, but isn’t it better now teenagers stay home and stream themselves playing Elden Ring?”
Even in private, it was a dig that landed queasily. Long after my thirties have been breached, I’ve tried to stay relaxed about the ebb and flow of youth culture, keep an understanding of the influence of technology, and embrace new platforms, genres and “very online” parties like Subculture cyber rave events in Los Angeles. The deliberate antithesis of a “music ended in 1992 at Castlemorton” guy.
But watching that documentary brought up something from deep within, a creeping, sickly dread. I asked myself: “What is it about this silly film that makes me feel so fucking bad?” Because this wasn’t just standard lockdown grief or jarring pill flashback. It was a fear of something on the horizon. Some looming spectre in the distance.
And then I remembered: the metaverse is coming.
We live in a rapidly desocialising age. Things have been heading this way for a while, but Covid really broke the bottle on a society of streams, Teams, breakfast deliveries and socially acceptable agoraphobia. In recent years, nearly every part of the contemporary human experience, from work to sex to church to sin, has been remoted and abstracted for our convenience. Elections have been won at a distance, entire relationships have been and gone without even a shared breath, superstars have risen and fallen without leaving their bedrooms.
I had a rather startling moment recently, realising that I didn’t know the surname, phone number or occupation of someone I’ve spoken to every day for four years when he suddenly vanished from a long-standing group chat.
In October 2021, Facebook relaunched itself as Meta, promising a new kind of social platform created out of 3D spaces – loosely based on Planet Earth but without troublesome design flaws such as geography and bodily frailty to contend with. Founder Mark Zuckerberg presented his vision for his new kingdom in an ominous, widely-memed State of the Nation address in which he donned a fetishy fencing outfit and watched an old man (with the head of a cartoon lion) playing chess.
Chief among Meta’s promises is “the next chapter of social connections”, which apparently means virtual conference rooms and eerie, Pixar-fied versions of your HR manager, your mother or whoever else you need to talk to. Then there are concerts, sporting events, fashion shows and all the other facets of human distraction. Throughout the presentation, Zuckerberg happily compares this new realm to the old “physical world”. He does this casually, with a salesman’s disconnect, as if the ground we walk on is one big, out-of-date operating system.
It’s important to understand that Facebook’s “Meta” is just one part of “the metaverse”, with countless other projects – such as Decentraland and HyperVerse, as well as existing gaming platforms like Fortnite – all coming under a broad, hard-to-define umbrella concept known as “Web3”. Wired’s Eric Ravenscraft sums it up well: “Talking about what ‘the metaverse’ means is a bit like having a discussion about what ‘the internet’ means in the 1970s… The term doesn’t really refer to any one specific type of technology, but rather a broad shift in how we interact with technology.”
Yet you would be forgiven for thinking Zuckerberg was Web3’s sole inventor, its mad professor. That’s probably because he’s the person who’s banged the drum loudest, trademarking the word “Meta” and essentially using his cash and influence to forge a brand from a concept. Zuck presents Meta as a genius, game-changing idea, but in reality we’ve seen similar virtual worlds before, from Habbo (Hotel) to Second Life, both launched at the turn of the millennium.
If anything, it seems like an establishment attempt to lay a stake in the future, and perhaps a last roll of the dice for Facebook, which in recent years has become a poisonous brownland of disinformation, death notices, recipe videos, Ray Ban giveaways and colourised photos of Winston Churchill. Zuckerberg sees himself as a master of the universe, an agent of history, and Meta, with its potential to influence all human interaction forevermore, is the perfect getaway vehicle from his low-status quagmire.
So far, so bad. But where it gets really disturbing is that Web3 seeks not to challenge commonly held concerns around self-erosion and desocialisation, but accelerate them using “photo realistic avatars” and, as Zuckerberg hopes, gloves that mimic touch. According to fully Kool-Aided tech influencer Shaan Puri: “Most people think ‘the metaverse’ is a virtual place… It’s not a place, it’s a time. The metaverse is the moment in time where our digital life is worth more to us than our physical life.”
And things are already happening in the metaverse: JP Morgan is investing in it, Amazon is hiring within it, McDonald’s have filed a trademark there and Young Thug and The Chainsmokers (of course) played a concert designed for Oculus owners. One sad fuck has even paid £350,000 to live ‘“next door” to Snoop Dogg in something called “Sandbox”. However absurd, the sense of momentum is there.
Yet there are some serious obstacles for the Metaverse to overcome before it becomes the norm – one of which is the sense of deep unease it creates. Because if you’d told my teenage self that, one day, I would be able to plug into a separate virtual dimension, controlling my own self-designed avatar through a vast multimedia platform, I would have said: “sick”.
But I don’t feel good about the metaverse, at all. In fact, I’m not sure many people do.
Slowly, we are dissipating into the digital ether.
Ask yourself, how much of “you” is really your physical self anymore? Does that perilous stack of flesh, bone, blood and water really embody “I”, or is it just a fraction of some greater entity? The figure that appears on Insta Stories, or in important Zoom meetings, is certainly a reflection of you, yet it is constructed to a point of abstraction, redrawn with filters, lighting and a studied persona. Really, it’s more of a self-portrait than anything, a funky doodle of yourself in the back of your diary.
If you work from home, shop online and carry out the bulk of your relationships in the digital sphere, your actual body might only be there as a kind of internal processor. An engine to run a largely digital concept, occasionally appearing in late night milk runs and family birthday parties. As Puri suggests, we are on the precipice of a moment where our online lives outrun our physical ones. So why wouldn’t you spend your money on a digital handbag as opposed to a patent leather one?
At this point, our reliance on big tech and our vulnerability to its grand plans seems inevitable. Even during the “nature is healing, I’m getting into foraging” era of lockdown, we were still horribly dependent on good wifi and the right social platform to tell the world what we’d learned. What all this does to a person’s mind, and to society, is something we’re still trying to understand.
In his infamous tome Industrial Society and Its Future, Ted “The Unabomber” Kaczynski states: “It is not possible to make a lasting compromise between technology and freedom, because technology is by far the more powerful social force and continually encroaches on freedom through repeated compromise.”
Back in the early 1990s, Joe Public no doubt wondered what Kaczynski saw in technology that sent him on a two-decade bombing campaign that resulted in three deaths and 23 injuries. Were TV dinners and Encarta CD-ROMs really that bad? But in 2022, Kaczynski has become an alt-web hero, quoted, memed and namechecked on forums and social media like a homicidal Wim Hof. What’s even stranger is that the people lionising him are the so-called “digital natives” – the kids born with a Gmail login.
Granted, this is probably a fairly niche subset of young people, with many already essentially operating in Web3 through the likes of Fortnite and avatar-fashion app Genies (whose company slogan is “the fantasy version of you”). Yet the seeds of distrust seem to be growing shoots.
Memes about the metaverse being a waste of time, a cynical Facebook rebrand or a big data-harvesting project are abundant. Gallows humour gags about sitting around on a dying planet with a VR set strapped to your face circulate on social media.
Even people who work day in, day out in tech are split. Meta-critical pieces have been published on future-facing platforms like Wired and New Scientist, many calling it a dubious, unoriginal, borderline inhumane ploy. Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen has been quoted as being “super scared” of Meta, while Playstation inventor Ken Kutaragi offered a particularly scathing take: “You would rather be a polished avatar instead of your real self? That’s essentially no different from anonymous message board sites.”
A lot of this antipathy to Web3 surely comes from the manner in which it’s being sold to us. Looking at the marketing of the metaverse, the way it’s spoken about at big tech forums, it doesn’t feel like a “product” of any kind, something you have a modicum of choice about. Despite Zuckerberg’s best efforts at nerdy-cousin relatability, the whole thing feels daunting, foreboding, heavy. You don’t have to be a rabid anarcho-primitivist to get a sense that this is not merely new technology, but a new reality. A great flood to wash away all that we once knew. Maybe that’s exactly how they want us to see it.
What’s more, like various hyper-marketing campaigns from New Coke to 3D football and Google Glass, it feels like nobody really wants it. When I think about the metaverse, I don’t imagine some exciting VR experience where borders, geography and language are melted down into a utopian experience. Instead, I imagine being made redundant by a streetwise porcupine in a non-fungible Supreme hat.
The metaverse feels corporate, inescapable, mandatory, whereas good technology should be liberating and exciting. Quite simply, it stinks of work. How many of us are ever going to attend a Steve Aoki Web3 party? Precious few. But how many of us will eventually have to fill out our timesheets and vendor forms in some kind of heavily surveilled cartoon mushroom world? In time, it could be all of us.
If there’s one, unlikely glimmer in the dark for dissenters, it’s not in the actual concept of the metaverse, which is horribly logical. It’s in the vibe it emits, the look and feel of the thing. Because no matter how hard they try to make it so, the metaverse isn’t sexy. In fact, it is – for now at least – incredibly ugly, banal, lame. It’s a place full of washed-up rappers, crypto-ministers, teenage footballers, banks and EDM DJs. Warhol’s Factory, it is not. That being said, events like Ariana Grande’s Fortnite concert and a number of genuinely beautiful NFT collections, like graphic artist Ezra Miller’s Solvency series, suggest there is scope to create something exciting, youthful and important amid all the clamour. Maybe the problem is simply that Zuckerberg and Co’s imaginations don’t stretch that far.
It’s also beginning to look like a bit of a missed opportunity for a genuinely better world. Instead of starting over, some of the worst aspects of late-capitalist excess are already in Web3. As previously mentioned, JP Morgan, as well as HSBC and Standard Chartered, are all working on meta “experiences”, while NFTs and “digital real estate” have already become status symbols and dividers, ensuring the inequalities of reality are brought forward into this new dimension. If you have money on Earth, you can carry it over into the metaverse, like the Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt bringing their riches into the afterlife.
There are also dark clouds of doubt forming over similar projects. Already, we’ve seen some NFT projects descend into farce, scrutiny and, perhaps, ruin. The people hawking Bored Apes, Anxious Koalas and whatever else have yet to convince a naturally cynical public of their legitimacy. When Paris Hilton and Jimmy Fallon pulled that bizarre show-and-tell routine on the latter’s late-night show, it seemed like little more than a con, a primetime cups-and-balls hustle. When Hilton, Ja Rule and numerous other millennial survivors try to get their fans in on it, only the richest and silliest commit. In just one example of sudden NFT crashes, the value of ex-England captain John Terry’s “Ape Kids Football Club” collection plummeted by 90 per cent in just one month.
Of course, that’s not to say there is no worth in non-fungible culture or decentralised currency going forwards. In fact, only a fool would suggest crypto is a fad. But, for now at least, it all seems far less seismic than its believers would like. More of an interesting cottage industry than the nailed-on future of all connectivity and commerce we were told it was.
Because of this, the language around the metaverse must be evangelical and unceasing in its conviction. There is a conspiracy of positivity at the heart of it all. Witness the endless grand statements about “butt-railing the status quo”, bellowed by hyper-sincere Ivy League boys in Techwear hoodies. Those familiar with dubious, trendy, modern church groups like Hillsong and The Alpha Course will recognise the rhetoric. When Zuckerberg takes the stage, he appears in the public mind not as the world leader he so clearly wants to be, but as an estate agent, a timeshare salesman, an Old West huckster.
There is a tangible desperation, a lack of confidence in the eyes of metaverse converts that’s easy to pick up on for anyone with a trace level of emotional intelligence. A lot of people have a lot riding on this – they need our business – and nothing sells worse than need.
My abiding hope is not that Web3 will crash and burn, because somehow, they’ll make it happen, even if it’s just something I have to log into once a month to get paid. No, my dream, however petty and personal, is that it will never quite land. That it will fall in line with what Facebook has become: a place where people you went to school with sit around streaming Chainsmokers concerts.
Or just maybe, it’s me that’s the problem, clinging on to the old world in the face of progress, cuddling up to my rave videos, trying to get one last ride out of this knackered old mare. Perhaps, as Zuckerberg suggests, I am indeed running on an out-of-date operating system. Trying to get Life3 to work on Web2.