Culture & Society

The Fifth Wave: Escaping Into the Metaverse

Who will control the rules in a world of dreams?

Image Credit: Patric Sandri

We live in a time of vast migrations. Humanity is on the move without regard for national borders, escaping the hungry and dangerous regions of the world in favor of those that are fat and safe. More than 4 million refugees have escaped the war in Ukraine so far. At least 2 million refugees crossed illegally from Mexico to the U.S. in 2021 alone. The number of desperate Cubans fleeing their island in makeshift rafts is at an all-time high. Waves of sojourners in search of a dream collide, on arrival, with affluent and highly educated populations themselves migrating into a dreamland.

On average, Americans spend 24 hours a week online—but a sizeable minority, 31%, exist almost entirely as virtual replicas of themselves. As with most addictions, the experience is at once compulsory and unbearable. The young internet was an adventure: users roamed the open spaces, surprised and delighted by what could be found there. Now, the flow of content resembles the ramblings of a disordered mind—except these are actual formulas, algorithms imposed by the inscrutable oligarchs of Silicon Valley.

Social media is induced insanity. Facebook and Twitter control the rules of a game understood by none of the human replicas that strut and rage in solitude, surrounded by millions, within those platforms. Let’s face it: The web hasn’t been fun for years. The old joy in exploration has curdled into claustrophobia, as users get herded into categorical pens where content is magnified or suppressed for reasons of profit or politics.

In the economics of the 21st century, migrants from the death zones take care of our children, our food, our homes, even our churches. They seem willing to exist in reality. The rest of us have gone wandering.

We are all headed for the metaverse.

The motive is fear no less than boredom. If we learned any lesson from the Covid-19 crisis, it’s that reality kills. As Bruno Maçães tells it, our species sought first to survive nature then to conquer it; after the pandemic, with nature triumphant, we are begging for asylum in the antiseptic chambers of human-built worlds.

The Endless Frontier

The metaverse isn’t a settled place but an endless frontier for the spiritually displaced: a refugee’s dream. In a way, it’s also the anti-internet. As in a dream, cause and effect are overthrown, information and memory are translated into vivid experience and the most bizarre fantasies appear palpable and real. Maçães observes that every invented world must have its own unnatural laws, its own internal truths. Under such compulsions, ironic detachment becomes impossible, and the “user” must disappear into the player, the searcher, the conquistador.

The human replicas of the web become embodied in the image and likeness of some self. The experience of that self is hard, inescapable, “immersive”: you can drown in the dream of the metaverse. That’s part of its charm—a feature, not a bug.

To the materialist mind, such escapism is at best nonsense, at worst a sign of psychosis. But we have been here before. In those unhappy times when the moral order of the world can be seen to crack apart, all human striving and ambition acquire the aspect of a meaningless dream. The Baroque age, heir to the disintegration of Christendom, was haunted by this perception, most powerfully expressed by the protagonist of Calderón de la Barca’s “Life Is a Dream”: “What is life? An illusion, a shadow, a fiction, in which the greatest good is a small thing: since all life is a dream … ”

And, when you think about it, the news media itself is something like an anxiety dream being dreamed by the articulate classes. Nobody should confuse the news with reality. Attention is fixed steadily on the predatory violence of the human animal, the record of war, crime and exploitation: with journalism, we are always a moment away from snapping awake, screaming. Sometime during the Trump years, that mood swallowed the internet. Once the gathering place of a peasant revolt, the web took on the rage, pettiness and mendacity of elite media and has since degenerated into the dictatorship of the rant.

It’s easy to imagine this dark spirit contaminating the metaverse and turning it into a recurrent nightmare. The violence would be visceral rather than textual. Politics would be reduced to an immersive version of Worlds of Warcraft, eternal conflict spilling rivers of blood, with defeated prisoners ritually tortured to death. Who knows? Pain might even be coded into the experience. The pathways of the metaverse, in this iteration, would inexorably bend toward the devouring monster at the heart of the labyrinth: And that monster, needless to say, would be us.

Old hands who remember Second Life, however, might project an entirely different endgame for the metaverse. First released in 2003, Second Life billed itself as a virtual world riding a Web 2.0 platform. It was a premature birth. The world-makers, Linden Labs, insisted that their creation wasn’t a gaming site but a blank space to be filled in by the visitors’ imagination. In the idealistic early days of the web, that seemed to strike a blow for openness and freedom.

Typically, your Second Life avatar boasted magnificent hair. You could sprout wings and fly. Then, after 15 minutes of flitting around, you would start to wonder, “So where’s the fun in this place?” The answer was both all-too-human and truly not: virtual sex. Concurrent use of Second Life peaked in 2009 at around 60,000, but the platform has endured to a considerable extent as a party island where outlandish-looking creatures perform unspeakable acts on one another.

Don’t get lost. Image Credit: Narumon Bowonkitwanchai/Getty Images

I can readily envision the metaverse being transformed by its inhabitants into a glittering porn palace, wholly ruled by the pleasure principle, delivering an experience that far transcends anything possible under the weight of reality. It would be that kind of a dream. The perfect orgy of the metaverse will prove irresistible to a large majority of the world’s technically savvy population. Once accustomed to pure encoded bliss, these people are sure to lose all interest in the messy process of mating and reproducing in the flesh. Sadly, they will go extinct. The metaverse experiment will last exactly one generation. The neo-Luddite and pretechnological will inherit the earth.

Controlling the Dream

Does any part of the metaverse exist today? Only isolated bits and pieces, in the shadowy realms of blockchain and crypto, augmented and virtual reality, 3D gaming and holograms.

The supreme strategic need is for a highway system that connects the parts and enables the whole to expand at scale. The second most significant word in the metaverse, after immersive, is interoperable—meaning the technical capacity to travel at the speed of light anywhere across that world. Gigantic battles are looming between companies and nations over the question of interoperability, for the usual reasons: money and power. Whoever builds the highways can toll—and control—the dream.

In October of last year, Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of the most successful media enterprise in history, announced that he was changing his company’s name to Meta and making the conquest of the metaverse its singular priority. “From now on, we will be metaverse-first, not Facebook-first,” he declared. Zuckerberg understood that the human race was on the move, away from the old internet and the walled gardens of social media to something “more immersive—an embodied internet where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it.” For his business, that presented an opportunity but also an existential threat.

From a certain angle, construction of the metaverse looks like a tantalizing imperial project—the conquest and colonization of a new world by the powers that already rule the web. Ownership of the infrastructure that enables the dream would mean economic and political supremacy over the dreamers. You would be able to lock out any person, group, company, ideology or nation that failed to meet your standards of behavior—for example, those who refuse to pay a proper ransom. By Zuckerberg’s estimate, the wealth to be extracted will be “massively larger” than today’s internet economy.

But from another perspective, the lure of the metaverse places the great platforms in the same predicament as communist Berlin in 1989: It’s a breach in the wall that allows a disgruntled population to escape. Billions of users are weary of being herded by algorithms. They won’t look back once they are gone. Facebook and Twitter, and probably Google and Amazon as well, might go the way of East Germany.

When Zuckerberg talks about baking in “new forms of governance,” including rules and protections regarding “privacy” and “safety,” he’s aiming to make the cost of entry prohibitive to competitors and impose the current rules of the game on the defecting hordes. Almost certainly, it won’t work. New worlds tend to bring forth new people with new ways of thinking. The auto industry wasn’t built by buggy-makers or the printing press by scribes.

Governments share a natural interest in the metaverse with the digital oligarchs: first as an instrument of power but also as a source of subversion. We should keep in mind that every formal structure manifests some ideology, a fact lost to most Americans because, from the internet to the credit card, the ruling structures of our age happen to be made in the USA. Even without the dead hand of the Communist Party, a Chinese metaverse based, say, on Confucian principles, would be radically different from an American one. A Mexican or Brazilian metaverse would be different from both—and from each other.

The trouble for governments is that they are in the business of controlling material reality, and have no clue how to maneuver in a world of dreams. I would expect any “official metaverse” to be erected on the basis of Potemkin villages and propaganda. That’s all bureaucracies understand. The Chinese version would likely imitate the recent situation in Shanghai: a permanent lockdown in tight spaces, with a leap over the balcony into the void as the last remaining dream. The number of immigrants attracted to that vision would be approximately zero. In a time of wanderlust, you cannot make a desert and call it a metaverse.

I suspect that the movers and shakers at the top of the sociopolitical pyramid have gotten things wrong once again. They habitually appeal to absolutes—“us or them”—yet the metaverse, by definition, is the opposite of an all-or-nothing proposition. Besides being immersive and interoperable, it’s meta-physical, that is, a realized illusion, an impossibility in the round, able to absorb an infinite number of contradictions and convert them into fuel for growth.

To borrow a phrase from the Zapatista movement, a true metaverse must be a world that contains many worlds: a pluriverse. It will be American and Chinese and Brazilian. (The Europeans, who are still grumbling about Web 1.0, I leave out of this discussion altogether.) It will be capitalist and communist, democratic and dictatorial, hedonistic and austere. The interaction of the worlds will trigger immense yet unpredictable migratory flows between them. Population flows, in turn, will determine the overarching form and flavor of the experience.

For a public that feels exiled and alienated from things as they are, playing in the pluriverse could make real life freer, richer, happier. The collision of worlds might reconfigure democracy and prove liberating to ordinary persons. Less cheerful outcomes are possible, even probable. We could dive by the billions into immersive fantasies of violence and decadence, sinking ever further from the surface and the light, decomposing into something ever less recognizably physical, “till human voices wake us, and we drown.”

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