Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

From the Matrix to the Metaverse

Before we know it, we'll be more interested in the easy and boundless possibilities of the metaverse than the challenges and limitations of the real world.

I tried once to watch The Matrix, which was the super-cool, generation-defining film all the old folks were really into back when I was a kid; I made it about halfway through. Late last week I was inspired to try again, as the announcement of Mark Zuckerberg’s metaverse project got me thinking about the premise.

The movie is, without a doubt, a product of its time. I don’t mean this technically—the visual effects, while undeniably 1999, actually hold up pretty well. I mean, rather, that it is characteristic of the end of the millennium that even in predicting the conquest of the human race by manmade machines that place humanity in a simulated world to draw on their bioenergy, the filmmakers managed to be weirdly optimistic.

To start with, there’s the paradoxical hubris of the premise: That humans could create sentient machines capable of taking over the world actually seems much less likely now than it might have in 1999. Then there’s the fantasy of resistance: We have learned in the intervening years that even those of us who see what’s going on are not really going to fight back (I’m writing this on a Mac); talk is cheap, but when it comes down to it all of us take the blue pill. Lastly, there’s the problem of the vibe: The Wachowskis’ apocalyptic vision circa 1999 entails Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne in black trenchcoats and blacked-out shades flying around in a cyberpunk hovercraft called Nebuchadnezzar, dodging bullets and sparring in hyperspeed with a superpowered cyberfed portrayed by Hugo Weaving.

The contrast with Zuckerberg’s metaverse preview couldn’t be any starker. Opening to a digitized version of a modern mansion that’s apparently his own, the Facebook founder’s voice resounds, at once robotic and enthusiastic, in the background:

Imagine: You put on your glasses or your headset and you’re instantly in your homespace. It has parts of your physical home recreated virtually, it has things that are only possible virtually, and it has an incredibly inspiring view of whatever you find most beautiful.

“Homespace” is unsettling newspeak, but this is unavoidable; new concepts require new means of representation. And the transition from home to homespace is, in fact, a radical change in concept and not merely a linguistic shift. We should certainly be worried about the long-term social implications—not to mention potential ulterior motives—of a pivot away from the actual home and toward an unreal one meant to fulfill the plebes’ desires without requiring or allowing any of the far-reaching, real-world changes that might enable their fulfillment beyond the digital realm.

After this initial sales pitch Zuckerberg is interrupted by a call from a friend, and answers that he’s “coming” once he “find[s] something to wear.” The actual Zuckerberg then turns to face a barely-less-believable avatar of himself and swipes through a series of eccentric outfits (skeleton, spacesuit) before settling on the neutral-colored t-shirt and jeans he started with, capping the process with an “Alright, perfect!” in that happy robot voice.

Avatar Zuck then teleports into some kind of zero-gravity space station room where four friends—two cartoon avatars like himself, one translucent human hologram, and one robot—are waiting for him and playing cards. When Zuckerberg asks who made the room, hologram lady mentions “a creator [she] met in LA.” The metaverse, you see, is decentralized. Meta—which until last week was called Facebook, Inc.—simply provides the platform and a few key products. Everything else is a cooperative market effort—a testament to that Silicon Valley innovation we used to hear so much about.

Another friend is dialed in and shows Zuckerberg and co. a piece of “awesome” 3D street art. A link is shared and all five marvel together at a cluster of swirling squiggles which is, in fact, quite ugly—even by the standards of abstract modern art. After a few seconds the image begins to disappear. “Hold on,” the dialed-in friend says, “I’ll tip the artist and they’ll extend it.”

Hey, if nothing else at least impermanence and financialization will survive in the coming techno-dystopia. In fact, the metaverse overall seems mostly capitalistic so far, as numerous megacorporations employ augmented and virtual reality to conduct business without the costs or complications of physical interaction. This migration of work into cyberspace, catalyzed by the pandemic and lockdowns, is almost certain to spread into the social realm as the substitution of virtual for actual interaction becomes normalized, then permanent.

The lighthearted, awkward tone of the announcement belies the ambition of the metaverse initiative. As Douglas Rushkoff points out in CNN Opinion, “Zuckerberg wants the metaverse to ultimately encompass the rest of our reality—connecting bits of real space here to real space there, while totally subsuming what we think of as the real world.” But it only becomes that slowly, as “instead of making technology more compatible with human beings, these services and experiences slowly make human beings more compatible with technology.”

Some have expressed skepticism that Meta will see much success, at least in the short term. Facebook has become a hulking, inefficient bureaucracy with little capacity for innovation and a rapidly aging customer base. If the cringe-inducing preview is any indication, these skeptics say, then this is just a desperate attempt to turn around the company’s fortunes that’s unlikely to catch on with the general public. Given how successful Mark Zuckerberg was at conquering online society the first time around, I wouldn’t be so doubtful about his prospects for expansion starting in a position of (admittedly declining) market dominance.

The people whose brains were broken by Covid will happily sign on to a scheme that allows them to go about their business without ever having to breathe a stranger’s air, and the rest of us will dabble just because the option is available. We’ll tell ourselves that there’s no harm in playing a game with nana in the virtual world. How is it really different from the games we’ve played for years? Then we’ll tell ourselves that metaverse hangouts are a good enough substitute for face-to-face engagement. We’ve been primed for it by social media. We can do all our work in the metaverse too, as the pandemic has proven. And why spend too much time in a drab little house—or sink any time or money on its improvement—when we can just conjure up a better one in V.R.? Before we know it, we’ll be more interested in the easy and boundless possibilities of the metaverse than the challenges and limitations of the real world.

Recent news of technological developments suggests Meta (Facebook) is closer than we might think to making the actual experience more immersive and more tempting, too, bringing Zuckerberg’s fantasies significantly closer to Matrix-level illusive capabilities.

Once they get there, we’ll rationalize the blue pill by telling ourselves that this is not the subjugation of man through the machines but merely an innocent, silly side project for an obscenely rich and socially inept Harvard dropout; that this is nothing like the dystopias we’ve been warned about because we get to choose when we log in and out (a perfect illustration of the modern understanding of freedom-as-choice merely leading people into new kinds of slavery). Bill Gates, who is apparently racing the CCP right now to buy up all the farmland in the world—a development perhaps not unrelated to tech oligarchs’ attempts to distract us from physical reality—was never taken seriously as a social menace either because he danced like an idiot at the Windows 95 launch. If you admit that you’re worried about these people, you risk looking even more ridiculous than they do.

This could very well be the way our world ends, and it is decidedly uncool. There will be no A.I. takeover, no bullet-dodging savior, no trenchcoats or hovercraft, no Morpheus or Agent Smith; just you and Mark Zuckerberg and your fake better house and some shitty virtual street art.

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he was just a harmless nerd.