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Selling the Metaverse

You are going to be pushed into virtual reality whether you like it or not.
Fortune Global Forum - Day 2

Last Christmas Eve, I was driving with my 17-year-old nephew through an industrial part of northeast Portland, Oregon, when he pointed out some new graffiti on a wall near his house. “How Does The Metaverse,” someone had written, in quite beautiful blue script, “Help Poor People?”

This struck me as a very poignant thing to spraypaint on a wall in a run-down section of a midsize American city, not far from a huge and heart-rendingly grim homeless encampment on Columbia Avenue. Whoever wrote it must have had a sense that a massive change in how humans live and interact was looming before us all. We can be sure that they didn’t know what this Metaverse would look like, since no one knows exactly. But they knew enough to be alarmed by it, and they must have had a sense that ordinary people wouldn’t have much say in how it shaped up and impacted their lives. They knew that there was no point in writing their congressman or the local newspaper to discuss whether or not Americans really want to live out their lives in a digital simulacrum of reality, or to question whether it makes sense for us to deploy massive portions of our nation’s capital and brainpower toward building this simulacrum. Those sorts of questions get answered by investors and tech executives, and almost no one in power in this country thinks they ought to fall under the purview of our democracy or public debate. So they were left to scrawl a plaintive little protest, on a wall between a weed dispensary and a Vietnamese grocery.

There are hardly any better ways in American life to express political objections to the tech- and capital-driven changes that have so reshaped our lives in the past decades—from the industrialization of American agriculture to mass adoption of the media technologies that have done so much to destroy our brains and public debate. One of our last vestiges of mainstream consensus is that we talk about these shifts as irresistible, not subject to serious objection. But something strange is happening with the idea of the Metaverse, a basket of consumer technologies that might someday add up to an immersive and interconnected virtual world— where many very powerful people hope we may soon be socializing, looking at art, buying property, and generally conducting our individual human lives through the prism of a mass-produced consumer headset. The systems that work to convince us that consumer technologies are inevitably a step forward in the march of human progress are fraying. No one was going around spraypainting anti-iPhone slogans on buildings back in 2009. The Metaverse is being planned, but it is going to take some effort to sell it.

Last spring, the early web pioneer, billionaire investor, and Facebook board member Marc Andreessen did an interview that got a lot of attention in the small world of people who theorize about tech, and almost none outside of it. It was with a pseudonymous figure who writes under the name Niccolo Soldo, who alternates between obviously satirical forays and genuinely weighty questions about how tech has reshaped human life in the past few years. About halfway through, Soldo asked Andreessen a question about whether our world of constant screen-based communication was hurting our collective mental health.

“Your question is a great example of what I call Reality Privilege,” Andreessen answered, before going into a world-historical vision of what the Metaverse would offer to humanity. Reality Privilege was an idea he’d borrowed from the virtual reality developer Beau Cronin, who wrote way back in 2015 that physical reality, such as we experience as we go through the world in our human bodies, was a painful and unpleasant experience for many—maybe even most—of us. So it was a mark of privilege, comfort and luck, to think of non-digital reality as being truer or more worthwhile than one experienced through a screen. “If it’s hard to imagine much about your life that could be improved by porting to a new platform,” Cronin wrote about virtual-reality worlds, “then maybe you’re not the target user here. Consider the possibility that a visceral defense of the physical, and an accompanying dismissal of the virtual as inferior or escapist, is a result of superuser privileges. You are one of the Verified Users of the real. Congratulations for now, but beware the platform shift ahead.”

At the time, Cronin was struggling with addiction and mental health issues, which may have had something to do with the fact that he cited traveling for in-person meetings as one aspect of reality he personally found to be onerous. He offered a prediction that, at least with regard to those meetings, has already largely come true: “In ten years time,” he wrote, “we’ll find absurd many of the activities we waste our physical presence on today.”

But even Cronin seemed taken aback by Andreesen’s later elaboration of the Reality Privilege concept, and the intense discussion it produced in the tiny world of people who follow this sort of thing. “A small percent of people live in a real-world environment that is rich, even overflowing, with glorious substance,” Andreessen told Soldo. “Beautiful settings, plentiful stimulation, and many fascinating people to talk to, and to work with, and to date.” But these are just the lucky among us. “Everyone else,” he said, “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.”

It turned out that Andreessen had a very direct answer to the question of how the Metaverse would help poor people. “The Reality Privileged,” he said, “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.”

So here’s an immensely influential billionaire, with a huge personal stake in the development of the Metaverse, leveraging the language of privilege to suggest that the opinions of people who protest that we’re being lead towards dystopia are definitionally invalid. And I’m going to offer a prediction: you will hear more arguments like this in the near future. But this is less of a new line of thinking than it may appear at first. Andreessen is just stating things more clearly than anyone had to back before we knew how ruinous the consumer technologies sold to us as social progress would be to our lives and society. Because if we can see how this Metaverse is being sold, maybe we might not end up buying it.

* * *

This interview took place several months before Facebook announced, in late October 2021, that it was changing its name to Meta and reorienting the company around building this new Metaverse. I mention this because the timeline is important. It seems safe to assume that many people reading this had never even heard of the Metaverse before Facebook’s name-change produced a burst of coverage about the idea, almost all of it taking it as a given that this Metaverse would soon be a reality. They were right, in a way, to take it for granted. “We are building” this new world, Andreessen had said, and he meant it.

That morning in October, a host for NPR’s Morning Edition brought on a tech reporter for the Verge to talk about what the Metaverse would look like. The ground for this interview had obviously been laid far in advance, with select tech reporters briefed by Facebook with embargoed talking points so they’d be ready to spread the news once Meta was ready for its big unveiling. But the NPR host asked a question that the Verge reporter was quite obviously unprepared for. “So who wants this Metaverse?” he asked. “I mean, is this filling a demand?” The reporter stammered audibly. The unspoken rule that we are supposed to uncritically embrace tech offerings like this had been violated. “Uh,” he said, “well, it’s not built yet.” He changed the subject.

But this was only partly true. Within days of the announcement, Nike filed a trademark application for “digital sneakers.” There was already a burgeoning market for virtual real estate in virtual worlds with names like The Sandbox and Decentraland. A subsidiary of Pricewaterhouse Coopers disclosed in December that it had been buying “land” in The Sandbox, a project of a Hong Kong–based company that has made prominent partnerships with Snoop Dogg and announced plans to build a virtual-reality “concert venue” in partnership with Warner Music. “It’s like buying land in Manhattan 250 years ago,” one investor told the Wall Street Journal. Facebook-now-Meta invested $10 billion last year in developing its own large corner of the Metaverse, with the idea that soon Metaverse worlds created by Apple and Google and various gaming companies could be integrated into a more or less seamless virtual reality experience. There was already an infrastructure in place to sell the world on a product most people didn’t yet even know existed.

But this world must exist, if you’re thinking about the needs of corporate America. Because almost all our major innovations in the past 50 years have been in the form communications technologies and financial tinkering. The Metaverse offers a vital new avenue for profits and growth, in an economy increasingly “decoupled,” as gentle phrasing has it, from material reality. “People may spend their time hanging out on Twitter and Facebook,” as the tech writer and Twitter gadfly Noah Smith wrote recently, “but with a few exceptions, they still produce and sell stuff in the real world. The more complex and flexible of a virtual reality the Metaverse creates, the more humans will actually be able to innovate new goods and services within that reality.”

This gives you a more realistic picture of this Metaverse than what you usually get from slavish media reports about a beautiful, seamless new world. It’s a jumble of half-developed products and speculative corporate forays, more notable at this point for the strange and inventive ways that companies have planned to monetize every aspect of virtual-world life than for any immersive VR experiences. The closest thing we have to the Metaverse as planned by Andreessen are video games, and the most radical innovations in these game-worlds are decentralized currencies and the ability (limited as yet, but growing) for inhabitants to invest in things like land and houses that they would have no hope of affording in the physical reality as we know it. But with investors already moving into the market, it may soon be as difficult for a young person to imagine buying a house in Decentraland as in the real world.

This is where the selling comes in. The Metaverse on offer in the next few years is going to be like the internet we already have, only more so: more ways to consume time and attention, more ways to get you to spend money, more ways for corporations and brands to get involved in areas of life we once knew as profound and on some level private, like intimate communication or our experience of art. This internet we have today is a disaster. Everyone knows this, even the people responsible for creating it. Many of those very people now feel very defensive and concerned that our collective enchantment with their offerings may be wearing off.

I talked recently with Nir Eyal, who has made a career and personal brand for himself by founding a company selling ads for Facebook and then consulting for tech giants on how to harness compulsive behaviors for profit. We were talking about whether it’s actually possible for people to choose whether or not to adopt consumer technologies that are designed and sold on a mass scale. He laughed off our developing societal anxiety about the power of Facebook-now-Meta in shaping our world. “Look, how many more stories about how Facebook is hijacking our brain do we need?” he asked me. “My narrative is about personal empowerment, not of victimization.”

He meant that we all have a choice, as individual consumers, how much we engage with the products that these companies build, so it would be misplaced to question their right to build them or to blame them for the impact they’ve had on our own real world. “We’ve moved from skepticism to now cynicism,” he complained. “Now there’s nothing that tech can do right. It’s all about this cynical power struggle. The viewpoint is now that because these companies have power, they will abuse power.”

“Every new technology we kind of freak out,” he said later about the Metaverse. “So, on one hand, I’m not surprised that there’s a moral panic around the new technology revolution. But on the other hand, I am kind of surprised that we don’t learn the lesson—that how we get through this stuff is we adapt our behaviors, and by adopting new technologies to help us get through the last generation of technologies.”

This was an unintentionally revealing way of describing how consumer technology works today. It seems strange to think that we have to get used to new modes of living—we must “get through” them, as Eyal says—in order to accommodate our lives to a new technology that does not actually fill any pre-existing human need. Most people don’t adopt these technologies because they consciously decide that they’re a valuable addition to their personal lives. We accept them in response to a complex of social and economic pressures that arise when a technology achieves mass adoption. Only a lucky few people in our society today have enough privilege to decide whether or not to use a smartphone. The same thing will have to come true for the Metaverse, if it’s going to work as planned.

* * *

Shortly after the interview where Andreessen outlined the idea of Reality Privilege, the tech writer Nicholas Carr, a Pulitzer finalist for his book The Shallows, described Andreessen as the Metaverse’s “Statue of Liberty.”

“He stands just outside the virtual world’s golden door,” Carr put it, “illuminating the surrounding darkness with a holographic torch, welcoming the downtrodden to a new and better life.” It was a winkingly funny image for anyone who knows much about Andreessen, a stout figure with a famously large and eggish bald head.

But Carr understood the subtle ways that conversations among powerful people in tech can shape the way that the media talks about this sort of thing. That’s how the selling of something like the Metaverse really gets done.

He mentioned that Andreessen has been called the “Obi-Wan” to Mark Zuckerberg’s Luke Skywalker. “It’s tempting to dismiss all this as just more bad craziness from Big Tech’s fiercely adolescent mind,” he said. “But that would be a mistake.” Andreessen had been thinking about the concept of Reality Privilege since at least 2017, when he brought it up in a conversation with the tech journalist Kara Swisher at a Code conference forum. “Andreessen is revealing his worldview and his ultimate goals,” Carr said. “He has the influence and the resources to, if not create the future, at least push the future in the direction he prefers.”

You can already see this power at work. “Virtual worlds, immersive online experiences, digital economies—these concepts are new and different and often uncomfortable,” the investor and tech blogger Rex Woodbury wrote soon after Andreessen’s interview came out. “Even I occasionally find it all a little dystopian. But the concept of Reality Privilege resonates. Not everyone has the chance to live in Manhattan.” Who was he, with all his privilege, to argue against a chance for the reality-impoverished to live there virtually?

But he doesn’t have much of a choice either way. “This sexy VR future grows nearer with every advance in computer power,” an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times by Rob Brooks, an Australian biologist, stated recently. “With faster processors, better haptics, and teledildonic (look it up yourself!) sex toys that can be controlled remotely, two or more people will have the chance to participate in the same VR-enhanced, physically satisfying sex scene, while each remains in the comfort and safety of their own home.”

You may not have realized how highly planned the future of sex in the Metaverse already is. Be careful about objecting to it, or you may be accused of prudishness. “I side with the machines and against the puritans,” Brooks wrote. “I think artificial intimacy could deliver a more relaxed, inclusive, and humane sexuality, but only if societies have enough maturity to give it a chance.”

All of this is being designed, planned, and promulgated to the public as fait accompli, despite the fact that a vote on whether or not to move society into the Metaverse would fail badly. “Analysts at Morgan Stanley said the metaverse could represent an $8 trillion opportunity,” Business Insider wrote recently in a piece outlining the large-scale plans and investments for the Metaverse of 14 major corporations. “But it would be a challenge to get people interested in using it.” A recent poll found that only 33 percent of Americans were interested in spending money on digital items in the Metaverse. “Generation Z,” Insider fretted, “needs more convincing that the Metaverse is the shape of things to come.”

The way we talk about tech’s role in our lives has taken on a culture war tinge, which may be why I am writing this for a conservative magazine. Words like “empowerment,” “privilege,” and “puritan” are the basic stuff of the pro-Metaverse messaging. The insinuation is that it’s vaguely repressive and reactionary to question the advancing power of tech in our lives. But this dystopia, which will do more to disrupt life in this country than any of the social changes we fight our culture wars over, is an overtly top-down project of corporate force. Corporations are the ones generating demand and creating narratives to spur the adoption of technologies they haven’t even built yet.

It’s too late to stop them from building them. But somehow I still think it may be possible to build a politics that resists the forces leading us into dystopia and continues the 5,000-year project of improving the reality we already have. Even tech executives are starting to sound worried about where this is all heading. “This metaverse is going to be far more pervasive and powerful than anything else,” Tim Sweeney, the founder of Epic Games, said recently. “If one central company gains control of this, they will become more powerful than any government and be god on Earth.”

That’s not quite true. They won’t be god on Earth. They’ll be god in the Metaverse. Our only option now is to build an Earth that’s preferable to it.

James Pogue is the author of Chosen Country: A Rebellion in the West.

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