Is the Metaverse, Like, Mandatory?
This blog post probably isn’t going to age well. Articles that cast aspersions on emerging technology rarely do. The cycle looks like this: Some tycoon in Silicon Valley — or a savvy product manager that works for them — comes up with a new tool or feature or platform that creates a buzz. Someone writes an article questioning its necessity, or lamenting its rapid ubiquity, or simply mocking it. Within a year or two, that writer has, themself, adopted the technology just like everyone else. Now that the technology has become so embedded in the fabric of life, the article seems like a relic of a bygone generation, and the writer, who by now may have come to wince at the thought of the article like they’d wince at an embarrassing high school photo, comes off as a luddite.
Still, I’ve got to ask: Do we have to do this whole metaverse thing? Are there really that many people out there who want to have a virtual house and hang NFTs on the wall? Wouldn’t those people rather, I don’t know, get a personality?
I’m starting to get pretty tired of Silicon Valley megalomaniacs imposing their ideas on us and calling it innovation. They come up with something that is often extraordinarily trivial, use their money and influence to market it as revolutionary and make its adoption a civilizational necessity, and then — voila — they get to say they’ve changed the world. It’s as if, every now and then, a memo goes out: “Hey everyone, just a heads-up: Zuck had another idea. You might not feel that the problem it solves is a real problem or that you care, but trust us: It is, and you do. Anyway, you’ve got a year, year and a half to get on board. Zuck thinks it’s important, so we’re all going to do this, okay?”
The irony is that the technologies that come from these boy-genius, revenge-of-the-nerds techno-oligarchs never seem to change the things about the world that most need changing. They have yet to reduce food scarcity, or make solar energy scalable, or unclog the global supply chain. In some cases, they even make those problems worse. Cryptocurrency and NFTs have enormous carbon footprints, and I can only imagine the metaverse will, too, considering all the server power needed to process the unfathomable quantity of data involved. With the metaverse, Mark Zuckerberg is taking the next step in his self-branding as a catalyst of progress, but in his reliance on intensive fossil fuel usage to power the whole thing, he’s doubling down, dangerously, on the past. His big amazing genius brain solved the wrong damn problem. Instead of trying to do something about climate change, he’s exacerbating climate change to address the vexing societal issue of…what…life not being digital enough yet?
At best, the technology that has been foisted upon us has allowed creatives and low-level entrepreneurs to market themselves better at little to no cost, or helped you keep in touch with your high school friends, or prevented you from getting lost driving around a new city. At worst, they’ve made us addicted to social validation, or blinded you to the humanity of your cousin who thinks Cancel Culture is a problem, or — let’s not forget — carried the country on a tidal wave of disinformation to the doorstep of civil war.
But in too many cases, they’re in the business of fixing what ain’t broke — I see nothing wrong with good-old-fashioned dollars and cents, and yet people are out there burning through what’s left of our carbon budget mining bitcoin, for some reason — and too often, we’re forced to recalibrate our habits to accommodate this state of affairs. As an artist friend of mine recently told me: “It’s so hard for artists to sell work as it is, and now we have to learn this new system as a way to keep up with our own craft. The opportunities have actually narrowed based on tech, because now we need to do new work to participate in the economy of art. Take TikTok: I should get it to stay relevant, but I just don’t want to participate in that, and it feels like I need to in order to succeed as an artist.”
Instagram has served this person well in marketing herself as an artist; everything on top of it has been a chore, demanding much in the way of adoption and recalibration and little to nothing in added benefit. It’s obvious that the quick pace with which these technologies are released are driven not by the presence of some unmet societal need — though they always seem to be marketed as such — but rather by capitalist imperatives. Every new feature or platform or product means more money in a billionaire’s pocket. It’s not about changing the world; it’s about increasing their net worth. We’re all — against our will — just along for the ride.