what is the metaverse and why you’re going to hate it

Social media platforms want to take a note from dystopian science fiction and lock you into a virtual world for growth and profit.
matrix 4 human pods
Illustration: human pods from the Matrix Ressurections trailer

Not content with building a radicalization machine that threatens to turn all human exchanges into vicious gossip and paranoid conspiracy theories, and occasionally helping facilitate honest to goodness human trafficking, Facebook is moving on to its next phase of global domination, a product known as the metaverse. The platform is taking this so seriously that 10,000 engineers and designers have been hired to turn the dream into reality in the EU alone, and the company may even rebrand around this offering. But what exactly is the metaverse supposed to be? In short, it’s a collection of virtual reality attractions closely connected into a digital universe you are meant to inhabit for not insignificant stretch of your waking hours.

Now, metaverses are nothing new, conceptually speaking. They’re a staple in science fiction of the dystopian kind. The Matrix franchise may be the best-known example of this as it shows us a world where humanity lost a war to machines which wanted to tap human minds to boost their computing abilities — changed to becoming power sources for the machines in the final cut of the film according to persistent rumor — while keeping their subjects docile with a vast, artificial simulation of the pre-apocalyptic human golden age. It’s the main plot device for the Ready Player One series, and numerous short stories focused on advanced civilizations leaving their physical bodies behind to live in a virtual universe of their construction.

In more cases than not, the inhabitants of the multiverse are there because being in a virtual world is preferable to the depressing or awful reality of the meatspace they inhabit, be it a PG-rated sterile amusement park ran by multinational corporations, a virtual afterlife, or a seedy underbelly replete dark web bazars where anything is for sale or lined with virtual brothels. It’s as an escape, not an intended destination for fun and relaxation in spite of what the real world has to offer. In fictional universes where that is the case, there’s usually some dark twist by the virtual world’s creators meant to keep users trapped or addicted instead of a fair and square competition with reality.

So, we’ve barely covered the concept and are already off to a rocky start. Next comes the high-end technology required to bring this virtual reality to life. In sci-fi, we can skip ahead to a more or less perfect iteration of VR headsets, gloves, and whatever other attachments needed for all your metaverse desires. In the real world, we’re still working on feedback more complex than a few subtle vibrations. Differences in internet connection speeds also mean inconsistent user experiences, and the headsets themselves won’t be cheap and easy to make, meaning limits to the level of immersion they’ll be able to provide. And we haven’t even gotten to the challenges of dealing with the full range of human movements and reactions.

Honestly, if any company wanted to create a metaverse-like experience, they may be better off focusing on augmented reality rather than virtual, but that would limit what they can offer and ultimately, what they can sell to advertisers. And while immersive virtual experiences make all the sense in the world for movies, concerts, and games, how mind-numbingly boring would a random virtual storefront on Facebook be? Given the platform’s reputation and demographics, imagine late middle age and senior citizens struggling with VR headsets to binge immersive and ever more unhinged conspiracy theories and racist screeds, then leaving disanointed because they can find the same experience at the mall down the street?

Of course, this doesn’t mean that VR is doomed, or it’s an idea best left in the rejection pile. If anything, it will become a bigger part of our lives. As noted above, some entertainment markets are poised to make a killing by expanding into the virtual world and augmented reality, as long as they within the limits of user patience and tolerance instead of overwhelming consumers by adding way too many options and inputs. But everything you’re bored with or outright hate on social media now also in virtual reality? That’s just annoying. Far from being the Next Big Thing that changes how humans interact, the metaverse looks an awful lot like the product of hubris from an embattled virtual cesspool.

# tech // facebook / social media / virtual reality


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