Political Mythologies   /   Spring 2022   /    Notes & Comments

Between Utopia and Disaster

The metaverse and the dream of a world that can be controlled.

Malloy Owen

Illustration by WhiteMocca/Shutterstock.

The metaverse is, as they say, happening. Mark Zuckerberg announced last October that Facebook’s parent company, now called Meta, will take the lead in building out an immersive, interactive, and ubiquitous network of virtual environments that he envisions as the next phase of the Internet. Once the relevant technology has been developed, Zuckerberg promised, users will be able to enter the metaverse in avatar form and interact in three simulated dimensions with a glorious new world of people, places, and things.

It is not surprising that something like the metaverse is coming into being in these uneasy early days of the Biden era: All the master logics of our moment seem to demand it. First, to the extent that it can simulate physical presence, virtual reality promises to enable community across geographic distance. That power has special allure at a time when worries about the pandemic and the environment cast a pall over long-distance travel even as markets continue to disperse friends, family, and business associates far and wide. Second, the metaverse offers further liberation from the material, the given, and the bodily. (In the introduction to Zuckerberg’s metaverse announcement video, a drag queen invites us to “imagine a world where we are represented the way we want to be.”) Third, the metaverse offers sweet escape from a reality that inhabitants of rich countries, especially the young, find increasingly bleak. Rising seas, rusting factories, and a pervasive sense of powerlessness have driven some to bizarre political fantasies, some to opioids, and some to video games. Zuckerberg promises a cheap, safe, convincing simulation where everything is clean, bright, and hopeful and there are always new ideas and pleasures to discover.

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