THR Web Features   /   November 11, 2021

Between Utopia and Disaster

The metaverse and the dream of turning big business into private government.

Malloy Owen

( Still from Meta's Metaverse announcement video. October 28, 2021. Via Youtube.)

The metaverse is, as they say, happening. Mark Zuckerberg announced last month 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. When the relevant technology has been developed, Zuckerberg promises, 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.

Of course, we jaded children of the Information Age have learned to beware of tech lords bearing gifts. “If the product is free, you are the product” is the usual way of expressing this suspicion, and the metaverse will undoubtedly be an attractive platform for the now-well-known techniques of targeted advertising. But the familiar saying does not quite capture the new forms of power that a constructed virtual world will make available to its builders and managers. “If the product is free, you are a subject” might be a better way to frame our dilemma in the dawning age of the metaverse, which must be understood not only as an economic and political project, but also a theological one.

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The modern state is founded on a dream—the dream of perfect knowledge that secures perfect power. A substantial part of the apparatus of state, then, has consisted of mechanisms for collecting and interpreting information. Sovereign governments in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries devoted enormous resources to recording and categorizing facts about people, places, and things within their borders; today’s systems of computer-enabled mass surveillance, like the National Security Agency’s metadata collection program, simply carry this project forward.

But trying to skim data from a lumpy, rough-edged, and unpredictable world is a frustrating and often fruitless task. As theorists like James C. Scott and Michel Foucault have argued, states have addressed this difficulty by trying to flatten, order, and rationalize the social and natural landscapes under their control. In Scott’s narrative, land, once subject to obscure and variable patterns of customary use, is assigned definite owners; names are standardized into first and last; cities are laid out in grids; illegible dialects are suppressed. In Foucault’s, institutions like schools and professions like healthcare fashion the inward self into a smooth, predictable object of analysis. The easiest way for the state to understand the world is to remake it into something that can be understood. Even still, the state has always had the physical world to contend with: Material nature resists and sometimes outright refuses manipulation.

By contrast, the mass migration of ordinary life into virtual space begins to look like a fantasy of perfect governance. In the virtual world, unlike the uneven and unreliable givenness of the physical world, the whole structure of reality—not only its landscapes but its laws of physics, the rules that govern motion and transaction—is the product of human mind. Agents in the virtual world still make choices, but the architectonic art of the designers fixes the boundaries of the region in which they act and subtly nudges them in one direction or another. Virtual reality is also a perfect information-collection device: Because action in the virtual world consists in manipulating a computer-generated framework, every word, every movement, and every interaction with an object produces data that can be recorded and processed. To exist in virtual space is eo ipso to be an object of knowledge; the smallest particles and the most complex systems all lie totally open to mind.

To many tech journalists, however, these dire warnings about virtual control point will seem out of touch with reality. The problem with today’s Internet, so the consensus media narrative goes, is not too much governance but too little. Social media sites are choked with misinformation, conspiracy theories, harassment, hate speech, and propaganda. Extremism blooms in dark corners. Swarms of bots and trolls make the web uninhabitable for decent people. Chaos, not oppressive order, reigns.

Many of these things are, admittedly, problems for Facebook. And they have thrown the company into a reputational crisis at the very moment when the company wants to open a new frontier. Yet the demand for safety and expert-certified truth online could also represent an opportunity for Zuckerberg and his colleagues. Two-dimensional Facebook was built to attract users, collect information about them, and sell them things, not to control what they said or how far they spread their ideas. When the Trump era dawned, progressive intellectuals suddenly started to accuse social media, once hailed as a powerful force for enlightenment, of threatening democracy. The company seems to have taken these worries seriously, but the best it could offer were a series of inadequate patches: overseas content moderators given the horrifying task of sifting through murder videos and child pornography; algorithmically generated content warnings; and ad hoc user bans. Journalists faulted Facebook for the inadequacy of these measures, but on a platform where anyone can sign up for free and start posting immediately, it is not clear what else the company could have done.

The birth of the metaverse gives Zuckerberg a chance to start over and build a world that he can control, and if he does so subtly enough, he will have the support of the smart set on both coasts. Last week’s announcement video hints at how this new control paradigm might take shape. The video talks about “creators” as a distinct, albeit large, class of users, and it is not difficult to imagine Meta using some system of revocable licenses to determine who is able to publish in the metaverse and to ensure that the company can meaningfully surveil all the content that is produced.

In other words, information production in the metaverse may look more like traditional publishing than like the current social-media free-for-all. At the mechanical level, Meta will have total power to determine who gets to be a “creator.” In the real world, there are ways of transmitting information behind the back of centralized power. If the big presses refuse your manuscript, you can publish it yourself. If censors ban it, you can operate a secret printing press. In the metaverse, these alternatives are not only forbidden but materially impossible. We can imagine a system in which would-be creators need an affiliation with an approved institutional partner (a major newspaper, a design firm, an art collective that has passed certain checks) in order to publish in the metaverse. If that seems too utterly contrary to the spirit of the open Internet, Meta could limit itself to running background checks on applicants, satisfying itself that they could be counted on not to produce content that is judged dangerous or misleading. If they failed to live up to expectations, they could be removed.

In such a two-tiered scheme, ordinary people—non-creators—could still sign up freely for metaverse accounts that would enable them to attend virtual events, buy virtual products, occupy and furnish virtual spaces, consume virtual information, and converse with virtually represented friends and colleagues. But the great danger of the old, open Internet—that a nobody can reach a mass audience in an instant—would be gone forever. If it wanted to, Meta could also eradicate trolling and harassment. There is no “he said, she said” in the metaverse: Every action and word is tracked and recorded, and real anonymity can be made impossible if Meta chooses.

In fact, an analysis confined to the digital world understates Meta’s future surveillance capacities. The most remarkable segment in Zuckerberg’s announcement video is his conversation with Michael Abrash, who heads Facebook Reality Labs and is leading the company’s development of the headset through which users will access the metaverse. In order to make metaverse access as ubiquitous as smartphone use, Meta will need to build a headset that can function on extremely subtle user inputs. Otherwise, the network will be confined to private spaces (imagine a row of oblivious commuters on a bus, clad in enormous black VR helmets, whacking each other in the face with huge gestures as they manipulate virtual objects).

Abrash and his teams are exploring two avenues for solving this problem. One involves embedding tiny cameras in headsets that will track eye movements and match them to objects; the other exploits “unused neuro-motor pathways” in the human body to allow users to control their devices “just by thinking about moving your fingers,” as Zuckerberg puts it. Meta will know what you are looking at, and to some limited extent (but how limited?) it will know what you are thinking about as well. At this point it is probably not an exaggeration to say that the masters of the metaverse will know your dispositions and desires better than you know them yourself.

How Meta makes use of this power will be up to Zuckerberg and his colleagues. They may limit their ambitions to collecting and processing a higher volume of what Shoshana Zuboff calls “digital exhaust”: scattered bits of behavioral data that advertisers can use to target and nudge users. As we have seen, however, they will be able to exercise far greater powers if they wish. Within the metaverse, the designers will be omniscient, seeing not only users’ words and actions but perhaps even the thoughts of their hearts. They will also be omnipotent, able to raise up and tear down instantly and to change even the laws governing the motion of bodies. One question is whether they will aspire to omnibenevolence as well.

Here is the great dilemma that will confront Zuckerberg and his colleagues: There may be no middle ground between utopia and disaster. Meta will face intense pressure to make the metaverse a world free from lies and confusion and to nudge its users toward truth, justice, and tolerance. If it refuses and builds instead something as open as today’s Internet, the combination of social media chaos and immersive virtual reality will be even more intolerable than the two-dimensional Internet. No matter how it is deployed, integrated digital information technology increases man’s power over man—power to propagandize, power to persuade, power to drive mad.

If Meta refuses to wield that power, the trolls will wield it. But if Meta chooses to exploit its full capacity for surveillance, prediction, and behavioral influence in the service of a vision of the good life, the metaverse could become a space of radically centralized control of a kind that has hardly been dreamed of even in science fiction. To do this, the company would have to overcome its discomfort and create an apparatus for issuing substantive moral judgments about who is allowed to speak and act and what they are allowed to say and do. Such a move is hardly out of the question, however. The more human activity happens in Meta’s world, the more the company takes on the functions of a government; it would not be so strange for it to start acting like one.