Tech titans are investing billions in “the metaverse”. Why?
What is the metaverse?
A “fully immersive, interactive, computer-generated” world in which people can “touch, taste and smell”, says Josh Glancy in The Sunday Times. Think of it like one of those “open world” video games such as Grand Theft Auto – but instead of seeing it on a computer screen, it feels like you’re really there. In a fully developed metaverse – if such a thing ever exists – it shouldn’t be any harder or cost any more to take a flying car to a wild party on a tropical island, say, than taking the tube to work. It’s all just lines of code. We could live in a “post-scarcity” world of sprawling mansions and breathtaking nature, says philosopher David Chalmers, spending all our time with people we love and admire without having to physically travel or earn any money. In time, says Chalmers, many people “will freely choose to live most of their lives” in the metaverse – and it will be a sensible choice.
How will it work?
For the time being, these digital spaces are accessed using clunky headsets and handheld controllers. But companies like Elon Musk’s Neuralink are working on ways to plug humans directly into computers using brain implants. Because, they reason, consciousness is just electrical impulses in the nervous system, it should be possible to create convincing sensations like the sun’s warmth or the taste of a pina colada by simply stimulating the relevant parts of a person’s brain. In time, say the tech mavens, such experiences will become indistinguishable from reality.
Will people go for it?
It’s not likely to overtake real life any time soon, says Glancy. Not least because no matter how realistic the graphics are, “our physical bodies will still demand physical attention”. Unless you want to vegetate in a vat of gloop, Matrix-style, you will still need to eat, sleep and go to the loo. But the tech titans – who made their billions betting on things no-one could previously imagine – certainly seem to think it’s worth a try. Facebook is committed to spending $10bn a year on building the infrastructure to make it possible. Microsoft bought video game publisher Activision Blizzard for $75bn last week, a splurge immediately labelled as “a bet on the metaverse”. For now, virtual reality is mostly used for gaming, says Louise Eccles in The Sunday Times, but tech giants are convinced we will soon use it for “work meetings, concerts, cinema trips, dating, shopping and even a visit with friends to a virtual bar or museum”.
That could be fun
It could be “incredibly liberating”, says Keza MacDonald in The Guardian. The promise of cyberspace has always been that it should allow us to be judged not by how we look, but by what’s inside our heads. The dream is of a virtual place where the limitations of the real world fall away, “the nerdy dweeb can be the hero”, and the impoverished and bored can escape from mundane reality and live somewhere more exciting. You could be anybody you want, says Vanessa Friedman in The New York Times. You could wear a dress that grows around you like a vine, a pair of flaming shoes or a suit of knightly armour. But you could also be “braver, more gorgeous, more aggressive, more green”. You could change gender, age, race, or even species.
Isn’t that, like, cultural appropriation?
It certainly creates problems for progressives, says Holman Jenkins in The Wall Street Journal. They’re all for gender fluidity, but are adamant about “the nonfluidity of racial, ethnic and cultural categories” – categories that true liberals have long wished to grow out of. Yet the metaverse could be the “next phase of liberalism” in the traditional sense, freeing the individual from “previously intractable constraints” of identity, history, class and geography. It could be so good, says Chalmers, that sticking around in old-fashioned physical reality “may come to seem a novelty or a fetish”.
This is starting to sound pretty dystopian…
Quite, says John Thornhill in the Financial Times. If the virtual worlds we already have are anything to go by, humans will soon poison the well. The Center for Countering Digital Hate reports that “sexual harassment, racism and pornography” are already rife in virtual reality. Female avatars of VR gamers are routinely groped by “bad faith participants” known as “griefers”. And do we really trust the tech titans building these worlds? We could end up trapped in “corporate dictatorships”, where the governing institutions of our lives are enshrined in the terms and conditions of the companies that run the platforms. The transition into the metaverse, Chalmers says, will restructure our entire society. “This will certainly lead to political upheaval, and perhaps to political revolution.”
👾👗👠 There’s already an entire “fashion-technology industrial complex” springing up to cater to the sartorial needs of digital avatars, says Friedman. Balenciaga has announced its own metaverse division, and so has Gucci. Last December, Nike bought RTFKT, a virtual sneaker company whose digital wares go for as much as $90,000 (in the cryptocurrency Ethereum, naturally).
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