Between Utopia and Disaster

Essay by Malloy Owen: “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.

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 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 as a theological one.

The modern state was 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 nations’ 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 telling, institutions like schools and professions like health care 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. Still, the state has always had the physical world to contend with: Material nature resists and sometimes outright refuses manipulation…(More)”.