WHAT’S ALL THIS TALK ABOUT THE METAVERSE?
by Jeemes Akers
“Look at all of our tech billionaires trying to leave the world to evade responsibility for their malevolent influence on it. Anything to avoid being confronted by the workers they exploit or the victims of the ethnic and religious clashes facilitated by their platforms. Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson are flinging themselves into space; Elon Musk is burrowing into the earth; now Mark Zuckerberg is retreating into a virtual “metaverse”.
“Any virtual reality enthusiast can look back at VR science fiction. It’s not about playing games … ‘The Matrix,’ and ‘Snow Crash,’ all this fiction was not about sitting in a room playing video games. It’s about being in a parallel digital world that exists alongside our own, communicating with other people, playing with other people.”
I first encountered the term “metaverse” during my final years at the Agency. At the time, one of our senior officials became the prime mover behind classes for analysts to explore the possibilities of using virtual reality games—especially Second Life in those days—for potential intelligence-related purposes. I was asked to participate in one of those prototype classes. It was my first exposure to the world of virtual reality and, with it, the “metaverse.”
One of the prerequisites of attending the course was reading Neal Stephenson’s classic science fiction novel, Snow Crash, (1992), then still appearing in bookstores. The senior Agency official was enamored by the book’s potential and thus the class. Stephenson’s title was derived from his description of the screen static following a software failure on his early Macintosh computer. Most of the action in the book takes place in the Metaverse, depicted by the author as the collective sum of all virtual reality, augmented reality and the internet. These days, the term is used to describe the concept of a future iteration of the internet, made up of persistent, shared, 3D virtual spaces linked into a perceived virtual universe. In the book, Stephenson portrays the Metaverse as an urban environment developed along a hundred-meter-wide road (the “Street”), that runs the entire 65536 km circumference of a featureless, black, perfectly spherical planet. The virtual real estate is owned by a megacorporation and users of the Metaverse gain access through personal terminals that project virtual reality displays onto the users’ goggles. Within this virtual world, individual users appear as avatars of any form (only height is restricted) and travel is by foot, vehicle or a monorail that stops at 256 ports along the “Street.”
Indeed, Stephenson was the first author to popularize the term “avatar” (from a Sanskrit word) as applied to online virtual bodies.
The story begins in Los Angeles in the 21st century after a worldwide economic collapse and after the city is no longer part of the United States (Stephenson portrays the federal government in the future ceding most its power and territory to private organizations, megacorporations and entrepreneurs). Sound familiar? The novel’s main character is Hiro Protagonist, a hacker and pizza delivery driver for the Mafia. Hiro strikes up a partnership with Y.T. (short for Yours Truly), and they gather intel to sell to CIC (a for-profit organization resulting from the CIA’s merger with the Library of Congress). When Hiro is offered a data file named “Snow Crash,” portrayed as a futuristic form of narcotic, the story begins to unfold.
As with any Stephenson book, the story is highly imaginative and incorporates complicated themes of ancient history, linguistics, philosophy, cryptology and computer science; the goddess Asherah, for example, is depicted as the personification of a linguistic virus—a re-interpretation of the biblical Tower of Babel—similar to a computer virus.
I loved the book.
At that time, Second Life stood at the leading edge of these and other virtual reality projects. It was an online virtual world developed by the San Francisco-based firm Linden Lab and launched in late June 2003. By 2013, Second Life (SL) had one million regular users. Even though it resembles many multiplayer online role-playing games, Linden Lab insists it is not a game because there is no manufactured conflict and no set objective. Users—also called “residents”—create virtual representations of themselves (avatars) and can explore the world (the “grid”), interacting with each other or in groups, shopping, and trading virtual property. Second Life has its own virtual currency, the “Linden Dollar” which is exchangeable with real world currency. Users can attend college classes, listen to political speeches, attend music concerts, read a SL-specific newspaper, construct buildings, or get health advice. There also have been a variety of technical problems, lawsuits, and pornography issues with SL.
I enjoyed navigating at random around the virtual world until I landed in a sex dungeon and had to shut down the program to escape. Even though I knew I was operating in a virtual world, the experience startled me. At the same time, my sojourn in Second Life exposed me unwittingly to a dark seam of virtual reality that provided an important spiritual harbinger to the technological world that is coming.
So why is the “metaverse” becoming so attractive to today’s high-tech titans? Perhaps Crispin is right when she asserts that: “Their [high-tech titans] solution to a disappointing world isn’t to try and create stability and security for all, but to avoid, blot out, and escape.” In recent weeks, Facebook Inc. Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg has been leading the charge for the “metaverse” cause, saying it has the potential to transform the company he co-founded, as well as the internet itself. During a conference call with analysts following Facebook’s second-quarter earnings report in early August 2021, Zuckerberg said: “I wanted to discuss this [the “metaverse”] now so that you can see the future that we’re working toward and how our major initiatives across the company are going to map to that. What is the metaverse? It’s a virtual environment where you can be present with people in digital spaces (and, presumably, their data sold). You can kind of think of this as an ‘embodied internet’ that you’re inside of rather than just looking at.”
But it’s not just Facebook, of course. Microsoft Corp., CEO Satya Nadella, even spoke of an “enterprise metaverse” during his company’s earnings the week prior to Zuckerberg’s announcement. Both tech titans foresee the inevitability of intertwined physical and virtual worlds to form a fully-fledged economy with unprecedented interoperability. While it all sounds rather futuristic and utopian, there is a clear commercial motive: Zuckerberg’s vision of a maximalist Facebook is equally rooted in a deft corporate play to sidestep Apple’s onerous commission fees for app developers. Likewise, other app developers such as Epic Games Inc. and Roblox Inc. see the metaverse as a strategic lever that could bypass Apple Store fees and thereby present an “existential threat.” During Epic’s historic antitrust courtroom war with Apple earlier this year, for example, Epic CEO Tim Sweeney invoked the “metaverse” and Stephenson’s novel. The metaverse is “a real-time, computer-powered 3-D entertainment and social medium in which real people would go into a 3-D simulation together and have experiences of all sorts,” he explained in testimony. Sweeney pointedly chose “metaverse” in his testimony as a metaphor for “Fortnite,” the multiplayer game Apple banned from its iOS App Store last year.
In today’s world, titans and their megacorporations, including Apple and Google, are investing huge resources in the virtual and augmented reality technology and infrastructure needed for the metaverse, despite it never really working and creeping out a lot of people along the way. While the utopian “bug out” will attract many—the notion of living in a consequence-free (and pandemic-free) space of your own imagination, separated out physically and psychically from your fellow citizens to prance around with avatars and phantoms—brings with it a host of philosophical, psychological and spiritual issues.
This “metaverse” race (and feud between the titans) will definitely affect my children and grandchildren. For that reason, in early April 2018, I took my oldest grandson Joshua (a.k.a. “the Snapper”) to see filmmaker Steven Spielberg’s latest science fiction action adventure film Ready Player One, based on Ernest Cline’s bestseller and worldwide phenomenon. If you haven’t seen Ready Player One, imagine a massive, perpetual Sims game combined with Pokemon Go, an invisible world of interaction and engagement that surrounds you but you cannot see or engage with if you lack the proper technology. The film is set in 2045, where the real world is on the edge of chaos and collapse, and where most citizens of the planet find an escape in the OASIS, an expansive virtual reality universe created by an eccentric computer nerd named James Halliday. Halliday—a big fan of 1980s culture and video games—creates a virtual reality game designed to leave his entire fortune to the person finding a digital Easter egg (that is one reason why the film was first released over the Easter holiday season).
Both of us found the movie entertaining and it was studded with fascinating visual effects: at the same time, it was delightfully futuristic.
Cline’s original book by the same title prompted serious debate within the futurist community and among conservative Christian commentators. The book, written in 2011, is a dystopian science fiction novel tracing the exploits of protagonist Wade Watts (V.R. avatar Parzival) and his friends in a worldwide virtual reality game and the search for an Easter egg. The book quickly became a New York Times bestseller with a USA Today editorial describing Cline “as the hottest geek on the planet right now.” Other commentators described the book as “the grown-up’s Harry Potter.” Companies such as Oculus VR reportedly recommended the book for their new employees.
Some critics, however, see disturbing future trends in Cline’s book. The main character, Watts, is an orphan who lives with his aunt in an overpopulated area of Columbus, Ohio (the world’s most populated city in the book’s dystopian future). The futuristic ghetto where Watts lives is called the “Stacks”—so named because of the numbers of small, mobile-home sized units that are stacked several layers high. Meaningful existence for Watts and others in that dismal world depends on being able to escape to a virtual reality world. There is no hope, no excitement in living a life for God or consistent with His assignment, and no sense of accomplishment.
That is the future world Cline portrays for his readers.
Indeed, several critics assert that Cline really is describing a future existence orchestrated by techno-elites. Is this the world they intend for my children and grandchildren? Are they destined to live in simple trailer-box-sized units located in an urban environment? Where life is so miserable that they gladly escape to a manufactured, VR reality? Is that what the present-day maneuvering over the “metaverse” is really all about? Are we seeing the initial steps in how the elites will exercise future control? Will my grandchildren be inundated with mind-numbing entertainment, the most important of which are assorted parallel virtual universes? Meanwhile, the elites have the money and time to fully explore—if not plunder—real-world sites and resources.
Cline’s book also hints at a future world where the economy is dominated by a small circle of cyber-related megacorporations and their wealthy entrepreneurs. In this world, there is no room for imaginative change, no free media to challenge the elites, no God-given covenant-based legal rights, and no national awareness.
In many respects, it looks like the direction modern technocrats seek to herd us toward.