What the Metaverse Is and How It Will Seduce Us



For all the hype, the metaverse is not yet a thing—but rest assured, it will be. Piling up definitions, I try to fathom the notion. A fancied-up internet, some say with a shrug. A simple switch from phone to headset. “Virtual reality with unskippable ads” (Wendy Liu). “The ultimate distraction machine” (Peter West). “A buzzword used to refer vaguely to a bunch of businesses, platforms, and technologies that might someday work together in some not particularly well-defined way” (Max Read).

Easily dismissed, then. On the other hand, the CEO of Unity (which makes VR software, so has some skin in the game) calls the metaverse “the biggest revolution in computing platforms the world has seen.” Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg promises an “even more immersive and embodied internet” where “you’re gonna be able to do almost anything you can imagine—get together with friends and family, work, learn, play, shop, create.”

Wary, I keep going. A Walrus essayist describes the metaverse as “an immersive video game you will ‘live’ in—one that never ends.” It is intended to tickle us, that much is certain. Janet Murray sees “a magical Zoom meeting that has all the playful release of Animal Crossing”; Verge’s Liz Lopatto calls it “an online haven where superhero IP owned by different companies can finally kiss.”

Writing for The Atlantic, Ian Bogost, a game designer and Washington University media prof, sums up “the metaverse” as “a fantasy of power and control.”

Which seems to be the key.

Why is it so important (and to whom) that we inhabit simulated worlds? “There is not a single person in existence who has scanned Facebook’s News Feed and said: Yes, immerse me in this reality, I want to feel my uncle’s meme about Hot Pockets on my face,” Bogost writes. “But ‘the metaverse’ could generate enough momentum, enough knock-on interest, that it could bring this clumsy fantasy framework clattering to life.”

And we will cooperate. Why? Because we would rather live in our world, the one we can control, than in one that mystifies and jostles us and refuses to do our bidding.

In one demo, legless avatars (legs are still tricky) meet in front of a virtual campfire. This is cool now? After we spent years snickering at electric fireplaces? “The avatar experience will feel so real that you can hardly tell the difference between a virtual meeting and a physical meeting,” Darren Tsui, CEO of Together Labs, brags. “And the virtual experience will be better.”

A Wall Street Journal reporter interviews a comedian who prefers Altspace to Zoom because “you can feel and see people buckle over” with laughter. What about Altspace compared to a real comedy club? He says he finds it easier to interact with cartoon crowds.

Just as kids in the same room would rather text each other than talk, we may wind up preferring to meet as avatars. Infinitely more expressive than a photo in a circle, our avatars will be able to move, speak, and gesture. We are promised something I never wanted: “further liberation from the material, the given, and the bodily.”

The entire concept of online life feels like a giant video game to me. The more we play, the more attributes and abilities our online selves acquire. Zoom fatigue reassured me—we still enjoy one another’s company!—but the metaverse will fix that fatigue, providing “a sense of place,” “a sense of presence,” a persistent world for our avatars to inhabit. We already “go to” and “visit” the internet, but now we will feel like we are really there, like there is a there.

This worries me. I already feel the need to tap people on the shoulder and remind them there is a difference between organic, spontaneous real life and choreographed virtual simulation. Granted, the “interface” between us and our technology has become an intermingling that in some cases is so subtle and inextricable, we forget there is any distinction at all. But there is no life force in computerized, simulated stuff. It is brightly colored and it moves fast, so it can fool you. But pretty much my whole theology boils down to a line in a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem: “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.”

There will be novelty in the metaverse, but depth? Freshness?

More like commerce. Drew Austin envisions “a theater for intellectual property in which sensory experience is a fully commoditized resource.” The metaverse will be a place, one commentator explains, to “mingle freely with brands.” Excitement heats up with the ability to buy virtual stuff in the metaverse—a dragon for a pet, the latest sneakers—or examine and try on real stuff virtually. As you shop, information can be collected, because the entire metaverse is designed and programmed, and there are no real-world cracks to slip through. Eye movements can be tracked as you browse and decide. Zuckerberg enthuses about you controlling your device just by thinking about moving your fingers—and for that to work, the device must know your thoughts.

I shudder and read on. Augmented reality pioneer Louis Rosenberg predicts that “in the metaverse you will meet people who look and act like any other user, but they will be computer generated personas.” Algorithms will custom-design their appearance and wardrobe to influence particular individuals, and they will be “programmed to engage you in conversation, reading your facial expressions and vocal inflections [and] armed with a database of your interests and inclinations.”

Oh, yay.

We are entering what Matthew Crawford calls “a new frontier of capitalism, complete with its own frontier ethic: to boldly dig up and monetize every bit of private head space by appropriating our collective attention.”

The name “metaverse” should have been a clue: in the 1992 novel Snow Crash, it was the simulation where characters hung out because their real lives were boring or difficult. Today we talk about “reality privilege,” the fact that with wealth, real life remains pleasant, but for everyone else, the metaverse will be far nicer. I both understand and want to scream. This is a first world discontent. In Haiti, I saw people do grueling work and live without electricity, but they still laughed and loved, and nobody seemed eager to cede their identity or to escape into an alternate universe. Here, where constant comparison and consumer seduction focus all minds on wealth, those without it will be owned online.

Imagine the power the metaverse creators will have to shape our thoughts. The ability to log into one account and travel, floating without legs across all apps, social media, work meetings, and marketplaces, sounds conveniently seamless. But that universality—pardon me, metaversality—will make it far harder to extricate ourselves. We will be trapped by the need to connect.

Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.