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The metaverse will steal your identity Individuality will dissolve into mindless conformity

Welcome to the metaverse (JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images)


March 3, 2022   5 mins

In 1950, sociologist David Riesman declared that we were The Lonely Crowd. In 2000, political scientist Robert D. Putnam told us we were Bowling Alone. If the metaverse promises us one thing, it’s that we will not be lonely.

Meta (formerly Facebook) and Microsoft (having recently purchased online gaming giant Activision) are enthusiastically talking up the “metaverse” — a world of virtual reality-enhanced social interactions that will be more real than reality. It will capture the nuances of offline interaction in massively fulfilling virtual experiences and then monetise them. With JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs declaring it a trillion-dollar market, the metaverse, if it succeeds, will be a constant presence in our lives.

If this is, as some say, a chilling vision of the future, it’s not for the Huxleyesque reasons usually given. If the worry is that people will be drawn away from real life into an online world provided by high-tech devices, that horse has already bolted. Meta’s talk of an “immersive” metaverse belies the fact that we are already well and deeply immersed in online life.

“Self-expression” and “meaning” are already so heavily intertwined with online activity that adding a headset isn’t going to make a  difference, even if the prospect of thousands of loud, angry Twitter users being more immersed is terrifying.

While the metaverse will further the internet’s shift away from text and photos toward VR and video, it is not a revolution, or at least not the one Meta portrays. In the metaverse, people will do things together, share their experiences, and fight with each other, just as they currently do.

The new parts of the metaverse are commercial. Compared with online life today, there will be more things to buy and more money to be made. Personalised avatars, virtual pets, online concerts and shows, digital real estate, and fashion made of pixels instead of fabric: Meta, Microsoft, Verizon, and other giants all hope to serve as brokers for all these, in much the same way Amazon is the middleman and guarantor for its Marketplace transactions. If America were not still so squeamish about sex, one could add teledildonics to the list.

For those inclined to doubt that people will pay for a pair of metaverse trainers, recall that virtual goods in games like World of Warcraft and Pokemon are sold and traded for significant amounts of real-world cash. In the wildly popular Roblox online world, pre-teens eagerly programme and share games, virtual clothes, and virtual houses to earn an imaginary currency, Robux, with a real-world exchange rate set by the Roblox parent company.

Some gamers have invested thousands to purchase spaceships for the online game Star Citizen, even though the game has yet to be released — the virtual spaceships are themselves funding development of the game. And we now have “Decentraland”, a 3D virtual world in which you can own “land” and “objects” in the same way one can offline, thanks to the blockchain technology of NFTs, which immutably declares who owns what.

So far, virtual goods in games have been confined to their online universes — you could spend $7,000 on a World of Warcraft elf, but you couldn’t take it out of the game. NFTs remove that limitation, allowing one to proudly declare ownership of a virtual hat across the entire metaverse. This Brave New World may not be more immersive than the current internet, but it will be more acquisitive, more possessive, and more status-conscious.

Viral competition has already proven to be a moneymaker: at one point, Facebook drew 30% of its revenue from Zynga’s Farmville and its clones, games that exploited social competition to encourage users to pay for virtual crops. Roblox and Decentraland are blueprints for how Meta and Microsoft hope to turn the whole world into Farmville. Just as the internet monetised personal information to better target advertising, the metaverse will monetise online interaction by having your friends do the advertising to you. Who wants to be the last on their virtual block to have a virtual mansion?

The result will be the monetisation of identity, something already visible in the burgeoning industries of paying for instruction on how to be patriotic, how to be anti-racist, how to be Christian, how to be eco-conscious. The metaverse seeks to make money off of less-loaded aspects of identity by fostering intra-group solidarity through purchases. As sociologist Erving Goffman wrote, “To be a given kind of person, then, is not merely to possess the required attributes, but also to sustain the standards of conduct and appearance that one’s social grouping attaches thereto.”

In the metaverse, everyone can potentially be a seller and advertiser in addition to a buyer, yet the power will chiefly lie with the companies. They will exert significant influence over group standards of conduct and will have a greater ability to steer those standards in profitable directions. (The metaverse will also offer malicious actors far greater ability to pervert those standards, but that is a whole different can of worms.) In the run-up to the 2020 election, Meta (then Facebook) restricted all its users from forwarding private messages to more than five people.

The goal, evidently, was to stop “harmful” content, probably political, from exploding across tight in-groups within Facebook’s user population. Such blanket restrictions are indeed effective by their very nature, but imagine what they would mean in the metaverse: private online groupings could be prohibited by their hosting platform (Meta or Microsoft, say) from sharing particular content, encouraged to share more innocuous content, or simply barred from interacting in certain ways.

Yet group affiliations are strong, and aggrieved groups have a way of sticking together against the powers that be. Online life, above all, offers one the chance to pick their tribe, their gang, their comrades. Offline we are limited geographically in our affiliations, but online, you can scour the world for your crowd. The explosion of conspiracy theories, extremism, and a general distrust of any elite opinion is not a consequence of individual bad actors online, but the simple ability, brought to us by the internet, to find people who share and reinforce our opinion, no matter what that opinion may be. The metaverse will supercharge these trends. Where people formerly congregated in Facebook groups, Reddit groups, or blog chats, they will now find cozy virtual spaces in which they can be welcomed.

Offline life will not be more “real” than the metaverse, merely less affirming. There will be even less need to congregate with those who disagree with you in the slightest if, by going online, one can not only exchange words with identically-minded individuals, but can gain all the reassuring benefits of human interaction with them.

There’s a cost to pay as well. The price of group homogeneity in any regard (ideological, cultural, demographic) is a far greater rejection of deviation. Urbanisation and immigration may have caused melting-pot tendencies in the last century, but the metaverse offers previously unthinkable possibilities for undoing the heterogeneity of modern life, separating us out into monocultural strata in which every hobbyist subculture, every sub-Marxist movement, and every sexual fetish can easily find mutual affirmation. Individuality will dissolve into the unified mindset of one’s chosen monocultures. Once having joined a stratum, members will naturally play down their differences in favour of their commonalities, to the point that they forget those differences.

The result will not be a melting-pot but a disconnected patchwork. Conformity will no longer be a meaningful concept because we will be able to conform to anything. You can pick whatever social norms you’d like to follow, but having chosen them you will follow them to the utmost. No group will feel big enough to be confident of its dominance; each group will police its boundaries rigidly, forming a kaleidoscope of what anthropologist Mary Douglas defined as latent groups. Each will feel threatened by some number of others, just as the Left and the Right are both equally convinced today that the other is winning.

In the metaverse, we will not be alone. But some of us will wish we could be.


David Auerbach is an American author and former Microsoft and Google software engineer.

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Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

And some of us will just continue to have a real life.

Andrew McDonald
Andrew McDonald
2 years ago

Yes, but the point of the article surely is that it will be increasingly few of us? And what is left of ‘real life’ will be increasingly threatened by these bozos with their digital starships and NFT elves. We’re not going to be able to just look away.

Bernard Hill
Bernard Hill
2 years ago

…we won’t have to look away, because the metamorons with their goggles on, won’t even notice us !

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago

Amen

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
2 years ago

The thing is you will be alone. Suicide rates among young people are skyrocketing. Virtual company is a poor substitute for social and physical connection. Deep down we all know this. Unfortunately as the virtual world becomes more human-like, the real world is becoming more machine-like.

Peter LR
Peter LR
2 years ago

“but can gain all the reassuring benefits of human interaction with them” – no, VR cannot communicate touch or the human presence of the soul. FaceTime is a wonderful gift but cannot be as fulfilling as face-to-face, skin-to-skin, spirit-to-spirit. I recall those desperate orphans after the fall of Communism in Romania who had been left in cots without touch or human warmth. They were permanently harmed in their psychological and social development. Even kind fostering couldn’t seem to break through.
I would predict that the Metaverse will have similar parallel outcomes: shrivelled souls and social paranoia; offence easily taken and normal interactions viewed as aggressions; justifying violence against anyone outside your ideological cohort; an inability to form stable sexual relationships; fear of emotionally opening the heart sufficiently to create lifelong committed relationships.

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter LR

Yes, I recall watching those images of those orphans, it must have been in the early part of 1990.
And God love ‘em!

What is the drive behind this virtual lifestyle proposed? To better the world? To make it more secure? To reduce the carbon in the atmosphere? To bring King John Him, or Kim rather, or whatever his name is, to heel? To rid the world of the fear of nuclear annihilation?

This Metaverse plug reminds me of the moment in the 1980s movie of “Planes, Trains, And Automobiles”, when Del Griffith, shower curtain ring sales director for Industrial Light & Magic, aka John Candy (peace be 
 bless his dear soul), the late and magnificent John Candy in real life, when Del Griffith goes about the concourse of the main bus station in Louisville, Kentucky, selling his different shower curtain rings to passers-by as anything but. Earrings, chiefly. He’s desperate for quick cash. His schtick (crudely, from my memory) is to rabbit on about this or that pair (that he dangles before the eyes of sceptical-looking or bored travellers) being once owned by the 4th century grand wizard of China (as “they are made from ivory”), “your very own Diane Sawyer set”, “they are filled with helium 
 so they are very liiightt”, and, to a trio of young teenage girls, “
 and they make you look an awful lot older”.

Totally preposterous!

Last edited 2 years ago by Dustshoe Richinrut
Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago

“What is the drive behind this virtual lifestyle proposed?”
Facebook got stale and is rebooting itself.

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

$$$

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

“Individuality will dissolve into the unified mindset of one’s chosen monocultures.”

The Welsh-English writer, novelist and WW1 veteran, Charles Morgan, in the immediate aftermath of WW2, wrote a short essay, The Uncommon Man (from his collection Reflections In A Mirror), in which he believed, optimistically, that “the coming age” would be that of The Uncommon Man, rather than The Common Man.

In it, he scoffs at the “sea-green regimenters” who would cast a cloak of grey over the people. He scoffs at the socialist mindset’s dogma of the people as “the masses”. He says that there is no such thing as “the masses”. Predicting that he might be accused of Ă©litist, privileged nonsense from his writer’s eyrie, he says, in relation to his critics, that nobody lives in an ivory tower so windowless as theirs. He gives the example of a dozen sailors rowing a small boat at night, and, having reached the shore, when glimpsing their faces in the light of their pipes on the quay, you see a man encased in his own flesh, each an individual, sunken in his own thoughts. Woe betide the man of God who sees only the Common Parishioner and not the child of God! – to paraphrase him from his essay.

He knew what he was talking about. He had served on Royal Navy ships during WW1 and been a POW on the Belgian-Dutch border. But read his essays for yourself. Charles Morgan has been praised very highly as being one of the best prose stylists of the 20th century.

So what you are seeing with the immersion of humans into digital soups, where they end up as drones and robots, is nothing less than a great disservice to mankind. It’s totalitarian. It is tyranny!

Will there be any teenage boys left learning how to play acoustic guitar or the piano? Who know how to make a dinner? Change a tyre? The digital wreckers ought to hang out with Ukrainian refugee families to get some perspective on life.

Dave Corby
Dave Corby
2 years ago

I am someone who is overwhelmed by the advances in technology that have enabled the virtual world. I am astonished, every time, at how real the world looks and feels when I put on my Oculus.
However…
The virtual world will be another major power in the de-moralisation of people.
The internet brought in unlimited hard porn and anonymity of abusers – with men pretending to be young girls, for example.
The virtual world is adding a new level to this. People join and then virtually perform sexual acts. Who knows who is behind the images? Facebook is having to create boundaries around characters and remove the hands when they get too close.
Even in fighting games the designers have introduced the concept of ‘skins’ that you take on as you move up the levels – with some being male and some female and so it is becoming more natural for boys to be wearing a female skin.
We all know that the social credit system will be widespread in the virtual world which will cause untold harm to our young people as they get pressured or excluded from groups unless they comply with virtual government rules.
We are handing over more control to people who do not have moral principles but who are simply driven by financial goals that are tightly bound with the political pressures of the day.

Penny Rose
Penny Rose
2 years ago

I’m curious as to how many people actually spend most of their time in virtual worlds, and for how many years, before they get bored and stop doing it. I may be wrong but I suspect it’s a bit like twitter – much talked about, but used by a minority.

Mechan Barclay
Mechan Barclay
2 years ago
Reply to  Penny Rose

It is even more insidious. I have a friend(actually not me) who operates on Twitch and you build or set yourself into a community of like minded people. Difference here is that he will have allotted slot times to produce his work and will let others know. If you don’t meet that time, your followers(and I guess online friends) will find someone else to talk to or watch.
Best analogy might be if you go to the bar with the same folks and suddenly you stop going, you won’t be interacting with them at all. Now just imagine that everyone you know is in the bar all the time.
A large swath of people operate their lives like this, mainly younger people.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago

I’m not on Facebook.

Mike Wylde
Mike Wylde
2 years ago

A virtual starship cannot bombard a real planet, nor can it boldly go anywhere. Virtual trainers will not keep your feet dry nor will you be able tell whether they will fit well or not. An NFT won’t let you wear your hat to keep warm (or go to a wedding) so it will remain difficult to show it off to real people or at an event.
It will, perhaps, herald the opposite of what happens now, go to a store, try the shoes on and then buy them online because they’re cheaper!

R Wright
R Wright
2 years ago

Habbo Hotel already did all of this twenty years ago. I’m not quite sure where Zuckerberg’s revolution is meant to be.

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago

God help us all!

RD Richards
RD Richards
2 years ago

Interesting analysis, thanks David. I think you’re spot on about the “fragmenting” and “groupthink” aspects of metaverses, and how people increasingly have been drawn into living their lives online.

But while I agree with your social predictions, I’m less convinced on the technical side, and for that reason, I’m not convinced that metaverses will have such a wide and strong appeal. I remain consistently unimpressed with the simulation quality of video games. IMO, they remain slow, jerky, and unconvincing. My standard has always been Dragon’s Lair, an interesting game from the 1980s. It used a large laser disk for gameplay, projecting an animated world. The video quality was great (Think Anastasia, as former Disney animator Don Bluth was involved with both projects.). That imposed limits–limited “paths” and flicker/pauses when the character selected one or the other–but I think it showed where metaverses will have to arrive to really attract people. Will they get there? Dunno…

If anyone is interested, you can see screenshots of Dragon’s Lair on the web, and there are probably YouTube videos too.

Paul Rogers
Paul Rogers
2 years ago
Reply to  RD Richards

I would suggest that you need to be updated on modern gaming.
Storytelling is very strong in the latest and the representation of worlds has got to the point where they actually look better than the real thing.
Dragon’s Lair was ahead of its time, but had very limited story branching by modern standards. Today, think an interactive film that last 100 hours and can be replayed with different outcomes.
The ‘technical’ is increasingly there.
Social atomisation, as the article discusses, is a genuine threat to a significant minority in the near future, however.

Kelvin Willows
Kelvin Willows
2 years ago

They claim you can earn real money on the metaverse even as scary as it is. Let’s find out how true that is, shall we?

https://shrinke.me/OyUlOJtu