The reaction to the Metaverse is more revealing than the concept itself
Facebook want you to join them on the Metaverse. The Metaverse is the company’s Next Big Thing, and where they see the internet going: an online world of total wraparound experience, a lot more like the Lawnmower Man version than what we have now. They released a statement this week earmarking some $50 million towards this Next Big Thing. But the money is not yet going to the coders.
For now, it goes to the likes of ‘Women In Immersive Tech‘, a company aiming to ‘support women and underrepresented groups working in the virtual, augmented and mixed reality sectors in Europe’. The University of Hong Kong has been asked for a study on ‘safety, ethics and responsible design’. At the same time the National University of Singapore will be given money for a study on ‘privacy and data use’.
In short, the beautiful trans-human future of tech is presently dominated by HR departments.
This level of defensiveness may seem paranoid, until you watch how the tech press has reacted to even these stolid sorties. The tech industry bible Mashable headlined the story: “Facebook Announces $50 Million Distraction As It Plots ‘Metaverse”. Its Valley equal The Verge went heavy on the air quotes when it said: “Facebook is spending $50 million to ‘responsibly’ build the Metaverse”, while Verdict announced: “Facebook assigns 0.0006 of revenue to metaverse safety”. “Mark Zuckerberg’s ‘Metaverse’ Is A Dystopian Nightmare” mumbled the Left-wing online magazine Jacobin.
Far from embracing Facebook’s capacity to map out a future that California Democrats can get behind (and to ride dissenters clean off the information superhighway), the media is nothing but pessimistic.
This is a striking phenomenon of modern times: we now have a tech press that doesn’t like tech. In part, this is because increasingly the new media companies are not peopled by the nerds of old, but by the problematising classes. As the tech itself has become more user-friendly, so too the tech journalist has become the kind of person who might be happier at the vipasana retreat than the code camp. Oh great, the journalists seem to say. More tech.
Peter Thiel, the PayPal founder, has a hobbyhorse he likes to get on about The Great Stagnation. We’ve given up on bold dreams, Thiel says. The 1960s generation of innovators has never been replaced. Whatever happened to flying cars? What happened to electricity too cheap to meter? Boldness has its own genius — and we no longer have much boldness.
The reaction to Facebook’s Metaverse explains why. We’ve learnt over the last decade to no longer view technology as our ultimate liberator, or a tool for utopian development. Now, we only see it as a widget we must crank, ’emotional labour’, something to be passive-aggressively tolerated, the spur to a thousand op-eds about privacy concerns, or a million about the absence of ‘Women In Immersive Tech’. Perhaps we are wiser. But we are certainly not happier.