Howard Anglin: Against the Metaverse

If we want to avoid being dragged into this pixelated purgatory, we will have to draw the line early
Pastor D.J. Soto, the lead pastor of VR Church, delivers a sermon in his home Sunday Jan. 23, 2022, in Fredericksburg, Va. Soto sings, preaches and performs digital baptisms in the metaverse to a growing congregation of avatars. Steve Helber/AP Photo.

I don’t know or care what the Metaverse is, but as the sage Marx once said, “whatever it is, I’m against it.”1Groucho Marx – I’m Against It 

That was my position before I read the long article2Making the metaverse: What it is, how it will be built, and why it matters by Meta’s President of Global Affairs, Nick Clegg, that extolled and attempted to explain the Metaverse. By the time I finished it, I still had no idea what the Metaverse is, but I was more against it than ever.

Whatever it is, or will be, apparently it isn’t quite there yet. For all his corporate enthusiasm, Clegg sounds almost embarrassed describing the state of the technology today. “[T]he often cartoonish experiences that exist right now will no doubt feel quaint in a few short years. The great leap forward that companies like Meta believe is possible hasn’t happened yet.” Well, that’s two things I dislike right there: cartoons and Great Leaps. No wonder he sounds defensive.

Clegg is right: the Metaverse does look cartoonish, with simple avatars floating around a simulated world that looks like it was designed by people who spent too much of their youth watching Adult Swim. Which, to be fair, it probably was. Early reviews have been appropriately harsh. The YouTube channel AdHoc did a good job pointing out that the Emperor has no clothes … or legs. More winsomely, Iceland’s tourism marketing board reminded viewers of the relative benefits of God’s creation over Zuckerberg’s

Why would any normal person want to enter this programmer playground? Clegg mostly ignores the commercial motivations of the Metaverse, which is strange, as it is the only reason it exists. In his telling, the Metaverse is supposed to be about convenience, but the real convenience is for corporate marketers. Once we have immersed ourselves in the virtual marketplace, companies will no longer have to work to track us across platforms by mining our credit card transactions, Google searches, YouTube viewing habits, iTunes purchases, and our geolocation and health data. In the Metaverse, we will be both product and consumer, our behaviour harvested and fed back to us by advertisers in an autophagic loop. It is convenient in the way a battery chicken farm is convenient for the chickens.

But Clegg isn’t here to talk about the commercial metaphysic of the Metaverse. He wants to talk about the “potential societal benefits,” which he assures us “are vast.” Just think of all the benefits! Like being able to hold “in-person” meetings in “virtual meeting rooms, complete with whiteboards, boardroom tables, wall art, and futuristic cityscapes visible through the windows.” “Yes,” he admits, “we are meeting as stylized representations of ourselves” but there is a “sense of place and space … that makes the meetings feel much more human than talking to thumbnail faces on a laptop.” 

Now, I may be a stubbornly corporeal meat bag, but talking to a real human face will always feel “more human” to me than talking to a “stylized” digital representation. I can see why these ”in-person” meetings would appeal to the right-on sort of middle manager who enthusiastically embraced Zoom, but it sounds like a nightmare for everyone else summoned to kiddie cartoon land for a presentation that could have been covered in a memo. 

If we want to avoid being dragged into this pixelated purgatory, we will have to draw the line early. The first time someone suggests meeting in the Metaverse, I suggest playing dumb. Pretend your computer doesn’t access it. Refuse to learn. Better yet, laugh at them. “No seriously, where are the non-nerds meeting?” Above all, stick to your guns, because once your employer or your weirdo friends get used to it, good luck keeping them rooted in reality. You know, that place where there is “a sense of place” because it is a place. 

Clegg describes the Metaverse as part of a technological evolution that will make the internet “more human than the way we experience it today—more physical, interactive, and speech-based than flat screens filled with text and images.” 

But what Clegg calls “evolution” is another step further away from reality. Holding a book, with its dog-eared pages, marginalia, and foxed and sun-bleached pages is more human than looking at text on a screen because the book has lived in the same world as us. It has felt human hands. It has seen the same sun that we have, and it shows the effects of time. Someday, like us, it will return to dust. Text on a computer screen or a smartphone is less real than a book, but it is still accessible through something solid and separate from ourselves. An iPhone, for all its addictive problems, still exists in the same world as us. It can be left at home, turned off, or ignored. In the Metaverse, as another Marx said, “all that is solid melts into air.”3Manifesto of the Communist Party

The Metaverse is the next stage of an inversion of the old relationship between us and our technology. Throughout human history, we have used tools to adapt our physical environment. Virtual reality and artificial intelligence threaten to reverse that relationship. In the Metaverse, the machine no longer exists to serve us in our world; we must become disembodied and enter the machine’s world and adapt to its conditions. And as our tools learn to build for themselves and even build and repair themselves, they become less a means for us to improve this world and more like ends in themselves for worlds where we are superfluous. 

We are aliens in the world of the machine. When Clegg refers to the human presence in the Metaverse as “blemish-free avatar[s],” it is a telling description. It is not a place suited to our quintessence of dust. The built environments used to showcase the Metaverse are all similarly blemish free. There is no “lived in” feel because it can’t be lived in. And any attempt to give the Metaverse a lived-in feel would require even more falsehood—deliberately planned anomalies and the calculated placement of intentional flaws. Paradoxically, for the Metaverse to feel ever more “real” will require ever more deception—and the further it will be from reality. 

Le Corbusier, the great anti-human architect of the 20th Century, would have loved it. He famously described a house as “a machine for living in.” The Metaverse gives that dream new meaning. The key to Le Corbusier’s aesthetic was “an ideal of standardization that emerged with the rise of industrial, factory-based assemblage.” Mass production, he saw, enabled “the replacing of natural materials by artificial ones, of heterogeneous and doubtful materials by homogeneous and artificial ones (tried and proved in the laboratory).” Builders no longer had to contend with the imperfection of natural materials. They no longer had to worry that “in the old-world timber beam there may be lurking some treacherous knot” that might impede the perfect reproduction of design.

The Metaverse frees designers from all natural limitations, even the limits of mass-production. Le Corbusier’s mission was to replace the ad hoc personality of cities built haphazardly over centuries by many hands with an efficient and standardized mechanical uniformity. His Plan Voisin for central Paris would have levelled what remained of the medieval city and Hausmann’s earlier urban regimentation, and replaced it with 18 identical skyscrapers. It was to be the realization of his ideal “Radiant City”—rational, symmetrical, and replicable. No surprises. No crooked timbers. No treacherous knots.4Ville Radieuse: Le Corbusier’s Functionalist Plan for a Utopian “Radiant City”  

With control over every element of the built environment comes total control of its inhabitants: the dream of every socialist dictator—and capitalist marketer. Clegg suggests that the Metaverse could incorporate spaces for unsurveilled interaction and unmonitored conversation. Don’t believe it. You can’t access the internet without leaving digital fingerprints, and you will never be able to trust that its built spaces are safe from the watching eyes and listening ears of the builders. Like Winston and Julia in 1984, you are liable to find that what you thought was a private room was monitored by the Thought Police all along. 

There will be no need for cameras or facial recognition in the Metaverse because you are already in the camera. Do you really think that Big Government or Big Tech will be able to resist the temptation to peek? Even if the Metaverse doesn’t capitulate directly to authoritarian regimes—and it’s hard to see how it won’t if it wants access to the world’s largest market—the best we can hope for is a world in which no word and no keystroke goes unmonitored. How else could the designers apply the “guardrails” that Clegg says must be built into the Metaverse “to maximize its potential for good and minimize the potential harms”?

Clegg spends a lot of time talking about these guardrails and the ways that the Metaverse might be policed to keep out the worst aspects of Twitter and Facebook. His conclusions aren’t reassuring. He imagines a virtual bar in the Metaverse where virtual patrons might get into a heated discussion that offends another virtual patron. Who is responsible for the offense? What are the consequences for the offenders? Who decides? And who enforces? 

He suggests that, in this scenario, interactions in the Metaverse could be governed not by a “social media platform’s community standards” but by “the existing rules and norms that govern bars in physical reality.” Except that we shouldn’t expect people to act the way they would in real life when they are hidden behind a cartoon avatar. Even when people use their real identities online, interactions between two people who never have to look each other in the eye are qualitatively different from in-person conversations. There is something about removing the threat of being punched in the nose that emboldens the most obnoxious among us. 

The best solution for belligerent phoney bar conversations? Stay out of the Metaverse altogether. (Besides, who wants to go to a “bar” that doesn’t serve drinks?) The decadence of late-stage capitalism in the real world is bad enough. Do you really want to spend time in a corporate playground in which every virtual inch around you has been built to tempt, titillate, divert, and distract you? Where every design decision has been made to stop you from taking off your headset and going outside where you can squint into the sun or feel the rain on your skin? The last thing we need is more reasons to shirk our responsibilities in this world.

There will no doubt be people who welcome the experimental escapism of the Metaverse. We should want to stay as far away from them as possible. We used to have a word for people who mix fantasy and reality a little too liberally and prefer the illusion of unreality to the magic of reality. We called them crazy. Now they want us to join them in the invisible asylum they are building. Don’t do it. And if they persist, mock them. With those silly headsets on, they won’t be able to see the rest of us laughing.

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