A former Head of Strategy at Amazon Studios and Mark Zuckerberg’s spiritual guru, Matthew Ball, has gifted us a term for this mess: the metaverse.1 When you clear away the stock images of digital avatars wandering through outer space and performing complex surgery, it appears the metaverse is basically a term for the unified realm of virtual reality, accessible through all the existing applications, games, and other social media we currently interact with online, but scaled for an unlimited number of users, i.e., a fancy name for a world populated entirely by consumers of the companies who create these products.
Ball, whose idea is hardly original, borrows the concept from dystopian science fiction. The first-known mention of the term metaverse is in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, in which the creation of a virtual reality world doesn’t work out for the humans involved, just as it doesn’t in the extremely popular Matrix franchise. The current marketing pitch for these dystopian futures is that technology is amoral—it’s the humans who do bad things with it.2 Nick Clegg, Meta’s President of Global Affairs and former Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, describes the metaverse as a logical evolution for communication technologies, whose defining quality will be the “feeling of presence, like you are right there with another person or in another place.”3 Unfortunately, another defining quality will be that you are, in fact, not in that other place, with that other person.
As anyone on Twitter knows, the platform allows you to directly interact with any other user on the site, in theory, but the algorithmic infrastructure that tracks user data automatically curates the conversations you see. In effect, this rapidly tightens the user’s social circle and creates ever more fractured social worlds. This carefully curated isolation that Meta, Twitter, and others market as the total unification of social life across virtual and mundane reality serves as a fair description of both the internet we have now and the metaverse we’re promised will arrive soon. While Silicon Valley tech bros salivate over badly staged mock-ups of their techno utopia (see the photos from Clegg’s pitch4), Hollywood executives have already made billions of dollars translating these dreams of alternate worlds that collide with our own to the big screen, most obviously through the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).