False Futurism

The metaverse is just another way to “go online”

Full-text audio version of this essay.

By many accounts, the internet is entering a new stage that will completely alter how we experience it. At its core it’s “a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before” that is focused on “tearing down the traditional barriers that have kept companies safe.” It will empower creators with new opportunities while ensuring the user is “handed control of the data they generate.” No longer will we have to be stuck in the walled gardens of tech giants, since any company “that seeks to lock in its application gains by controlling the platform will, by definition, no longer be playing to the strengths of the platform.” It’s a whole new paradigm — or at least it was nearly twenty years ago. All these claims were made back then for Web 2.0.

Why, then, are the same sorts of claims now being made about the metaverse, which is supposed to be superseding it? Mark Zuckerberg says the metaverse will create “a lot of economic opportunity where millions of people around the world can be doing creative work that they really enjoy,” while venture capitalist Matthew Ball claims it will “offer unprecedented interoperability of data, digital items/assets, content, and so on.” Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney explains it won’t be created by one company, but “by millions of developers each building out their part of it,” which requires challenging the power that companies like Apple and Google have over smartphone app stores. As a result, Zuckerberg positions it as “the successor to the mobile internet.”

The metaverse does not offer a meaningful alternative to existing business models and their collateral damage

Today, the term Web 2.0 is associated with platform monopolies, exploitative business models, invasive data capture, and the dreaded “surveillance capitalism.” But when it first came on scene in the aftermath of the dot-com crash in 2000, it was a branding term to generate positive spin for new software that worked on centralized servers accessed online, making for more interactive and “social” applications. By the early 2010s, the term had done its work: The tech industry was back. After the 2008 financial crisis, Silicon Valley was hailed as leading the way to post-recession prosperity. Smartphone adoption was growing rapidly, along with the app and gig economies, and social media was regarded as a democratizing force as some companies benefited from associations with the Arab Spring. But as tech companies grew to immense sizes, they hardly fulfilled the promises of the Web 2.0 marketing copy. The gatekeepers were not deposed, as Jeff Bezos said was necessary in 2012. Users did not control their data, nor did the new paradigm disincentivize corporate control; it expanded further. 

Web 2.0 enclosed the mess of the early web into organized data extraction, justified through interfaces that were easier to use. Not only could these be touted as “democratizing” internet participation, they also helped newcomers find materials and have experiences that would keep them coming back. Companies could claim that they tapped into a general human curiosity, desire for connection, and increasing need for additional income, while evading scrutiny for how they shaped those desires to benefit themselves. They incentivized users to post and make content to keep everyone else coming back. They designed user interfaces and algorithms to keep people engaged and spending as much time as possible on their platforms. And eventually they made themselves seem indispensable. Yet as social media has saturated the world, it has also become a conspicuous contributor to sociopolitical turmoil. Relatedly, its dominance has become so thorough that the main monopolies controlling the sector are running out of room for growth — if they haven’t already.

It’s against this backdrop of apparent hegemony that “Web3” and the “metaverse” have emerged. The metaverse is a branding term with a similar aim as Web 2.0 — to make tech companies’ efforts to reinvigorate existing business models and carve out new ones seem forward-looking and new, while repackaging their leverage over people to compel them to adopt new products as a kind of benevolent leadership, if not a humility in the face of what people “really want.” 

In a short message played before his metaverse keynote at Facebook Connect 2021 to respond to the scrutiny that followed whistleblower Frances Haugen’s release of damning internal documents, Mark Zuckerberg sought to retake control of the narrative. “I believe that technology can make our lives better and I believe that the future won’t be built on its own,” he said. “It will be built by those who are willing to stand up and say, ‘This is the future we want and I’m going to keep pushing and giving everything I’ve got to make this happen.’” 

Zuckerberg didn’t just dismiss the allegations against him; he also dismissed critics as people who don’t think “there ever will be a good time to focus on the future.” His message echoed venture capitalist Marc Andreessen’s argument from a widely read April 2020 essay, “IT’S TIME TO BUILD.” Its thesis is that governments and existing institutions cannot meet the major challenges facing Western countries because they cannot “build” — an assertion that assumes technology inevitably brings about social progress, while ignoring how neoliberalism has hollowed out the capacity of the very institutions he criticizes. From this perspective, the “builders” of the future are “the heroes of our society,” in Zuckerberg’s words, and it’s clear that he imagines himself as one of them. Tech’s existing hegemony stands as proof that their vision must be heeded.

This bold prologue was meant to set up Zuckerberg’s subsequent announcement of the metaverse as an impressive and necessary step toward humanity’s future — a future realized by technological development without the need for political change. As with the platforms of Web 2.0, the supposed benefits were foregrounded and exaggerated to try to get people onside, while the ways it will enhance corporate power and the effects of new forms of commercialization were nowhere to be seen. Facebook claims to be reorienting itself around the metaverse with a $10 billion initial investment and 10,000-person development team in Europe. Nvidia, Samsung, and Tencent were quick to signal they were also onboard, while Nike and luxury fashion brands appeared eager for the opportunity to sell digital threads at lucrative markups. Bumble floated the idea of metaverse dating, Disney saw the potential to exploit its IP in virtual environments, and even Second Life’s founder re-emerged to try to license its patents. 

With bets on smart cities and “Uber for X” services failing to pay off, influential venture capitalists and tech executives want the metaverse to fill that void

But why the excitement for this now? There are many reasons. It is no coincidence that interest in the metaverse has followed the growth of live service games like Destiny 2 and Apex Legends, and especially the success of Epic’s Fortnite. They offer experiences that are tailored to keep players engaged as long as possible while using subscriptions, microtransactions, and loot boxes to entice them to keep spending in ways that are incredibly lucrative for the companies that run them. Increasingly, the games also offer spaces and experiences that go beyond traditional gameplay where players can congregate for social purposes. This is central to Epic CEO Sweeney’s vision of the metaverse, which he describes as offering “real time 3-D entertainment experiences that are social” and that players can experience today — regardless of whether they have a virtual-reality headset.

In addition, major tech companies saw their revenues and profits soar during the pandemic as we were all forced to conduct more of our lives online — and they want to continue having us work and socialize through screens. That’s why the metaverse being touted isn’t just about social experiences but also about work. 

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s description of the metaverse brings together both of these aspects, but also shows how the term is an amorphous buzzword that can be applied to just about anything that involves some form of three-dimensional avatars or spaces with online connectivity. He says that games like Halo, Minecraft, and Flight Simulator are already metaverses of their own and its enterprise applications like Teams and Office are beginning to deploy “metaverse” extensions where meetings and training can be done in virtual spaces and with personal avatars. When the company announced plans to acquire Activision Blizzard in January, it framed it as offering “building blocks for the metaverse,” not simply an attempt to seize more of the video games industry as consolidation in the sector accelerates.

Facebook’s vision also brings together these elements, but it emphasizes virtual and augmented reality with the expectation we’ll spend much more time wearing headsets and smart glasses in the future. In contrast to Microsoft, Facebook’s approach suggests that it isn’t just building a metaverse but the metaverse: an interoperable platform (currently centered on its Horizon applications) accessed primarily through its Quest hardware for all sorts of VR and AR content: virtual avatars, virtual homes, virtual workspaces for virtual meetings, virtual venues for virtual events, and, in what has been presented as the centerpiece, a feature called Horizon Worlds, a gateway to a whole range of games, experiences, and environments that one’s avatar can port into with friends, bringing any of their items with them. 

Facebook’s 2022 Super Bowl ad presumes viewers feel useless and wish to escape into childhood memories of administered fun

Zuckerberg’s vision seems largely inspired by the VR experience laid out in Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One, where much of humanity jacks into a virtual world called the OASIS to escape a planet that has become an environmental disaster. Reflecting that dismal reality, the OASIS is defined by nostalgia. The game is packed with items and experiences based on intellectual property from the past, and success depends on being an expert on those properties and the company’s founder. Notably, Facebook is using a similar framing. Its 2022 Super Bowl ad features characters from a moribund Chuck E. Cheese–like restaurant who are rejuvenated by wearing Facebook’s VR goggles. The ad presumes viewers feel equally useless and wish to escape into childhood memories of administered fun.

But in many ways, the science fiction trappings (as well as the megalomaniacal “builder” posturing) are a distraction from the more plausible motivations underpinning its metaverse push. Facebook wants to build on the commercial success of live service games by having us spend much more time in virtual spaces, thus creating a major new economy of digital goods as we have to outfit our avatars and spaces. But there is also a more insidious desire: to extend its power through the tracking that would be made possible by connecting everything to the metaverse, and by using that new infrastructure to get around the existing “mobile internet” and its gatekeepers.

In some respects, Facebook missed out on the shift from desktop to mobile computing. No matter how successful the company’s products became, they remained just like so many apps in ecosystems controlled by other tech companies. In his 2021 keynote, Zuckerberg admitted that “living under their rules has profoundly shaped my views on the tech industry,” a thinly veiled reference to Apple and its recent operating-system changes that limits how much third-party apps could track users, a move that will cost Facebook $10 billion in ad revenue in 2022. Zuckerberg tried to reframe Apple’s move as stifling innovation, holding back the “internet economy,” and reducing the opportunities for “creators.” 

The metaverse, he argued, would rectify that. In a revival of the Web 2.0 narratives, he claimed the metaverse would return power to users and creators like us. But of course it would really return power to Facebook, giving it full control over a platform and, importantly, the key hardware we use to access it. The metaverse as imagined by Zuckerberg would be housed on Facebook’s servers or app store and accessed through Facebook’s goggles and gloves. Developers would have to meet Facebook’s requirements — how else would you be able to port goods from one universe to another? — giving the company direct control over what metaverse experiences look like and how they function. 

The closest parallel would perhaps be Roblox, an online game platform with more than 200 million active users, including half of U.S. kids and teens under 16. Roblox does not make games of its own but provides the tools for its users to create them — more than 24 million so far — and monetize them through the sale of virtual items. Roblox has also been criticized for having poor moderation and for enabling child exploitation, problems that have plagued other platforms.

This would not be the first time Facebook has tried to extend its power into hardware and infrastructure: The Free Basics program, which offers internet access in the Global South, attempts to control internet access at the ISP level. Facebook Home was an attempt to take a piece of the smartphone market, and Diem (formerly known as Libra) was an attempt to create its own currency. The metaverse is just the latest iteration of this, an indication that some of the old strategies and business models are failing.

As Brian Merchant observed last October, Silicon Valley “is in need of a new framework, a new apparatus, not just a product or a service or a new sector to mine for enterprise contracts.” With social media growth slowing — as evidenced by the recent selloff when Facebook reported a drop in daily active users — and bets on smart cities and “Uber for X” services failing to pay off, influential venture capitalists and tech executives want the metaverse to fill that void. It seeks to provide companies an opportunity to further extend digital technology into our physical reality and new ways to commercialize what happens in the expanded “online,” while creating an infrastructure that will grant the company that controls it power over everything that interacts with it. As much as they would like it to look like a shift from one interface paradigm to the next, as when mobile succeeded desktop, it’s more an attempt to usher in another stage of the internet’s corporatization.

Apple’s control over the App Store has become a lightning rod for key metaverse players, with Sweeney saying existing rules “prevent the metaverse from existing on the Google Play Store and on iOS.” Zuckerberg claims Facebook’s metaverse transaction fees will be lower than Apple’s 30 percent cut from apps on the App Store; he imagines a billion people generating hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue in the metaverse in 10 years — with Facebook taking its smaller cut of all of it. 

The “builders” of the future are “the heroes of our society,” in Zuckerberg’s words, and it’s clear that he imagines himself as one of them

Yet despite the language about tearing down monopolies and empowering creators, the metaverse does not offer a meaningful alternative to existing business models and their collateral damage. As recent patents suggest, it would extend the current platforms’ modes of commercialization, surveillance, and data extraction. The metaverse is just another platform like the ones we already know: a means for bosses to better control workers, for retailers to have more information and leverage over shoppers, and for advertisers to have the data and space to target people with more ads.

Boosters like Zuckerberg and Sweeney may claim that the metaverse will be built by many companies, but it’s quite clear that it will have to be a centralized platform. For Facebook’s vision of the metaverse to work, it would have to be hosted on its servers, along with every experience that connects to it, and everyone who makes them will have to conform to the technical and visual standards set by the company to enable the seamless porting of digital assets. Thus in practice it will be about enclosing much more of what we already do under the Facebook (or Meta) umbrella. Similarly, despite Sweeney’s self-styling as a consumer advocate, his company would immensely benefit from the weakening of Apple’s App Store rules, and he’s already advocating a unified store (otherwise known as a monopoly) where everyone will have to buy their games and software regardless of the platform they’re using. These efforts are in keeping with the monopolistic ambition that virtually every Silicon Valley firm has ingrained into its core directive, in part because investors won’t back any venture that isn’t seeking to take over the world.

That centralization also means the metaverse will suffer from similar challenges as existing platforms. We already know how terribly Facebook has failed at moderating and managing its social media platforms, and there’s little reason to believe its ability to moderate virtual environments will be any better. Indeed its own CTO, Andrew Bosworth, admitted that virtual reality can be a “toxic environment,” particularly for women and minorities, and despite his desire for “almost Disney levels of safety,” moderating what people say and do “at any meaningful scale is practically impossible.” Recent reporting has borne this out. The Washington Post found that Horizons Worlds is full of children despite it supposedly being for adults 18 and over, and Buzzfeed was able to create a world packed with right-wing misinformation and conspiracy theories without moderators detecting any violation of the company’s content policies.

Silicon Valley has succeeded in getting users to adopt many of its new products and services in recent years by underpricing hardware, as in the case of smart home devices like Alexa, or vastly subsidizing the cost of services, as with ride-hailing and food delivery apps. But it’s not clear that commercial enticements will be enough to get people to sit at home every day wearing a “wretched headset,” as Facebook’s own president of global affairs and communications Nick Clegg called it as he struggled to drink his (physical) coffee. Facebook will happily spend to buy some prominent “creators” to bolster its new platform’s credibility, but whether users and developers will be willing to subject themselves to the degree of control Facebook or one of its other metaverse competitors will command is another question.

Tech companies have always overstated the benefits their technologies will grant us and understated how much they serve their own ends of power and profit. The metaverse will be no different, especially since it’s unlikely to arrive in the form currently being sold to us. But the concept builds on the pressures that have shaped the internet’s development since its inception: the need to control the people who use it and find new forms of commercialization to generate profit. While capitalism persists, so too will those driving forces. Silicon Valley’s technologically deterministic approach — one that asserts technology is all that’s necessary to improve society and address social challenges — has already failed us countless times, and there’s no reason to believe it will suddenly produce different results. We should learn from the past and not fall for the latest campaign to sell us an even more commercialized future.

Paris Marx is a writer, the host of a weekly podcast called Tech Won’t Save Us that critiques the worldviews of Silicon Valley, and a PhD student at the University of Auckland.