Masters of the Userverse

A fantasy life of push-button convenience and technological coddling is just as much a “virtual world” as any metaverse

Full-text audio version of this essay.

In the Black Mirror episode “USS Callister,” a game designer finds escape from his undervalued work life by playing a modified version of his own game, Infinity, in which he commands a knockoff starship Enterprise and abuses his crew, avatars of his actual colleagues. Feeling shortchanged of the credit he is due, he creates a mod where his co-workers are tortured into praising his every action. Eventually the crew stages a mutiny, migrating into an updated version of the game and leaving the designer behind, locked in his solipsistic contrivance forever. 

This fable of narcissistic frustration and compensatory control exemplifies what I call a “userverse,” a customized surrogate world that allows “users” to experience a sense of unchallenged mastery over people (or simulations of people) who are forced to work like machines — a kind of sadism as a service. The user in control of a userverse — prototypically a man whose unthinking sense of entitlement has been troubled — feels dejected or underappreciated, so he seeks an alternative world where no one can criticize him, where everyone (often women) is in service to him, where he finally gets the respect (if not the revenge) he so desperately believes he deserves. 

The userverse is a kind of sadism as a service

A userverse provides users with the experience of control as convenience. It is an enclosed space where other people or things are rendered within it only insofar as they are of service to the user. Though the Infinity scenario may seem far-fetched, more of us are passing into userverses than we might realize, whenever we expect to be catered to by people with the push of a button, as an increasing profusion of delivery services promises. Users often believe they’re doing nothing worse than using advanced “smart” technology to meet their needs — smart doorbells and smart speakers; delivery apps and Uber — but in practice they’re really using people, in an asymmetrical, exploitative relationship. You don’t have to don a headset or helmet, but this practice amounts to a kind of virtual reality, an escapist illusion sustained by reductive interfaces and devalued labor.

In a userverse, the desire for convenience and the pleasure of mastery fuel each other. It is especially attractive to individuals who feel a loss of control at work or in their social lives outside the home. It offers a world where individuals can have their position at the center of things confirmed. They can enjoy being served while reassuring themselves when necessary that no one is being harmed, as if their feeling of domination just flows naturally from the technology itself and not the social relations it is masking.

The history of the userverse starts in the 19th century, when an idea of a withdrawn, private leisure space began to emerge. “For the private citizen, for the first time the living-space became distinguished from the place of work,” Walter Benjamin argued in “Paris, Capital of the 19th Century” (1935). “The former constituted itself as the interior.” It was at home, in the interior, where workers could furnish a private space with mass-produced trinkets and knickknacks from the emerging consumer society, tapping into the comfort of their self-made illusions of safety and control. The interior became “the universe for the private citizen,” Benjamin claimed. It was a period when the ideology of “my home is my castle” was distributed among non-aristocrats, who gradually gained the capability to decorate private quarters in a way that was supposed to replenish a sense of autonomy denied at work. It was also the beginning of the virtualization of private space, when one could surround themselves with objects that provided a kind of everyday illusion and an escape from the outside world.

Suburbanization in the postwar era both insulated and simultaneously expanded the private interior space even more, making possible the development of more fully-fledged userverses. Whereas interior space before was constituted within four walls, the suburbs extended this interiority outward in all directions. The isolation of the suburban home in its subdivision cul-de-sac — often protected by guards, gates, or pass codes — posits a threshold that can be likened to crossing dimensions; entering a suburb is like moving into a virtual world. Suddenly you are awash in a gentrified glow, passing the trim cut grass, the houses all alike, manufactured to ward off the experience of difference or dissonance. Similarly, a suburbanite could step outside their home and find themselves in an ordered, segmented world. The predictability stretches to the likes of shopping centers and chain restaurants, rationalized spaces oriented toward making commerce and consumption as convenient as possible. 

Inside the home, the father is presumed king and artificial “laborers” — appliances like washing machines and microwaves — appear to take care of the family’s needs (though they intensified rather than eliminated the burden and drudgery of housework). As was frequently modeled in family sitcoms, the father finds respite from subordination at work in a home rendered ideologically as a managed environment where everything is under his implicit control. Eventually new kinds of caring machines, beyond refrigerators and toasters, were posited for these protected spaces, as with the 1950s “Home of the Future,” The Jetsons’ Rosie the robot, the 1999 Disney Channel movie Smart House, or Spike Jonze’s Her. Feminine-coded AI like Siri and Alexa now provide answers to questions, dim our lights, and turn up our music when asked. They promise to make homes cozy and comfortable for the master who mans the controls. 

We are passing into userverses whenever we expect to be catered to with the push of a button

The user in a userverse is encouraged to believe that escaping from the constraints and negotiations of participating in a diverse community is a kind of efficient, labor-saving practice, given that the labor he saves is his own. By reducing complex chores and services to the push of a button, one can entertain the delusion that technology is liberating people from working and that labor disputes have been solved rather than disappeared. Efforts by laborers to question or organize against the consumers’ feeling of mastery are dismissed or explained away, downplayed as adjustment difficulties: Give it time, and the technology will eventually work for everyone. Escape itself can seem synonymous with efficiency, which would make forays into a supposedly separate “virtual reality” appear almost virtuous. Libertarian exodus fantasies in which “geniuses” can live in exile, nurtured by advanced technology and free from the “takers” of ordinary society, are one variant of this. A VR-based userverse geared toward preventing the experience of reciprocity (or replacing it with simulations that the user ultimately manages) is another. 

But the gig economy is the userverse’s central operating system. Uber-fied delivery companies like Grubhub and Instacart deploy simple interfaces to normalize the exploitative use of labor, such that getting a grocery delivery can feel just as much a “virtual” experience as a tour through the metaverse: The world is brought to you through a screen. Only in this case, real workers have been subject to real hazards to convey physical items to you.

Many tech sales pitches are predicated at hiding human labor. Behind much “smart” technology is what Astra Taylor calls “fauxtomation,” which conceals the human workers who do what the technology is marketed as doing autonomously. Similarly, a great deal of what Mary L. Gray and Siddharth Suri call “ghost work” is required to allow what is marketed as AI to function. Work — underpaid, unpaid — is concealed behind the sheen of convenient interfaces that indulge their users with feelings of power, control, and self-sufficiency. A userverse to a degree anticipates those critiques, inviting users to see themselves as entitled to the labor of other people on whatever terms the interface authorizes. By this principle, the ability to “use” people in a userverse also creates the conditions for abuse, which are latent in the unsustainable expectations of frictionless convenience and the continual opportunity to rate workers on the basis of circumstances beyond their control. 

The logic of a userverse then proves extendable by other means, as different kinds of technology become means for giving “users” a sense of control over others first, and useful for some other purpose second. A smart thermostat becomes the means of controlling someone else’s comfort. Doorbell cameras become a means for requiring Amazon delivery drivers to dance when they drop off boxes. Social media platforms become the means for issuing commands and enacting punishments. In a userverse, a user begins to feel satisfied only to the extent that their entitlement is recognized.

Userverses exist within userverses. They are nested paddocks: exiting one userverse reveals a larger userverse beyond it. The outside world resembles the reality inside the smart home, inside the modded game, inside the virtual reality. In each layered userverse, a user manipulates others to feed his need for convenience. Being a servant in someone else’s userverse is generally the price one must pay to be a master in their own. One of the functions of convenience-oriented technology is to support this nesting and make it cohere, to maintain the blind spots that provide more illusory and sealed-off experiences, and to support insecure displays of power against marginalized laborers. 

The ability to preserve one’s own userverse, of course, depends on one’s wealth. There is always a userverse sealed more tightly somewhere, guarded more closely, enclosed more perfectly. The wealthiest in the world can surround themselves with human laborers, with servants, private chefs, chauffeurs, and guards, in smart compounds “off the grid.”

The gig economy is the userverse’s central operating system

The development of virtual reality will create new possibilities for the construction of userverses, in that they will more fully immerse users in planned worlds, manufacture a more immediate sense of mastery, and conceal the labor to maintain them behind the screen. It might seem that the “metaverse” could abolish the need for userverses — that digital simulations could replace human service labor — but there are always humans behind the screens, carrying out the ghost work obscured by the fantasies of the managed virtual environment. The metaverse may supply users with a more varied experience of the fundamentally static interiority of their userverse, while also excluding any evidence of friction or discontent. Users can “travel” and socialize with other users’ avatars on terms they control, while they are served in their physical home by various delivery workers who are structured as always being on the outside, in the exterior. To the extent that any metaverse is modeled on offering unilateral convenience and control, it will become a userverse and reproduce its asymmetries. 

When internet was in its early stages, some users found a sense of freedom and impunity in its virtuality and relative anonymity, while others found themselves subject to abuse with little recourse. In 1993, journalist Julian Dibbell wrote “A Rape in Cyberspace,” an account of how one participant in the online community LambdaMOO used code to coerce other people’s avatars to perform acts against their will. This should have served as a warning rather than a blueprint, but over the next two decades, tech companies continued to develop technologies that were geared toward establishing userverses rather than preventing them.

Any technology that hides labor beneath an interface will make for more userverses. But this is not merely because it makes consumers indifferent to the fate of workers. Userverses aren’t formed because individuals are inherently sadistic or because the purpose of technology is inevitably directed toward convenience rather than some nobler end. They’re formed because tech companies have discovered that it’s profitable to provide isolated, insecure, overworked individuals with a false sense of mastery that replenishes their capacity to provide exploited labor of their own, reproducing the entire system. To dismantle the userverse and the gig economy that supports it will require more than better intentions or greater empathy for workers or any individual gesture on the part of consumers; it will require that the profit motive be subject to limits. Until ownership and true control of technology is placed in the hands of workers who use it, we will persist in misunderstanding who the real “users” are and who is being used.

Grafton Tanner is the author of The Hours Have Lost Their Clock: The Politics of Nostalgia. His work has appeared in such venues as The Nation, NPR’s Throughline, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He lives in Athens, GA.