The social ontology of the Metaverse

For our next project the Centre for Social Ontology will be exploring the Metaverse. There’s a temptation to treat this concept with the utmost cynicism, seeing it as a reheating of virtual worlds with the intention of moving away from the Facebook brand at the point of ever deepening regulatory threat. The risk in doing so is that we assume the technology won’t advance sufficiently to produce a radically different end user experience. The $58 billion cash pile Meta has and governance structures which mean Zuckerberg has remarkable autonomy in defining the strategic direction of the firm (as well as the authority which comes from having been correct in the comparably significant pivot to mobile) constitute the conditions in which this undertaking could be pump-primed with remarkable speed.

It starts with what is claimed to be a $10 billion investment this year but it is unlikely to remain there. Imagine if Apple start applying their $195.57 billion cash pile towards the Metaverse, Amazon’s $86.2 billion or Microsoft’s $137 billion. In fact the latter’s acquisition strategy for game developers reflects the scale of their ambition in this area. There’s the likelihood of an extraordinary amount of capital being invested in research and development by corporations who can afford to be phlegmatic about the possibility of financial returns in the immediate future. As Michael Sacasas put it in his last newsletter, “thinking critically about technology is, in part, a matter of navigating between credulously accepting techno-hype on the one hand, and, on the other, failing to apprehend the real possibility of novel developments”. It would be a mistake to imagine this investment will inevitably produce the planned results but it seems implausible that the evident capacity of these firms for consumer-facing technological innovation won’t lead to novel developments with investment at this scale.

In the last episode of the Talking Politics podcast, David Runciman and John Naughton suggested many find the idea of immersion in the Metaverse faintly ridiculous in the sense of being unable to conceive of the conditions under which one would be moved to do it. I see where they’re coming from but this position risks viewing the Metaverse through the lens of older virtual worlds. The architecture for accessing these worlds in the 2020s and 2030s will be significantly different and more varied than that of previous decades, ranging from augmented reality access through phones and new consumer wearables through to more immersive devices which in a significant sense disconnect one from ‘reality’. See Google’s approach to the Metaverse through the prism of ambient computing. There’s an ontological tension between virtual reality and augmented reality (between immersion and overlay) but it’s not an insurmountable any more than second screening precludes cultural engagement. These developments need to be seen as continuous with the intoxicating lure of the (phone/computer/television) screen and the conditions under which immersion comes to be alluring for the first place, as Sacasas poignantly suggests in the newsletter quoted earlier:

For example, I wonder for how many of us the experience of the world is already so attenuated or impoverished that we might be tempted to believe that a virtual simulation could prove richer and more enticing? And how many of us already live as if this were in fact the case? How much of my time do I already devote to digitally mediated images and experiences? How often am I lured away from the world before my eyes by the one present through the screen?

I share his scepticism about the possibility of a good life within the Metaverse on roughly similar theoretical grounds. To live well is a relationship we cultivate with the world rather than a subjective feeling of wellbeing. Are what Archer and Donati call relational goods possible within the Metaverse? Can we build trust with others and work together? Can we experience intimacy through immersive remote connection? These questions have a certain piquancy following Covid. It remains to be seen what effect the experience of muddling through during an emergency, trying to sustain relationships to the best extent we can, has had on the IRL fetish: “the explicit preference of physical over digital, and in particular, the designation of the former as more ‘real’ than the latter”. It might have reinforced it for many but at the level of reflective preference rather than ontological bias in the sense in which the obvious superiority of the ‘real’ can no longer be taken for granted.

If we’re leaving neoliberalism and entering something worse the disruption of the last 2 years should be seen as a foreshadowing of future upheaval rather than an exception to the norm. In this context what Marc Andreessen has called ‘reality privilege’ should be taken seriously as an immensely provocative idea rather than the ravings of a billionaire keen to accumulate more billions through the metaverse:

Your question is a great example of what I call Reality Privilege. This is a paraphrase of a concept articulated by Beau Cronin: “Consider the possibility that a visceral defense of the physical, and an accompanying dismissal of the virtual as inferior or escapist, is a result of superuser privileges.” A small percent of people live in a real-world environment that is rich, even overflowing, with glorious substance, beautiful settings, plentiful stimulation, and many fascinating people to talk to, and to work with, and to date. These are also *all* of the people who get to ask probing questions like yours. Everyone else, the vast majority of humanity, lacks Reality Privilege — their online world is, or will be, immeasurably richer and more fulfilling than most of the physical and social environment around them in the quote-unquote real world.

The Reality Privileged, of course, call this conclusion dystopian, and demand that we prioritize improvements in reality over improvements in virtuality. To which I say: reality has had 5,000 years to get good, and is clearly still woefully lacking for most people; I don’t think we should wait another 5,000 years to see if it eventually closes the gap. We should build — and we are building — online worlds that make life and work and love wonderful for everyone, no matter what level of reality deprivation they find themselves in.

For avoidance of doubt I do find this dystopian. Profoundly so. I’m simply not convinced that reiterating this disgust is an adequate response to Andreessen’s challenge. This is why I find Sacasas’s approach so valuable in beginning to interrogate the possibility for a good life within the metaverse, the technological conditions which frustrate it and what this reflects about the nature of human beings. The inevitably with which questions about the ‘human’ emerge when we subject the normative claims about the metaverse to any level of analysis mean these debates intersect in interesting ways with the conflict between neo-humanism, transhumanism and posthumanism (see also postdigital humans). I don’t usually find Braidotti an interesting thinker but I’m genuinely fascinated to see how she responds to the idea of the Metaverse.

I’m keen to explore these philosophical questions alongside the political economy of the metaverse. To what extent will this be defined by NFTs as a potentially infinitely expandable asset class within a walled garden marketplace controlled by a single firm? What would a potentially exponential expansion of NFTs mean for the climate? To what extent does the push towards the Metaverse reflect a recognition that the digital advertising model (underpinning Facebook and Google) has reached its limit? Will this replace the ‘internet of things’ as the new frontier of datafication or grow through it? Will the Metaverse survive a bursting of the tech bubble or could it enable the expansion of a new one? How would another pandemic with ensuing lockdowns lead people to relate differently to the possibilities of the Metaverse? The most widely cited fictional explorations of the Metaverse (Snow Crash and Ready Player One) both use a dystopian context to explore this technology:

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