What is the metaverse? Why is Facebook rebranding itself as Meta Platforms? And what does it have to do with the 1990s cyberpunk novel Snow Crash?
The most obvious answer is that Mark Zuckerberg’s rebranding is a desperate response to two entangled issues:
1. The Facebook Papers have suggested that company leadership knew, and basically didn’t give a shit about, the corrosive impact Facebook’s social media platform was having on mental health and global political discourse.
2. For some time now, Facebook has also been hemorrhaging users and facing a particularly steep decline in engagement from teenagers (who are its most lucrative advertising market) with internal projections estimating a further projected “drop [of] 45 percent over the next two years [in teen users].”
Faced with bad publicity and investor worries about its flagship product, it’s no wonder that Zuckerberg wanted to rebrand. By why “Meta?”
Etymologically, the prefix meta is a “word-forming element of Greek origin meaning 1. ‘after, behind; among, between,’ 2. ‘changed, altered,’ 3. ‘higher, beyond’,” which has produced a host of common terms, such as metaphysics, metaphor, metabolism, meteor, and so on, and so in this case it might as well represent “metastasizing metadata.”
For Facebook, however, one of the advantages of the word “Meta” is that it is an already ubiquitous (and even trending) term/prefix. Picking a semi-generic term functions to camouflage search results due to algorithmic confusion (e.g., Google’s transformation into the ultra-generic “Alphabet”). In this, Zuckerberg and company seem to have overshot insofar as it turns out that there is already a computer company called “Meta.”
But the name change goes deeper. For a while now, Zuckerberg has been pitching Facebook’s transition into the “metaverse.” A term which at first pass (meta + [uni]verse) suggests a digital “otherworld” or perhaps a hypercapitalist afterlife.
In what follows, I’ll explore the meaning and context of the metaverse. It matters because, if you are reading this virtual blog post, you are in some sense already living through a dystopia into which Zuckerberg and company, if they have it their will, will drag you even deeper. Follow me over the fold for further elaboration.
In order to get what is going on with metaverse, you need to know that Zuckerberg and other Silicon Valley pseudo-accelerationists have mistaken cyberpunk dystopia for utopia. The following will elaborate.
I have explored the cyberpunk genre in detail elsewhere, but its most influential early appearances were Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner, William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), and, for our purposes, Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992) which coined the term “metaverse.”
Snow Crash is in many respects paradigmatic cyberpunk, set in a corporate feudalist 21st century Los Angeles dystopia. What is especially novel is its exploration of the tensions around the discovery that an ancient Sumerian ur-language might be able to permit the programming of human consciousness itself.[i] Along the way, Stephenson introduces the metaverse.
Stephenson’s metaverse is much like the cyberspace posited by Gibson and others, but with two significant differences. First, it is navigated by users as though it was a quasi-physical place. To quote the novel: “You can’t just materialize anywhere in the Metaverse, like Captain Kirk beaming down from on high. This would be confusing and irritating to the people around you. It would break the metaphor” Instead of flickering into the metaverse at a predetermined location, a virtual avatar is needed to run around inside a virtual world. (So not like the internet.)
Second, it can function as a kind of augmented reality overlay on the physical world.[ii] So that when a person is moving around in physical space, the idea is that an alternate meta-world is visible to them.
These are the two elements Zuckerberg and company seem to be interested in imitating.
It is also worth noting that versions of the metaverse have already been attempted, perhaps without augmented VR, but nonetheless with other features that Stephenson suggested. One of the largest scale attempts to implement a metaverse is Second Life (launched in 2003), which, while in certain respects visually resembling a MMORG, is a plotless virtual world navigated by custom avatars. For a long time, Second Life was ecstatically praised by various pundits, but its user base seems to have long since passed its peak. There are different accounts of why Second Life fell out of vogue; perhaps competition from social media platforms like Facebook; perhaps in backlash against its increasing commercialization; but perhaps it began to die in the “griefer” era when gangs of roving pranksters flooded it with nudity and flying penises. All that is to say, while it is way too early to count it out, some version of the metaverse has already been tried and by some measures failed.
But the last, and most basic, point I want to make about Snow Crash’s version of the metaverse is that it occurs in a dystopia. Stephenson describes people who are so alienated from their lives they have becomes “gargoyles” wandering around constantly in the metaverse. Indeed, the novel regularly includes cautionary refrains about the dangers of becoming a gargoyle. All this works to underscore the function the metaverse has as a kind of opiate for suffering and alienated masses in a dystopian world. As Stephenson puts it: “when you live in a shithole, there’s always the Metaverse.” (A new moto for Zuckerberg’s company perhaps?)
There is something especially weird about the latest turn to the Metaverse and it goes way beyond a Facebook rebranding. What I have in mind is the return of cyberpunk as nostalgia. To put it differently, how did a 1980/90s dystopia resurrect as a 2010/20s utopia?
Cyberpunk novels generally depict a future in which technology and human inequality have produced dehumanization. Cyberpunk worlds are usually crapsack worlds. They are typically cautionary notes, warnings about how bad things could get. We aren’t supposed to want to live there. But Zuckerberg is far from alone in having missed this basic point. We can think of other recent resurgences like Elon Musk whose “cybertruck” and neural link projects seem to be other attempts to push us into a cyberpunk present (although, to confess, I kind of like the cybertruck). But they aren’t alone.[iii]
So why is cyberpunk back in increasingly utopian registers? Partially cyberpunk seems to be on the resurgence because of an incipient 1990s nostalgia among certain age demographics. Looking around at all the disasters of the current political and environmental moment, it is hard for some folks in the industrialized countries of Europe and North America not to be nostalgic for that brief period between the Cold War and the War on Terror (aka 1989-2001) when, in retrospect, things might seem to have been better off.
I get it. I’m only a few years older than Zuckerberg, and at points we traversed overlapping social worlds. In my scholarship I often emphasize the importance of self-reflexivity. So I should own that likely some of the same zeitgeist that made me think Metamodernism sounded cool perhaps contributed to why Zuckerberg might have thought Meta Platforms sounded cool. I’m also drawn to the nostalgia of cyberpunk, even as I recognize that the 1990s were far from utopian.
But most attempts at revival seem to completely miss the core of cyberpunk. Although I’ll have to defer a detailed explanation into a future post, we could crudely think of cyberpunk as composed of two primary semiotic elements, the cyber of virtuality and the style (or political aesthetics) of punk. Hence, its portability into internet-free spin-off genres such as steampunk, deiselpunk or my brother’s current fav solarpunk. At its best cyberpunk traced inequalities of techno-power and lionized rebellion against them. In this respect, Zuckerberg and company are all cyber, no punk.
One way to look at it is that the contemporary present has become so dystopian that older dystopias are beginning to look rather dandy. But the other influence here is what we could call the idealistic pseudo-accelerationism of Silicon Valley. I’m writing an academic article about accelerationism at the moment, but just to note that there is a particular version of broadly libertarian, techno-utopianism that imagines the solution to the present moment is to even more fully unleash the productive powers of capitalism (think Pinker’s Enlightenment Now meets Ayn Rand).
In this respect, the central feature of Zuckerberg’s iteration of the metaverse would seem to be its capacity for monetizing escapism. Basically, no matter how fucked up the world is, you could put on your virtual goggles and vanish into a more idealized reality (as long as you have the $$$ to spare). Look I’m all for certain forms of escapism and play (e.g., video games) but the Zuckerverse (as I’d prefer to call it) seems to be an amplification of the worst trends in monetization.
Moreover, it would have the potential for ideological silo-ing that could amplify the worst parts of Facebook’s already poisonous echo chambers. In that it would be a kind of inversion of John Carpenter’s They Live(1988) in which the protagonist discovers a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see the ideological reality behind the consumer world around him, but with the Zuckerverse goggles instead allowing users to intentionally blind themselves to their real conditions. Never underestimate the appeal of the simulacrum.
I’m also reminded of one my favorite under-recognized science fictional dystopias namely M.T. Anderson, Feed (2002) which imagines a future in which almost every American citizen is directly connected a “feednet” (internet) via neural link. All the world’s information is only a thought away. But instead of making people smarter, the feed is dominated by corporate propaganda/advertising. So that for example when people start getting skin lesions, instead of addressing the epidemic or its cause, they are bombarded with propaganda about fashionable lesions and advertising various products to accessorize lesions and so on. Replace, feednet with Zuckerverse and that is perhaps what we seem to be heading toward.
Restated, this seems to be an all too plausible near future and as such it has been coming for a long time.
So what can be done about this unfolding dystopia?
In first and most trivial instance, we need to do our best to hack, subvert, repurpose and reengineer the Metaverse to either liberate its emancipatory potential and take back its power for the people or shut it the fuck down (and if all else fails we can flood it with dicks, although I guess that on its own won’t make anything better).
But more fundamentally, the problem represents a limit in the contemporary political imaginary.
As theorists like Mark Fisher famously observed, it often seems easier to imagine the end of the world than an escape from capitalism. With a return to pre-capitalism seemingly unimaginable, the only alternatives might appear to be a choice between the lesser of two dystopias.
This isn’t surprising. Indeed, every news cycle, seems to bring fresh accounts of new atrocities such as mass shootings, ecological catastrophes, sexual harassment cases, or yet more examples of racially-motivated violence.
It is understandable that, faced with global pandemic, anthropogenic climate change, economic turbulence, and political polarization, many people seem to have lost their capacity to imagine better futures. We as a society have no problem picturing the end of the world—imagined dystopias and future apocalypses are abundant in contemporary films, novels, and even political speeches—but we seem to have largely given up on imagining utopias.
This is a problem because, as numerous political theorists have observed, it is hard to organize meaningful change around cynicism, nihilism, or political grievances. Yet we will never solve the intertwined catastrophes of the present moment if we do not exercise our capacity to imagine better futures. So it seems to me that, in these apparently dystopian times, it is even more important to imagine a better world; we must struggle together toward utopia in a dystopian age.
With these goals in mind, I have been using my professional position to facilitate the cultivation of diverse utopian (or more “eutopian”) seeds. The work is in its early days. You can read about it in that link above. You can look at some early gestures toward it in the ethics/political theory chapter of my latest book (Metamodernism: The Future of Theory), or follow me back in time here to the start of one version of the project (The Stubborn Persistence of Post-Capitalist Utopia: Introduction- Post-Apocalyptic Capitalism)
[i] The “word virus” philosophy of language is more Burrough’s than Sapir-Whorf, and I’ve discussed it in detail elsewhere. REF
[ii] Stephenson, Snow Crash: “Hiro’s avatar just looks like Hiro, with the difference that no matter what Hiro is wearing in Reality, his avatar always wears a black leather kimono”
[iii] Think of Synthwave