On 28 October, Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook was rebranding as Meta. The timing was likely a public relations strategy to end the tech giant’s downward trend.
Over the past year the $1trn company has faced congressional antitrust hearings, and damning whistleblower testimonies from ex-employee Frances Haugen revealing (amongst other disclosures) how the company knew but failed to act on the platforms role in advancing teenagers’ self esteem issues and the amplification of hate speech and misinformation in the Global South.
With the Meta launch and the announcement of a virtual reality online space called the metaverse, Zuckerberg is now attempting to redirect attention away from this public scrutiny and into a world that does not exist and where nobody has been harmed – yet.
According to Zuckerberg, the metaverse will be “an embodied internet where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it”. It will be a totalizing claim over all aspects, spaces and possibilities of social life. Ultimately, the metaverse is about exercising an even more pervasive form of power – it is an obvious next step for capitalist logic and a distinct challenge to our future collective imagination.
Get one whole story, direct to your inbox every weekday.
So what exactly is the metaverse?
What makes the metaverse particularly terrifying is the explicit fragmentation and loss of experience which we are supposed to be excited about and willing to inhabit. During the October 2021 annual Facebook Connect conference , Zuckerberg, in an hour and 17 minute speech, described all the ways his company’s vision of the future could make us “feel like” something – but not quite experience it.
Zuckerberg explained how the metaverse could make us “feel like” we are “right there in the moment”, “right there together”, “right there with other people” all without the “there”. This metaverse future is predicated on incompleteness and imitation. It promises connectivity in exchange for the possibilities of the human sensorium. In this virtual reality, we do not get to make our own experience, but will live in one ruled by its singularity.
The extractive logic of this metaverse future is simple. It implies that more data is being produced and collected through a pervasive system of surveillance. The products in the whole Meta suite are designed as massive experimental rooms for company researchers seeking to increase the number of ads people click through. After all, more than 95% of the company’s revenues come from ads.
Meta and other tech companies carry out the experiments in the same settings the products are deployed. They have managed to make us comfortable with spending time within their lab – as they perfect increasing data collection through heightened engagement.
But it's not just Facebook that is going Meta. From Bumble to Nike, it seems like every company is trying to get in on the virtual action. The metaverse offers a natural space for expanding their business and the data they can collect about people.
The metaverse is thus all about control. This is not control for its own sake, but the continuation of a process refined over centuries through which capital seeks to shape the labor of workers, and the workers themselves. It is a logic that seeks workers not to guide, but rather, to complement machines and their mechanical functions. Workers follow the rhythm of the machines at an assembly line as they do driving an Uber: executing the movements that the owners of capital encoded into the machines.
The metaverse is now extending that control over people who are no longer presented as the prosthetics of machines, but a constitutive element within its matrix – placing the worker’s whole existence inside the machine itself. This virtual reality world will mediate all of our senses. There will be no more natural cycles to offer a shared sense of time. No real seasons or sunsets. The whole environment within which human interactions occur will be subjected to the cycles and rhythm of the corporate machine.
We need to collectively define and build the future
Tech companies have been controlling the narrative about the future for decades. Their leaders have been made into demi-gods to justify their enormous power. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs performed as the larger than life visionary of our computerized brain. Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk argues that his massive wealth will save the human genome by colonizing other planets. These should be collective decisions, instead they have ended up in the hands of individuals who argue that ‘the future’ starts today. However this future is being constantly displaced, embodied by the next technology, the next big leap into – ironically – fewer possibilities of existence away from the screen.
Now with the metaverse, there is no way out.
To create and imagine a different future, we need to think in new ways, and reject the enclosure of the virtual. Unlike the metaverse, this needs to be a collective process.
However as we spend more time engaging in digital settings, the social scaffolding upon which our interactions depend is becoming more opaque – managed and controlled by a couple corporations. It is critical that we focus our attention on the power of big tech which directly threatens our emancipatory capabilities. Once we manage to claim space for a public conversation on what future we need, want and deserve, we can start envisioning the technologies that could serve within it.
We need to make sure that the spaces of the future enable change, agency, co-production, negotiation, cooperation and resistance. This is just a step towards creating an alternative and hopefully better future beyond the metaverse.