Current Affairs electrate politics Second LIfe

I never met a verse…

As I’m guessing you know, Facebook has changed its name to “Meta” and headed out to colonize/discover/create a “metaverse.” It is a vision that at least in part has been propelled by the company’s acquisition of Oculus. What you may or may not know is that the term metaverse was coined by sci-fi author Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel, Snow Crash. As the book goes,

So Hiro’s not actually here at all. He’s in a computer-generated universe that his computer is drawing onto his goggles and pumping into his earphones. In the lingo, this imaginary place is known as the Metaverse. Hiro spends a lot of time in the Metaverse. It beats the shit out of U-Stor-It.

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There’s plenty of offensive nonsense in Snow Crash, so be forewarned. It’s also dystopian satire, so to some extent it is meant to be offensive, and to be fair, the world we live in 30 years later is no less offensive.

But I digress. I don’t really want to write about this novel, and I certainly don’t want to defend Stephenson’s politics (which are libertarian I guess), which certainly don’t require my defense even if I was willing to offer it, which I’m not. (to be clear, sigh). Regardless, there’s no getting around where the term “metaverse” was coined, anymore than there is with the coining of cyberspace in Neuromancer.

Here’s the thing about Facebook becoming Meta. If it fails and destroys Zuckerberg, the word schadenfreude will likely need to be retired. At the same time, the basic premise of the quotidian web becoming a visual, augmented/virtual reality environment does seem like a likely next step… or at least it has seemed like a likely next step for many years. Second Life was an obvious effort at this but, like Google Glass in the AR world, was not ready for prime time.

VR/AR glasses/googles with low latency (so you can turn your head and the world follows you) are a necessary starting point. There’s a scene in Zuckerberg’s keynote where a woman in Japan joins her friend in LA at a concert. If you can imagine wearing some full audio-visual kit in your living room and then being place virtually next to your friend in an arena, what technology is required to allow you to see what she sees and hear what she hears from her location relative to the stage? Can you see the strangers who are sitting next to her? Hear what they are saying? (Perhaps through a microphone your friend is wearing?) Are there privacy issues? It’s not just a technical challenge. There are legal and ethical matters here.

On the other hand, maybe none of that matters. Maybe you just see an avatar version of your friend, the performers on the stage, and everything else is computer generated. After all, why would you want to be limited to that one seat way in the back with your friend when you could be virtually on stage?

I’ve been thinking mostly about “posthuman computer vision,” but the metaverse aims to be fully immersive, presumably all the way (forward? back?) to teledildonics (which, of course, already exist). Facebook/Meta’s presentation of this world is PG-rated, but anyone who experienced Second Life knows that’s not what’s likely to happen (or at least not all that’s likely to happen). Without getting too salacious, my point is that we need to consider the operation of desiring-production (as Deleuze and Guattari would put it). Gregory Ulmer’s electracy is also on point here in its assertion of a pleasure/pain transversal that is made productive along side the truth/false transversal of literacy and the good/evil transversal of orality.

What is the point of VR/Meta but to expand capitalism into the micropolitics of affect? As users, we get to pursue our every feeling. We pretend we just want pleasure and happiness, but surely we already know that’s not true from our social media lives where we endlessly fight with one another.

For decades I’ve asserted that we do not know how to live (well) in the digital world. We imagine a utopian VR that’s some version of “polite society” or at least a Habermasian public sphere. But really we just want to kick the crap out of each other, earn points with our echo chamber mates, and then achieve some kind of climax (teledildonic or otherwise). Meta is only an intensification of all of that, and its only purpose is to cash in on every possible click/interaction along the way.

The Snow Crash quote captures the whole cynical enterprise. Our homes have become “U-Stor-It” annexes where the detritus of our endless consumerist efforts wash ashore. Who wants to sit among the piles of Amazon packaging and boxes that still need to be disassembled for recycling? Instead, we can find our affective fix in the virtual world. Meta is offered up as a silicon snake oil solution to a problem the internet created. It promises “more real” social connections, but how did we end up with “less real” social connections in the first place?

I’m not suggesting that we go backwards. I don’t have a time machine anyway. But what we’re seeing here is just remediations. Attend a virtual concert with some friends? Sure, I guess. But I’m still sitting in my house. Do I have to wear goggles or can I just watch the concert on my TV? Attend a VR meeting? OK, if I have to. But I’d prefer to not have my every movement tracked and represented as I’m sitting in my house. Does anyone really want that?

Posthuman computer vision, and by extension the rest of the VR senses, is about creating a shared human-nonhuman sensory environment. It’s about expanding our subjective and collective agency: our capacities for knowing and acting. There’s a VR/metaverse world out there (in theory) that does that in ways that reflect our ethical and political commitments. To get there we have to understand technical operations and make ethico-political choices about how to move forward. The world Zuckerberg imagines, at least as I’ve seen it, is just more of what Fb has done all along; it’s just a more intensive way of collecting personal data for capitalist investment.

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