Felix Stalder pondering Meta’s metaverse on the nettime list

Tuesday 2nd November, 2021 - Bruce Sterling

Felix Stalder pondering Meta’s metaverse on the nettime list:

I’m sure most of you have heard by now that Facebook is renaming itself “Meta” and promoting a platform called “Metaverse”, basically, a shared, but heavily customizable VR/AR world.

If you haven’t seen the video from the keynote, have look. You won’t be able to get through the entire 80-minute show (I tried, and failed) but here are a few minutes to get the flavor of how dated this future feels. There is nothing in there that you couldn’t do in Second Life and it even looks pretty much the same.

The best way to feel of the emptiness of the vision is probably through a series of super-cuts of the most frequently doled out platitudes: experience, the physical world, commerce/community, the future, and a few more.

The sheer backwardness and ugliness of the entire vision are depressing no matter whether you look at it from an aesthetic, social, or economic perspective. And all of this is made worse by the company’s track record on these things so far.

The plan is pretty obviously a land grab by the company but the curious thing is why they believe that such land would exist in the first place.

This happens exactly at a moment when the political class seems to have given up preventing global heating to pass dangerous tipping points of no return. So, this is clearly meant to paper over an increasingly dystopian world to keep selling the promise of “creativity” and “self-expression” as a carrot, and a “new economy” as a stick. With Uber’s and Airbnb’s promise to monetize your spare resources as a way to deal with real-life precarity ringing hollow (indeed, monetizing your life _is_ precarity), the new economy of 3D creators is another promise to pull yourself up on your own bootstraps.

But is not just the dated dream of virtual reality replacing physical reality. What’s more, chasing this dream will make physical reality even worse. For a lot of reasons, waste of resources, diverting attention towards crap, universalizing bias, and so on.

Underlying all of this is this notion of the world as a model. Sure, we all operate with (implicit or explicit) models of the world in order to make sense of it and be able to act in it. I’m not advocating for some sort of unmediated “real”.

The problematic element is to have a single model which is supposed to replace all others. It’s not just that such a model is necessarily under complex (the metaverse is cartoonishly so), but that very notion of a single model is biased, violent, and will create ugly backlashes. Perhaps this is the lasting influence of cybernetics, which as its ultimate horizon has such a unified vision where everything could be brought into its purview based on the reductionist notion of “information”.

Against this, a plethora of voices — feminist, anti-racist, ecological, indigenous, and more — have sprung up to argue against the impossibility of such a unified view (often denounced as colonialist). They advocate for the co-existence of a wide range of “being-in-the-world”, each embodying a different model of the world, if you will, that cannot be flattened into a single one. Rather, they retain a considerable degree of incommensurability (the tick sees the world like no other living being, as J.v.Uxeküll argued as early as the 1930s) that can only be brought into one to the other through practices of mutual respect (because one can never fully grasp or contain the other) and care (because each model/world is in itself incomplete and depended on others as environment).

Against this life-affirming irreducible complexity that escapes cybernetic control is the sad vision of the metaverse, which is both extremely reductionist and centrally controlled. Yet, even in its most glossy presentation, this vision is utterly unconvincing. Perhaps this is a reason to be optimistic and continue to seek ways beyond “communication and control”.

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