The Two Sides of the Metaverse (Codex Vagus: essay 01)

My father used to tell me that it was a mistake to think that anything I thought with my feeble mind was in any way original. Somebody else would no doubt have thought of the same thing first and done it better. Therefore it was a better idea to go to the library and search for ideas rather than to try to think of something myself. This self-denying forced humility was drilled into me so hard that, to this day, I still have trouble believing that I am actually having an idea worth presenting.

After much agonizing, I have decided to try journaling some of my far flung ideas and making them public. The Samurai Novelist blog was meant to be limited to topics on writing fiction. But since it makes little sense to start another blog – which no doubt will have a readership as small as the first one – I have decided to label these journals with the moniker “codex vagus”. This is the first instalment.

Codex Vagus: essay 01

Today, in November 2021, Facebook has recently changed its parent company name to “Meta”, Microsoft has announced its intention to create its own metaverse, and other major companies are moving into this field as well. Many powerful people seem to think this is the wave of the future.

The idea of a metaverse is not new. The first head-mount displays and “sensoramas” were developed in the 1960’s. Jaron Lanier is widely credited for creating the name “virtual reality” in the 1980’s. William Gibson’s Sci-fi epic “Neuromancer“, arguably the first full-length novel dealing with virtual reality, was published in 1984. In movies, “The Lawnmowerman” starring Jeff Fahey and Pierce Brosnan was released in 1992, “Disclosure” starring Michael Douglas and Demi Moore was released in 1994, and “Virtuosity” starring Denzel Washington and Russel Crowe was released in 1995. Granted these were not good movies, but they did showcase a vision of what virtual reality might look like. I posted the early draft of my essay “The Base Delta Principle” for the first time in a virtual reality chat group that discussed such topics as how to assemble a home made data glove circa 1996.

Since then, virtual reality – eventually to be renamed the metaverse – has changed little in the cultural landscape from the original iterations of William Gibson other than the fact that the graphics are prettier in movies thanks to the advancement of CGI. The metaverse in movies like “Ready Player One” are masterful accomplishments in CGI world building. But you are fools if you think that is all of what the metaverse is going to be like.

All of us on the internet today have two internet profiles. One is the curated profiles we intentionally show on Facebook, Instagram, Linkedin, and especially Tinder. The other is the profile created by data collectors based on your likes, your purchases, your browsing history, your movie choices, your watch times, your political views, and the frequency and duration you remain on the internet. If these profiles were to be represented in avatars, the former would look like the celebrity you want to be and the latter would look like a fusion of your most regrettable vices. The dirty secret of the metaverse is that only a select few will have the special pair of sunglasses that will enable them to see what the latter avatar will look like. It would be like the John Carpenter movie “They Live” in which a special pair of glasses will tell you who the bad guys are. Except in the metaverse, most of us will not have access to those glasses.

Enthusiasts of the metaverse will tell you that the metaverse is a place where you can be Superman or Harry Potter or anything you want to be, which is possibly true to an extent. But it will also be a place where – to the enabled observer – you will be wearing a rag tag quilt work of all the ways you offended people, all the pornography you ever consumed, and all the impulsive purchases you made. You will become a walking billboard of all the ways you are easily exploited. And that is why large corporations like Facebook – which is, let’s face it, already doing the same thing – would like you to buy in on the metaverse craze. The metaverse will make it a lot easier for them to sell things to you, but more to the point, it will make it a lot easier for them to sell you (or the information components that make up your virtual self) to an interested buyer.

The internet, and especially its social media component, is already rigged to make all users likely to find the sort of content that is most likely to keep them online, be they celebrity gossip, political commentary, or vaguely racist history lessons. They know what peaks your interest and they know how to direct you to it. They are also increasingly more competent at directing you with targeted marketing and even more so at triggering your emotional responses. If political or social outrage is what triggers your engagement, they will milk it to the max to retain your attention, even at the cost of destroying social cohesion. Social media puts your emotions on sale.

As enticing as it is to be able to live in a virtual world where you can be whatever you want to be, you cannot leave your actual self safely secluded outside the metaverse and leave it in the physical world. If anything, the metaverse will be the place where you are most naked. It will be the place where you are most exposed to predators with means. The well heeled marketer will be able to see the “sucker” cap on your head, and will know exactly what buttons to push.

One thing they are being honest about though, is that Web 3.0 – the new internet characterized by the increased adoption of virtual and augmented reality – will provide new and vastly enhanced opportunities for profit. Not yours, obviously, but profit nonetheless. The Wachowskis were right when they suggested that the matrix will make us all slaves. A hand full of clever entrepreneurs will no doubt become billionaires riding this new wave if they can see it properly. But the vast majority of the new found wealth will land in the pockets of the established tycoons and major corporations. The rest of us will be best served if we stayed wary.

Don’t get too excited about the metaverse. Look before you leap.

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