In the first Matrix movie, the character Cypher announces that he wants to be plugged back into the network. A few scenes later, we see him dining at a fine restaurant, fully aware that everything he is experiencing is a simulation, and he doesn’t care. The question presented by this sequence is an ontological crossroads at which we now seem to be standing—where reality looks increasingly perilous and the architects of the metaverse promise to build an enticing portal through which we can escape that reality. Cypher is who the Matrix tempted us to be twenty years ago, and Zuckerberg and Co. are betting that Cypher is who we are now.
The events of recent years are so eerily conducive to a Matrix-like authoritarianism, that one can almost imagine an AI softening the ground for its eventual dominion. Democracies are in peril. Pandemic intensifies our dependence on networked systems. Climate disasters wipe out homes and businesses with brutal indifference to politics. The elite accelerate environmental destruction, trading crypto and buying virtual real estate to build virtual galleries to display their NFT art. Designers and top brand managers talk without irony about selling virtual clothing and footwear and accessories so people can skin their avatars in meta spaces. Meanwhile, the social media executives, have shrugged off their role in fostering so much damage in the real world, pivoted, rebranded, and moved onto designing the new Zion. Facebook even runs TV ads that invite children to enter an Eden in the style of Henri Rousseau.
And what hell? Cypher might ask. We’re already in our pajamas and plugged in more than ever. How unnatural will it feel to make the transition to VR gatherings among friends and family and business colleagues, and then, eventually, walk through that door to a seemingly better world? Of course, if social media is the prelude to the metaverse, better is a relative term.
My cynical response to the prospect of flying cars has always been that if people already suck at driving in two dimensions, adding the Y-Axis seems like folly. Likewise, we have barely addressed the myriad problems caused by people staring at flat planes of text and images, yet the tech bros and VCs think it’s time for us to enter a more immersive funhouse. To quote the title of a recent article on Grid, “The metaverse is everything you hate about the internet, strapped to your face.”
It is no surprise, of course, that the article written by Benjamin Powers cites incidents of sexual harassment of women in virtual 3D environments. He quotes tech researcher Nina Jane Patel, who writes in her own post on Medium:
I recently shared my experience of sexual harassment in Facebook/Meta’s Venues. Within 60 seconds of joining — I was verbally and sexually harassed — 3–4 male avatars, with male voices, essentially, but virtually gang raped my avatar and took photos — as I tried to get away they yelled — “don’t pretend you didn’t love it” and “go rub yourself off to the photo”.
If one is tempted to say, “But it isn’t real,” read Aubrey Hirsch’s excellent essay describing the harrowing intersection between virtual and physical harassment in the present two-dimensional paradigm. Then, add the Proteus effect, which Patel describes thus:
The Proteus effect is the tendency for people to be affected by their digital representations, such as avatars, dating site profiles and social networking personas. Typically, people’s behaviour shifts in accordance with their digital representatives.
In many instances, it is clear that the human psyche can barely handle the emotional impact of a meme. So, anyone who claims that avatar assault in virtual space is “just a game” is either naïve or lying. The experience for both the assaulted and the assailant is likely to have psychological effects on the real human—the former experiencing trauma and the latter experiencing the dark thrill (or perhaps revulsion) of engaging in a violent crime without consequence. “I’m really concerned that you’re just going to get all the problems that you’ve got with social media but now amplified,” Mary Anne Franks told Powers for his article.
Dr. Franks is among the legal scholars who have shaped nonconsensual pornography and internet harassment laws in several states. Her organization Cyber Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI) is about a decade old, which is roughly how long it has taken to move the legislative boulder uphill just to address the crime of revenge porn. And harmful as that conduct is, it may be a simple legal matter in contrast to the new frontiers for harassment that will be opened in the metaverse.
More than a new opportunity for criminal activity, which we can expect to be as ably mitigated by the platforms as we have seen so far, the Proteus effect inherent to the metaverse can only exacerbate the alternative reality problem now plaguing democracies around the world. It is ironic that QAnon and other conspiracy loons have borrowed the expression “red pilling” from the Matrix to describe their aberrant awakenings. The ego wants to believe it is Morpheus, which is an underlying gestalt in that movie. There may be any number of Morpheuses fighting any number of simulated rebellions. And in our proto-Matrix world, isn’t this more or less what is happening? And does the metaverse not promise new ways to fulfill every quixotic fantasy?
Do we think somebody will not build the January 6th Legitimate Political Discourse Experience? You missed it you say? Well, now, you can relive that glorious day and be part of the action! Crush a police officer in a door. Take a pee on Nancy Pelosi’s desk. Free babies from the secret adrenochrome labs underneath the Library of Congress. And so much more! (In app purchases.)
The virtual wasteland populated by conspiracy-wielding nomads is a consequence the utopian architects of the current social environments got wrong—or lied about. Of course, it was going to be easier (and therefore lucrative) to connect and addict people to a matrix of insane narratives than to fulfill that stodgy aspiration called the “exchange of ideas.” The tech bros and digital rights groups still talk about the internet as if it were an intellectual symposium, but Spotify isn’t stumbling over controversy involving a Neil deGrasse Tyson podcast, is it?
Although the metaverse expedition could go the way of Google Glass, it seems likely that some version of a universal VR, other than gamer worlds like Fortnite, will be adopted by tens of millions. And depending on the architecture, it is possible to imagine how the metaverse might offer a very tempting escape from a world that often looks like it is unravelling. If past is prologue, the more addictive the virtual experience, the more it will affect behavior in physical space; and so far, those results have been so disastrous that any reasonable person might feel exactly like Cypher.
Photo by: garrykillian