Meta all the way down

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I am completely convinced that Mark Zuckerberg’s favourite book is Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. Since it is one of my favourites too, this makes me slightly concerned. With the rebranding of Facebook to the monosyllabic Meta, Zuckerberg seems intent on casting Facebook as the legislator of a new digital age. But this is by no mean an original idea – Zuckerberg is attempting to make the warnings of 1990s sci-fi dystopias into reality.

Snow Crash, and others like it, are part of a wave of sci-fi novels that emerged in the late 1980s and 1990s as a response to the possibilities of the internet age. Computers were no longer hulking machines that whirred in university science buildings – but sleek, cool devices that were redefining work and leisure. When writing Neuromancer, arguably the first cyberpunk novel, William Gibson admits freely that when he wrote it, ‘he didn’t know anything about computers’. The thrill in cyberpunk – the part that makes it punk – isn’t the cool tech (although, that probably helps). It’s the human reaction to it that generates the novelty. Seeing characters adapt and change identities and ways of being between two different facets of reality is the truly revolutionary thing about cyberpunk, something that Zuckerberg seems to have missed.

The creation of these new virtual worlds is an example of what Umberto Eco calls the ‘hyperreal’ – where what is real and what is not blends so seamlessly that there is no distinction between the two. In Snow Crash, the protagonist Hiro Protagonist (Stephenson’s writing isn’t that subtle here) is one of the creators of the first Metaverse, which now acts as Facebook’s namesake. In Stephenson’s Metaverse, unless you happen to be a ‘hacker’, your outward identity is defined by capitalism – how much money you have direct controls who you can present yourself to be. Even he is beholden to the capitalist system he helped create; in reality, he lives in a storage unit, a ‘spacious 20-by-30 in a U-Stor-It’. Presumably, this is the part that Facebook wishes to replicate. However, outside the Metaverse, a dystopic late-capitalist America emerges. Land is divided into socially fragmented city-state ‘burbclaves’, the only constant being that commerce is king.

We are all cyborgs already; mostly human, but more machine than ever

Snow Crash, although coming down firmly on the side of autonomy and individual agency, doesn’t deny the tangled loops that exist between human and machine identity. Even today, where, despite Zuckerberg’s continuing efforts, we can’t jack into the Metaverse yet, this relationship is firmly established. Ever felt slightly incomplete when you can’t get to your phone? We are all cyborgs already; mostly human, but more machine than ever. Whereas Neuromancer’s ‘matrix’ is a transcendent vision of an AI-powered future, Snow Crash’s Metaverse serves to reinforce social isolation and capitalist hegemony. In the Metaverse, the super-rich isn’t just materially wealthy – they are omnipotent and omniscient, too. This is all possible through the evolving interdependence between humans and machines.

A fundamental tension exists between Zuckerberg’s vision and the warning Stephenson’s Metaverse provides. Both Metaverses are concerned with social stratification, but Zuckerberg’s mission seems to be replicating the real in the virtual – a world where he and others like him make the rules, and pesky things like pandemics are no obstacle to keeping the money flowing. Stephenson’s Metaverse explicitly shows the dangers of such a space, where the expertise of hackers can be reduced to the level of just another meaningless job. The danger is apparent – in a virtual world, everything can be corporatised and commodified, reduced to a station on an assembly line. Zuckerberg evidently sees this as one of the perks of the model, but it may serve to drain the Metaverse of any disruptive power it could have possessed.

So, will Zuckerberg give Snow Crash and books like it another read? It seems unlikely; in a post-pandemic world, the possibility of a Metaverse and concepts like it (such as Ernest Cline’s nostalgia-soaked OASIS in Ready Player One) have a unique allure to investors and consumers alike. It is escapism made real – you can be anyone you want, provided you have the money to back it up. Silicon Valley is desperate for a big new idea – and the Metaverse seems to fit the bill. We can only hope that Zuckerberg doesn’t end up replicating the dystopia that Stephenson warns us about.

Image: James Yarema via Unsplash

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