The Seneschal Of The Western Marches has ordered me to write about the ‘Metaverse, blah, blah, Zuckerberg and all that jazz’ and there is not a moment to waste. For, after all, the generally reliable Fortune website tells me that the cheapest ‘real estate’ available in the Metaverse today is going for $13,000. What on earth will it cost tomorrow?
Hurry, hurry, hurry! There’s gold in that there ghost town.
Though of course, it may have its dark side as this article in the NYT suggests.
Sexual assault by avatar is not, perhaps, something to look forward to.
It’s all, obviously, going to be dreadful and furthermore dreadfully expensive. After all, even the most basic Oculus Rift will set you back £300 and that’s just the headset without any of the ‘spendy’, haptic-feedback bits and bobs that will make the experience truly immersive.
Punitively expensive to invest in, prohibitively expensive to experience and morally ambiguous; is this a new low for humanity?
Well, no, it is the same old low, frankly.
I expect the hunter gatherers were appalled by those who practiced transhumance, the nomads by the pastoralists and so on and so on.
And once we began to live in settlements and to levy taxes, those who had domesticated their animals were, I expect, appalled when those in power began to record the tithes and taxes they owed using the cuneiform script (a scribe was a *very* expensive investment, even for a ‘king’ in those days, especially with all the mead and barley beer they consumed).
Think of the horror with which the Sumerians and Babylonians regarded those new-fangled hieroglyphs.
And when those sneaky Canaanites invented the alphabet to record their dealings with the Egyptians, imagine the snooty contempt and fear with which the priests of Horus looked down upon a written language that rendered their pictograms redundant.
According to St Augustine, Ambrose, Bishop of Milan in the early 5th century, was regarded, as possessing unique sanctity and righteousness for his ability to read and absorb texts silently, without speaking aloud. It took decades for documents to be transcribed with gaps between the words to facilitate this once uncanny ability.
The Gutenberg printing press was anathematised from the pulpits of Europe, not for printing bibles – but for the proliferation of scurrilous satirical (generally anti-clerical) pamphlets, cartoons and song sheets that it brought into being.
Galileo had trouble persuading the church that the earth revolved around the sun – ‘eppur si muove’.
Centuries later, the Luddites were responding quite naturally when they set about mechanised looms with lump-hammers and pickaxes.
Both the railway and the telegraph were seen as a threat to the natural order for the way they made communication across distances possible, encouraging ‘licentiousness and fraud’.
So with radio, telephones, television and, ultimately, the world wide web.
The innovation of one generation has always been regarded with fear and horror by the preceding hegemony.
Of course, as I have written a thousand times, past performance is not indicative of future results, but as we all know, those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it – even if Francis Fukuyama asserts (and current regimes make me wonder if he might be right) that ‘History is over’.
So, having belaboured the point to within an inch of its life, I can finally get around to what we can expect from the Metaverse, Zuckerberg-mediated or otherwise.
A right shambles
Perhaps you remember Minority Report? It’s rather a good Steven Spielberg take on a Philip K Dick (The master!) short story marred only by its star, the tiny super-manly, über-sexy, ‘it’s in my contract that I have to run a lot’, top Dianetician, Tom Cruise.
In a famous scene, Tom runs (Run! Tom! Run!) through a shopping mall where all of the OOH advertisements address him by name.
That’s it. That’s what it will be like.
All of us, running desperately through a giant AI-imagined shopping mall being directly addressed and probably fondled and assaulted by the brands whose cookies we forgot to turn off.
Pursued by shoes we’d idly admired in great clip-clopping herds up and down the escalators. Wading through great, bubbling swamps of unsuitable food that we had once drunkenly ordered from Deliveroo. Pelted with little, blue virtual pills from peppy pop-guns brandished by Viagra sales-bots. Raising umbrellas against the great, sweeping thunderstorms of horrible Brewdog beer. Accosted behind the avatar photo-booths by ‘sexy’ escorts and sharkskin-suited crypto-currency salesmen, giggling and muttering into our virtual ears as their needy, strangely bony hands dart furtively among the virtual folds of our virtual clothing in search of our virtual wallets.
Occasionally we will burst through a digital door into a room full of the blank-eyed, Zuckerberg-curated avatars of distant acquaintances with whom we might share an interest in model railways or glamping. Or stumble through the batwing doors of a virtual saloon where all of our Spotify playlists merge into one great, braying cacophony of everybody’s ‘likes’ being played at once.
And when we pause, panting, backs against a virtual shop window, eyes flicking desperately from side to side, the shiny virtual floor will shake as the giant figures of the terrifying, pin-striped, bowler-hatted financial services sales-people approach, swinging their pixelated clubs, bellowing ‘Pension advice!’, ‘Make money tax-free from your home!’, ‘Seven tips to save on your household bills!’ and the like.
As we present ourselves at the exquisite virtual tills, our virtual arms will be wrenched between our virtual shoulder blades as the haptically enhanced Klarna Bots persuade us to ‘Spread the cost of your purchases you beautiful man/woman/other.’
As we flee between the virtual racks we will find ourselves incomprehensibly pounding across beautiful, virtual Mauritian beaches with, silvery-white virtual sand between our virtual toes, beside a turquoise sea one moment, the next, schussing down a perfect Alp with a slightly wrong-looking digital sun shining down upon us as we schuss.
That’s right, boys and girls, the Metaverse will be exactly like Facebook only worse.
Of course, on the outskirts of Meta-town there may be beautiful neo-classical buildings where we might learn Mandarin or the ukulele but those will not be for us because our salaries will not be sufficient for us to qualify for the Metaverse Gold Multi-pass. They will be patrolled by virtual hench-people, with virtual Alsatians who will virtually rough us up if we get too close.
Perhaps we might find a virtual spot, by a virtual stream to virtually sit down and weep our virtual tears, but even as we do – and our virtual wallet shrinks and withers in our virtual trousers – we will see virtual frogmen emerge from the virtual waters shouting “Get a free virtual Parker Pen when you sign up for the Axa Over Fifties Life Plan’, while elegant virtual coffins are punted towards us by ineffable beings who shimmer and fade in and out of focus as they promise us, in wheedling voices “The Peace Of Mind that Comes From Properly Planning Your Funeral”.
There will be no escape.
One moment we’re deliriously happy at the crazy Tik-Tok Karaoke, the next, our worth assessed and dismissed we will be out the virtual back with the failed hackers and the people who can’t afford the OS upgrade, fishing around in the virtual gutters for a virtual Nando’s chicken bone to suck on as the virtual night comes virtually down.
Of course, none of this will matter one little bit because human life will continue in all of its diversity and richness.
I read in The Times on the 19th of January that Dinesh Sivakumar Padmavathi (24) and his fiancée, Janaganandhini Ramaswamy (23) of Tamil Nadu state are to be wed in the Metaverse and are expecting up to 5,000 guests with 2,000 already confirmed.
As Dinesh tells us “I know couples have been getting married on Zoom, but I wanted to go further!”. Disturbingly he adds that he will also be honouring his fiancée’s father: “He died last year and I have created his avatar, so he will be the one welcoming our guests. That’s going to be a very emotional moment for her.”
The bitter realities of late-stage global capitalism provide the article’s beautiful dying fall, “We will ride our scooter to the nearest cell-tower with a good signal and coordinate the event with my mobile phone.”
A skinny cow ambles across the road, the fruit bats gather in the Neem trees, as a decent young couple hit ‘refresh’ again and again and a distant jackal howls.
Welcome to the Metaverse.