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Saturday, May 18, 2024

The Man, the Myth, and the Metaverse

Despite Mark Zuckerberg bloviating about the world-changing virtues of the metaverse for 87 minutes last month, his Connect 2021 keynote’s most truthful and telling moment came in a disclaimer that appeared before he even began speaking. “Actual results may differ materially than those expressed or implied in our forward-looking statements,” it read. “We undertake no obligation to revise or publicly release the results of any revision to these forward-looking statements.”

The fine print wasn’t just a legalese caveat excusing the company’s liability against anyone unable to distinguish between design fictions and product launches (sorry to everyone who was dusting off their chess board, preparing to play with a holographic opponent). It was also a caveat for the professed intentions of Facebook, now Meta, that Zuckerberg extolled throughout his presentation. He suggested Meta was going to be a team player, leaning into the language of openness and interoperability; that his company would be a metaverse company, joining those that predate Facebook. But actual results, the disclaimer reminds, may differ. Likewise, while Zuckerberg described the metaverse as “the next platform” in a tidy lineage from desktop to networked to mobile computing, we should be concerned that his intended metaverse is “the final platform.” Zuckerberg’s narrative of the metaverse as information technology’s culmination has power because it reinforces a grander myth of progress; a myth that stretches back to the 19th century and shapes Silicon Valley’s self-understanding. This is also a myth of domination, erasure, and violence. Ironically, conceptualizing the metaverse as the final platform abruptly draws to a close the myth of progress, so potent because of its open-endedness. Unintentionally, Zuckerberg has provided critics and enthusiasts alike the opportunity to create new narratives.


VR, and the metaverse it now enables, has long been figured as the ultimate or final destination in the evolution of computing. This was first anticipated in 1965 in a short but memorable paper by Ivan Sutherland, a scientist at the vanguard of computer graphics, that imagined what he called “The Ultimate Display.” This was “a looking-glass into the mathematical wonderland” that engaged all bodily senses. Users stepping through this looking-glass would be immersed in “a room within which the computer can control the existence of matter. A chair displayed in such a room would be good enough to sit in … a bullet displayed in such a room would be fatal.” By 1968, Sutherland had built the Sword of Damocles, a behemoth head-mounted display that many recognize as the first VR prototype.

Decades later, in a 2015 TED talk, the founder of VR company Within, Chris Milk, echoed VR’s “ultimate” mythos when he described VR as “the ultimate empathy machine,” capable of making the wealthy West feel more deeply for those less advantaged. In a blog post a year later, Milk dubbed VR “the last medium” because it eliminates the external frame (a limited screen) and moves the mediated experience within us—“the embodied internet,” as Zuck describes in his keynote. VR is a platform, Milk wrote, “for sharing our inner self—our very humanity.” In October 2021, Meta announced that it had purchased Within, not for its humanitarian VR experiences, but for its pandemic-popular Supernatural fitness app.

Within is only the most recent of Facebook’s conquests to believe in VR’s “ultimate” stature. Facebook acquired Oculus for $2 billion in 2014. In a 2015 Time cover story about Oculus founder Palmer Luckey, he’s described as loving Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, the novel in which “the metaverse” is coined. However, according to Luckey, a book is inherently limited in “the stimulus it supplies.” VR, on the other hand, “is the final platform” in that its sensorial experiences will one day be limitless.

Luckey has since left Facebook, and has been ostracized by much of the VR community for his vocal support of Donald Trump, but his vision of the final platform persists. It's grown only more capacious under Facebook’s guidance. In that same Time article, Oculus CEO Brandan Iribe says Oculus had been imagining VR as only a gaming platform, until Zuckerberg shared his grander vision. Iribe praised his new boss: “Mark is always thinking about, How does this impact 1 billion people?” When Zuckerberg announced the Oculus acquisition, he debuted his desire for VR to move beyond gaming and for Facebook to evolve beyond its social network, with the ambition of building an immersive, networked environment for anything and everything, “part of daily life for billions of people.” The final platform.

The ultimate display, the last medium, the final platform. VR and the metaverse are idealized as the culmination of a progress narrative that has shaped Silicon Valley since even before its inception, when settler colonists idealized California as the frontier in which democracy and its experiments could flourish. Historian Frederick Turner codified this myth in 1893 with his frontier thesis, which argued not only that the westward expansion is what shaped the American spirit, but also that the close of the frontier might cause that spirit to crumble. Turner cast white frontiersmen as the central driving force in crafting a distinctly American character, as they transformed the west from “savagery” and “wildness” to “civilization.” The dispossession and genocide of Native Americans was depicted as an inevitable, perhaps even required, outcome for the emergence of American values. Turner’s thesis remained an influential reading of America’s past until the 1980s, by which time historians critiqued the presumption that (white) American prosperity must come at the expense of non-white communities. By then, almost a century of American social, economic, and infrastructural planning had been implemented with the image of the frontier in mind, including the growth of Silicon Valley.


After all, Turner seeing a potential crisis with the close of the physical frontier implicitly demanded other kinds of frontiers to fill the void. In 1945, Vannevar Bush in a report commissioned by Franklin Roosevelt declared science to be the Endless Frontier; John F. Kennedy grouped both his social and scientific presidential aims (including human journeys into space) under a framework of the New Frontier. Silicon Valley is founded on this ethos – and thus the accompanying frontier logic that success must come at the suffering of others—articulated by media theorists Richard Barbroook and Andy Cameron as “The Californian Ideology.” Today, one only needs to think of Jeff Bezos in a cowboy hat disembarking from his first flight to space to appreciate the myriad associations between frontiers and the tech sector.

While Zuckerberg has preferred the hoodie to the Stetson, frontier thinking persists in his vocabulary. Toward the end of his keynote, he refers to the metaverse as “the next frontier.” Perhaps this is a continuation of the endless frontier and an invitation for limitless innovation, but there’s reason to believe that Meta sees itself as building the final platform that will engulf the endless frontier; that Meta’s metaverse will not be the next frontier, but the final and only frontier. In Zuckerberg’s hands the vision of sociality, community, and experience existing on this frontier will be devastatingly limited and, like Turner’s frontier, inevitably structured by harm.

But Zuckerberg has gifted us the opportunity to propose new myths that might better guide what comes next. In declaring the metaverse the culmination of the progress narrative, in making it the final platform, he has closed the frontier. And rather than striving to open new frontiers, we can instead search out different stories about technology that don’t depend on erasures and harms. This is challenging work given how far back the dominant myth stretches, as well as the ubiquity of the systems that support the myth: capitalism, extractivism, surveillance. But consider two frameworks that might offer other paths: complexity and multiplicity.

We could deny ourselves “the basic story of technology,” as Zuckerberg described in the beginning of his keynote, one that says we’ve smoothly “gone from desktop to web to phones; from text to photo to video” to the metaverse. Making history more complex was key to refuting Turner’s thesis. While this approach has proven its promise in other arenas, in tech simplicity is further incentivized in the clean narratives demanded when pitching to VCs. To strive for complexity would require the current financial logics of the Valley to tumble. While many might welcome this structural overhaul, holographic chess playing seems a more likely future.

Or, what if tech narratives were to proliferate? In dialogs about climate change, for example, a slowly rising scientific and political strategy is to draw in diverse experiences of and knowledges about our warming planet, beyond those from the (still) overrepresented global north. What would be the result of moving away from a singular myth to multiple stories about what a metaverse future might and could be? Futurist Monika Bielskyte proposes to think about protopian, rather than utopian, futures. One tenet of protopian thinking is plurality, in terms of expanding who is part of technical innovations and imaginations. Bielskyte’s vision of plurality and this gesture to multiplicity are not about diversity and inclusion initiatives that change the look, but not the feel, of worlds. Zuckerberg’s keynote had women and people of color strategically displayed. And while that’s preferable to the alternative, what actual difference does it make if a diverse workplace is nonetheless folded back into a singular narrative and vision?

There is no easy strategy for staunching the frontier and progress mythos and in turn ensuring Zuckerberg’s metaverse doesn’t become the final platform. But we all need to resist the terms Meta is defining for what comes next. The more time other narratives have for developing, the more likely it is that the actual results of the metaverse will differ materially from Meta’s dystopia.

WIRED Opinion publishes articles by outside contributors representing a wide range of viewpoints. Read more opinions here, and see our submission guidelines here. Submit an op-ed at opinion@wired.com.

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