The Desert of the Virtual

The Desert of the Virtual

The metaverse heralds an age in which hardly anyone still believes that tech firms can actually solve our problems.

A rendering of a virtual-reality party (Yagi Studio/Getty Images)

Ten years ago, Evgeny Morozov published To Save Everything, Click Here. A prescient diagnosis of the digital age, it argued that Silicon Valley is underpinned by “solutionism,” the ideology that complex social problems can be solved by smart technology, algorithms, and apps as if by an invisible hand. The concept’s relevance was confirmed time and again as product launches and their surrounding media coverage morphed into celebrations of the problem-solving power of technology, becoming events of an almost religious zeal. Steve Jobs’s refrain of “one more thing” was repeated time and again to surprise, amazement, and exuberant applause. Everything promised to be better, smarter, more beautiful. And once the presentations of brand-new products gave way to rollouts of updated versions, the Elon Musks of the world stepped in with visions that revitalized the technological spirit of possibility. After all, who wouldn’t want to be shot to San Francisco on the Hyperloop, or to Mars by Space X?

Over a year ago, the launch of Horizon Worlds, Meta’s answer to the metaverse, heralded a new phase in the history of tech solutionism. Now what was being promised was not so much a new product as an entirely new world—or worlds. Facebook was transformed into Meta Platforms and Mark Zuckerberg (finally) into an avatar. Guiding viewers through the shiny new reality resplendent with fun, games, sports, palm trees, and planets (in high-resolution galaxies thanks to the James Webb Space Telescope), Zuckerberg offered a glimpse into a simulated cosmos as imagined by Silicon Valley: a realm full of colorful costumes (“skins”), immersive live concerts (by the likes of Post Malone), and “amazing new experiences.” This weightless utopia not only blurred the lines between the virtual and the real via “augmented reality,” but with games such as “Real VR Fishing” and “Forest Farm,” it also appeared to liberate us, in the words of Karl Marx, “to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening,” without ever really becoming a hunter, fisher, or herder.

Of course, Zuckerberg has not turned into a thought leader of digital communism. On the contrary, his vision is thoroughly capitalist: the point of the metaverse is not merely to exist as a cheerful on-demand image-world, but to generate an entire economy. The thousands of employees working on this vision have ultimately been laboring to create virtual goods. These are supposed to imbue the metaverse with a sense of promise and possibility—hence the June 2022 opening of a clothing store featuring the likes of Balenciaga, Thom Browne, and Prada, where users can go shopping for their avatars. So too is Meta’s ceaseless buying of start-ups, filing for patents (such as for eye-tracking technology intended to biometrically optimize attention spans with advertisements), and investment in its development hub, Reality Labs, which lost some $10 billion in 2021 and nearly $9.4 billion over the first nine months of 2022. Things are likely to continue like this until the necessary technologies have been invented; most don’t even exist yet. If earlier Silicon Valley launches actually presented products, Zuckerberg’s metaverse presentation was all about selling a speculative narrative or a dream—a dream we may not even have dreamt yet.

Zuckerberg’s presentation was met with a series of conflicting assessments and interpretations. Initially, there was euphoric applause from various tech aficionados who recognized the metaverse as the logical continuation of the crypto/NFT/blockchain hype and evoked FOMO to promote quick entry. Yet the hype was increasingly drowned out by a surprisingly large number of critical voices: Isn’t it all just an expensive knockoff of old science fiction fantasies? A pastel update of the long-forgotten Second Life? And hasn’t VR technology, the notorious “rich white kid of tech,” always just been an empty promise anyway? While some made fun of the technological implementation (or lack thereof), or of Zuckerberg’s labored jokes, others criticized his metaverse as a form of electronic escapism in a time of climate crisis, or as an economic gamble—a thesis that Meta’s cratering market value and current quarterly figures don’t necessarily refute. So what’s really behind all the fuss over the “squared circle,” to use communication theorist Vilém Flusser’s term, of virtual reality, a realm where one can simulate the experience of sitting on an island with palm trees but not actually drink a Long Island iced tea? What problem is the metaverse really supposed to solve?

In all likelihood, the metaverse is an expensive PR stunt to help Meta again bask in the light of profitability and glorious innovation following its spate of recent data scandals. However, not all has gone according to plan. A number of signs indicate tensions at the company, from Zuckerberg’s loyalty tests for Meta’s in-house community, to disastrous PR announcements featuring cartoonish avatars, to a “quality lockdown,” to hiring freezes and layoffs. All this paints a picture of a wider disillusionment pointing to the fraying of solutionism itself.

Gradually, a certain sense has been percolating in Silicon Valley that might be described as a “strange shrinking of the Utopian consciousness,” to quote the philosopher Theodor W. Adorno. Just a few years ago, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt could still profess a belief that the right approach to technology could “fix all the world’s problems.” Mark Zuckerberg could still argue somewhat credibly for the potential of “connectedness” to fight climate change, pandemics, and terrorism, and the media could still enthuse about “Facebook Revolutions.” By now, confidence in those dreams has eroded. After all the disappointed hopes, deluges of fake news and hate speech, whistleblower revelations (including those from Christopher Wylie and Frances Haugen), and various antitrust lawsuits, it’s clearer than ever that tech firms have not found the answers to society’s problems, if they were ever looking for them in the first place. In fact, their surveillance-capitalist practices have frequently meant that they themselves are a problem. In this sense, the metaverse might be seen as a logical progression: if you can’t solve problems in the real world, why not create a new one without any? Perhaps it’s not actually the users who are fleeing to the metaverse, but the tech companies themselves.

The future of the internet as envisioned by Meta bears more promise for corporations than for users. The virtual world is less a beautiful alternative to our own deficient reality than an extension of it, an “augmented reality” of worldly malaise. A brief glimpse into the “virtual” headset makes this obvious.

Zuckerberg has promoted his virtual reality as a way to experience feelings of presence, intensity, and authenticity that cannot be accessed through the black mirrors of traditional devices. Yet “immersive experiences” can often become a problem, especially for vulnerable groups.

“Virtual reality has essentially been designed so the mind and body can’t differentiate virtual/digital experiences from real,” writes Nina Jane Patel, a metaverse researcher whose avatar was sexually assaulted by several users in Meta’s Horizon Venues, a location for live VR events. “In some capacity, my physiological and psychological response was as though it happened in reality.” It is already clear that Meta’s simulation is no digital Shangri-La, in spite of its bubbling waterfalls and tropical plants. By no means will it be free of various ills; experts are already warning about sexual predators using it to prey on children. As Patel put it, “we are designing non-fiction.”

Meta and other tech companies are creating largely unregulated spaces that have proven difficult for lawmakers to control, even with new legal infrastructure. Here as well, (disappointed) hopes are apparently being reformulated. Once again, regulation is being deemphasized in favor of technical fixes. Along these lines, a personal boundary tool—a sort of safe mode— has been implemented to address the problem of sexual harassment. Yet such solutions hardly appear convincing in light of Patel’s account of her “horrible experience that happened so fast and before I could even think about putting the safety barrier in place. I froze.”

Also chilling were the results of an experiment conducted in February 2022 to test how conspiracy theories and fake news can spread within the metaverse. For this experiment, BuzzFeed journalists built an alt-right themed Horizon World decorated with slogans such as “9/11 Was An Inside Job,” “Stop the Steal,” and “Pizzagate Is Real.” After reporting the space themselves, the journalists initially received the following response from Meta: “Our trained safety specialist reviewed your report and determined that the content in the Qniverse doesn’t violate our Content in VR Policy.” Ultimately, they had to reach out directly to Meta’s comms department to get the “Qniverse” removed—an option not available to regular users.

Though the metaverse promises to be an alternative world, there is a manifest lack of social and political imagination beneath its colorful surfaces, beyond occasional attempts to visualize social problems and socioeconomic inequality. This potentially post-scarcity world makes sure to preserve one real status quo: the division between the haves and the have-nots. Users who have real money can buy virtual goods, NFTs, and ever-new experiences through practices such as “gold-farming”—paying precarious click-workers to make progress and collect rewards for them in games. All the while, they can virtually express their class position. (A Gucci bag sold for even more on the game platform Roblox than it costs in the real world.) It is therefore hardly surprising that the number of fee-based events and services in the metaverse continues to increase, imposing additional financial barriers to participation on top of the formidable cost of the headsets themselves. Following Adorno’s understanding of utopia as the trace of a social order that does not yet exist, this virtual vision of utopia actually appears a bit too real for comfort.

We may very well be experiencing the first tech narrative in an era of post-solutionism—an age when no one still believes that tech will save us and firms can’t think of anything better to do than build a simulacrum, a damaged fantasy world that offers little hope of salvation. In view of its manifold problems, what (besides economic factors) is supposed to make the metaverse attractive to the billions of users envisaged by Zuckerberg? As it turns out, the narrative of the future in a world without one does perhaps offer an answer.

As we all progressively realize that catastrophes are becoming part of our everyday climate and that individual acts of sustainable consumption can’t solve our major problems, the multi-optionality of the metaverse grows more enticing. After all, it allows us to design environments that are all ours, ostensibly insulated from day-to-day apocalypses: here, every pixel, digital piece of land, and virtually configured palm tree serves as a wonderful distraction from our real creative impotence while nourishing the experience of self-efficacy, of creatio ex nihilo. We don’t need to water the plants or endure sinking water tables during droughts. Everything that withers, rusts, or dents can be removed from sight, erased. Meta’s metaverse manifests itself as a world without care for the world, enticing us with the promise of not having to worry any more. While the real future appears to us as either unavailable or catastrophic, Meta offers us a post-solutionist anesthetic.

To be sure, escapism has already arrived. However, it is unequally distributed: only those who are least affected by contemporary catastrophes have the chance of retreating carefree into a world of palm trees. These are the only people who can afford to surrender themselves to a real illusion: the illusion of a digital world without prerequisites, of a virtuality without materiality. Already today, we rarely see the infrastructure, the data centers, the submarine cables, or the immense energy consumption that power everyday digital life; perhaps we will see them even less frequently with our headsets on. Yet the brave new image-world is intensely dependent on the resources of the real; simulated nature on real nature. Zuckerberg’s version of virtual reality will require an estimated thousandfold increase in computing capacity. Inevitably, this will result in surreal but by no means virtual multi-dimensional effects. In other words, the catastrophes of reality will become the catastrophes of the metaverse, and vice versa.

Without a world, there is no metaverse, and without worry about the state of the world, there is no future. As Adorno knew, utopias are only to be had at the price of negating the bad reality: whoever sketches them out prematurely, let alone exhaustively illustrates them, saps their potential. And whoever perpetuates the bad reality, let alone intensifies it, destroys the conditions of utopia’s very possibility. Welcome to the desert of the virtual.

Anna-Verena Nosthoff is a social theorist, codirector of the Critical Data Lab at Humboldt University of Berlin, and a visiting researcher at Princeton University.

Felix Maschewski is an essayist and media theorist, codirector of the Critical Data Lab (Humboldt University), lecturer at the University of Basel, and author of Die Gesellschaft der Wearables (Nicolai, 2019, co-authored with Anna-Verena Nosthoff).

This article was originally published by Zeit Online and was translated by Adam Baltner, who has translated several books and dozens of articles on history, philosophy, and politics from German to English.

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