The republic of the metaverse
On democracy and techno-Gnosticism
A civilization can, indeed, advance and decline at the same time—but not forever. There is a limit toward which this ambiguous process moves; the limit is reached when an activist sect which represents the Gnostic truth organizes the civilization into an empire under its rule. Totalitarianism, defined as the existential rule of Gnostic activists, is the end form of progressive civilization.
Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics (1952)
The term ‘Metaverse’, like the term ‘Meritocracy’, was coined in a scifi dystopia novel written as cautionary tale, and then enthusiastically adopted by an elite that craved what was meant to inspire horror. Originally appearing by name in Neal Stephenson’s classic Snow Crash, the concept has been rehashed in other scifi hits like Ready Player One or the film series The Matrix. In the Stephenson version, much as in Mark Zuckerberg’s uncanny Metaverse launch video, so-called ‘gargoyles’ languish their entire lives inside a virtualized reality with headsets bolted to their faces.
If you’re wondering why someone like Zuckerberg with such immense resources (including an estate on paradisiacal Kauaʻi) wants to blot out reality with a VR headset, then you need to understand the techie mindset. As one notable VC un-ironically told me in private: anything worth doing, can be done better via a screen. His (very successful) investment portfolio and lifestyle both reflect that view; while he himself still convenes in-person dinners, those ‘IRL’ events are now a luxury add-on (and reflection of) digital life rather than vice versa. He and others like him invest vast sums in people they’ve never physically met. The resulting companies have workforces who spend all day looking at each other via endless Zoom calls, but who never or rarely meet (I know, I’ve worked in them). The techies prefer intermediating reality and people via pixels and algorithms, and they’ve created the conditions such that the world meets them on their terms.
Not that we were very hard to convince.
While I find myself a bit skeptical of Zuckerberg’s Metaverse plan—virtual reality has been the perpetual technology of the future for longer than I can remember, and Facebook has gone a long time without a homespun product hit—the little ‘m’ metaverse is already here and firmly in place. It’s the elective, virtualized reality composed of Twitter, Instagram, and even the very Substack you’re reading right now. The tech ‘backlash’ that the media has been trying to engineer (speaking of pleasant illusions) has never really happened, and you’d be hard-pressed to find signs of one in Facebook’s, or any other tech company’s, usage and revenue graphs.