The metaverse: colonial fantasies of the wild West
• BY MICHAEL KWET
Last week, Mark Zuckerberg changed the name of Facebook to Meta as part of a bid to rebrand the company’s image amid continuous scandals. This prompted a surge of attention to the so-called ‘metaverse’ — a mixed reality experience that blends the real world with the digital.
Critics pounced on Facebook, hitting the familiar notes: monopoly power, privacy and regulation. Although these are important considerations, the conversation should be focused on hype (the metaverse will probably never amount to much) and digital colonialism (if it does, it will be ruled by and for rich countries). Let’s consider each in turn.
THE METAVERSE: HYPE OR REALITY?
Although it is not firmly defined, the metaverse refers to use of virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and traditional computer tech (such as smartphones) to mix the physical world with the digital world. Each of these technologies offer different dynamics.
With virtual reality, people can enter virtual worlds. This could be fantasy worlds such as the Legend of Zelda or Minecraft, or it could be landscapes based on real-life maps of Earth.
For those who have tried it, VR is stunning. The best versions are totally immersive, as if you are living inside of a Pixar film.
Yet with VR, there are severe limitations. For one, you have to set up your room to fit the VR experience, and it remains to be seen if people want to sit or stand for hours at a time with a giant headset on their face. For another, the goggles beam light directly at your eyes, and there are no long-term studies on how it may affect your vision. This may scare users away, especially if enough bad experiences occur.
Augmented reality is the more likely candidate for extending the metaverse into the daily life of society. With AR, instead of experiencing a wholly virtual world with bulky headgear, you wear glasses that project images on the lenses. These images overlay what you are looking at — if it’s an item of food, it might tell you nutrition facts or consumer ratings.
Yet there are reasons to doubt AR glasses will ever become mainstream. Technical requirements seem foreboding: the glasses have to be packed in with cameras, computer processors, a power supply and feature frames large enough to cover a full field of view. External power supplies might be an option (stored a fanny pack?). They also generate a lot of heat and cannot presently be both light and efficient while keeping cool.
It’s also far from certain most people will want to wear AR glasses. People rejected Google Glass quickly, and nobody is sure if the average person will want to have AR “enhancements” projecting onto their field of vision everywhere they go. Walk around your daily life and ask yourself if you want computer images constantly projected onto your field of vision. It’s a big “if”.
Moreover, privacy ramifications should make this a non-starter. With AR glasses, each person is constantly monitoring and storing the video and sound of the space around them. Even if some “privacy” safeguards were put into place, the fact remains that everyone would be filming everyone else at all times, with tech corporations indexing and location-mapping what the glasses see and hear in real-time. It’s hard to imagine AR and privacy co-existing under any scenario.
A final way of accessing the metaverse is through traditional computer tech in two-dimensional style. One might still access a metaverse world with a smartphone or laptop, albeit without the enhanced 3D experience. As we will see below, this would likely be an option for the global poor.
DIGITAL COLONIALISM IN
THE REAL WORLD
Even if the metaverse does become reality, it is also beset by the problem of digital colonialism. American firms control its development, yet the media is not drawing any attention to this fact. US tech “critics” dominate the conversation but don’t acknowledge, let alone oppose, the American empire.
The metaverse is prone to domination by Big Tech corporations because it features extensive economies of scale and requires deep pockets with the ability to absorb risk. Companies need enormous resources to fix the problems alluded to above, from engineers developing computer vision and neuro-linguistic programming to advanced computer processors, wearables and cloud computing.
Big Tech corporations become so rich because they colonise the critical infrastructure that forms the backbone of the digital ecosystem. Everyone else pays them a cut to use core products and services like operating systems, app stores, server farms and platforms. The metaverse will be no different.
Facebook embodies this neocolonial dynamic. The company acquired VR company Oculus in 2014. It is now hiring 10 000 employees to work on the project and plans to spend $10-billion on the project in 2022.
The company appears to be building a stack of integrated parts, from hardware to software. In this scenario, Meta and its Facebook Reality Labs division will offer hardware (VR headsets and AR glasses) and essential software, including the operating system for Oculus, an app store, integration with the Meta-owned social networks (Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp), and who knows what else (advertising seems a key candidate). Critics argue that Facebook doesn’t like relying on the Google and Apple app stores, and so it intends to cut them out of the picture.
Facebook insists that the metaverse will be interoperable, meaning there won’t be just one master Facebook universe. Yet, as with its own platform, Facebook will almost certainly control the API (the interface others will use to connect to the Facebook version of the metaverse). The company will exert influence over who can plug in and on what terms. It will mop up huge troves of data and extract rent from businesses operating within its platform.
For its part, Microsoft has a whole metaverse stack, which includes integration into the Azure cloud and its HoloLens AR glasses. Microsoft is currently targeting enterprise clients such as the beer giant, Anheuser-Busch InBev, which uses AR glasses for things like remote assistance across geographies. Apple is also a leader in AR, with glasses due out next year. This could integrate with the Apple Watch for hand gestures used by wearers to control the experience.
The metaverse is built for middle- and upper-class citizens concentrated in the global north. Quality VR headsets like Oculus Rift currently cost $600. Apple’s AR glasses will debut at $500, and its watch and iPhone cost hundreds of dollars each. Data transmitted by the devices to the cloud would likely require a lot of bandwidth, and data is expensive. On the processor front, Nvidia, Intel, AMD, and Qualcomm are building chips catered to VR goggles and AR glasses.
More than half the world lives under the poverty line of $7.40 a day. The global poor’s metaverse will be restricted to whatever they can afford — that is, access through a cheap smartphone and little data.
Who, then, are going to be the real users of the metaverse? Certainly not the poor, who, at best, will be second-class citizens. The digital divide runs deep in the metaverse, though it’s hard to find discussion about this point.
Likewise for the environment. All the energy required to index, map, locate, render, evaluate and store video and audio streams is monumental. Despite an ecological emergency that disproportionately burdens the global south, there’s little discussion of this issue.
Instead of pouring billions of dollars into a flop-prone hyper-reality for the middle and upper classes, those billions could be spent on pressing human needs such as food, shelter, healthcare, education, and environmental sustainability. Whether it becomes reality or just another fad, the whole metaverse misadventure is yet another indictment of the capitalist system and American empire.
* Michael Kwet is a Visiting Fellow of the Information Society Project at Yale Law School. He is the author of Digital colonialism: US empire and the new imperialism in the Global South, and hosts theTech Empire podcast. His work has been published at Motherboard, Wired, BBC World News Radio and Counterpunch. He received his PhD in Sociology from Rhodes University, South Africa.