You log on, and you’re herded into a virtual bar to listen to your boss telling jokes. Meanwhile, a metaverse-first real estate company is selling off overpriced property in a virtual London, and gamers are competing for non-fungible tokens. Welcome to the Zuckerverse — a place nobody asked for but in which we may soon all be spending a lot of time.
On Thursday, Facebook changed its name to Meta, as part of a broader shift toward the so-called metaverse — a network of interconnected experiences partly accessed through virtual reality (VR) headsets and augmented reality (AR) devices. In Zuckerberg’s own words, “you can think about the metaverse as an embodied internet, where instead of just viewing content — you are in it.” The most recognisable examples of this in action are virtual office meetings with VR goggles, playing games in an expansive online universe, and accessing a digital layer on top of the real world through AR.
As the owner of Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and the virtual reality firm Oculus, the holding company now known as Meta plans to create an interconnected world in which our work, life, and leisure all take place on its infrastructure — monetising all aspects of our lives. For now, this is still the stuff of fantasy. Yet it’s also the fantasy of one of the most powerful men in the world — and for this reason, it deserves our attention.
In an influential essay, venture capitalist Matthew Ball writes, “the Metaverse will be a place in which proper empires are invested in and built, and where these richly capitalised businesses can fully own a customer, control APIs/data, unit economics, etc.” Which does sound a little creepy . . .
Meta is hoping that, by building hype around it, others will be encouraged to follow in developing the project. It’s like building a post office and a store and calling it a city. The hope is to get enough companies on board with its project that, soon enough, we will all be using it — whether we like it or not.
Headsets for everyone
The metaverse is no bluff. It would be wrong to see it as a mere stunt concocted to shift attention away from the litany of crises facing the company. Nor is it simply a rebrand to give the firm a fresh coat of paint, in the manner of Philip Morris rebranding as Altria Group in 2003.
Zuckerberg’s company has invested heavily in VR hardware, and it wants to become the dominant player in the headset market. It’s betting that its line of VR headsets and AR glasses will eventually be as ubiquitous as smartphones. There are estimates that the company has already sold five or six million VR headsets at a price of $300, which would total nearly $2 billion. But even this arm of the business isn’t yet making money; it has been reported that, with roughly ten thousand people working on VR devices, the company is losing between $5.4 billion and $6.4 billion in operating costs.
There’s a genuine risk that this could all just flop. Consumers have been slow to adopt VR technology, and in a few years, it might just be Zuckerberg, Facebook communications chief Nick Clegg, and the social media giant’s COO Sheryl Sandberg holding meetings in an otherwise empty metaverse. But Goldman Sachs has predicted that the VR and AR industry could reach a value of $80 billion a year by 2025, with a cumulative annual growth rate of 40 to 80%. By such forecasts, at least, the metaverse will be more than just meaningless PR spin to help Meta shift more goggles.
Your life as a service
Digital platforms create an environment in which our work, our social life, and our entertainment increasingly take place in digital contexts ready-made for monetisation. The underlying idea of the metaverse is to expand the horizon of the appropriation of human life into every aspect of our existence. Meta wants to extend its reach from a mere global social network to become the digital infrastructure of everyday life.
In 2005, Zuckerberg imagined Facebook as “an online directory” that could be used “to look people up and find information about people.” Facebook was essentially a database of people that could be queried for information. But the company has also declared a social mission, which is supposedly all about transparency: Zuckerberg described how “all the added access to information and sharing would inevitably change big-world things.”
Over subsequent years, Facebook was no longer presented as a digital tool but as a way for people to connect, share experiences, and come together. Following the political upheavals of 2016, Zuckerberg started speaking of Facebook in epochal terms as providing the global communication infrastructure for a world-historical process: “This is the struggle of our time. The forces of freedom, openness, and global community against the forces of authoritarianism, isolationism, and nationalism.”
On June 22, 2017, at the first-ever Facebook Communities Summit, Zuckerberg announced a change to Facebook’s mission statement: from connecting people to building a global community. His pivot to the metaverse is the next logical step in this project. Back then, Zuckerberg spoke about providing the digital infrastructure of twenty-first-century community life through Facebook groups. This time, Meta wants to get a head start on its rivals in owning the next generation of infrastructure for the embodied internet.
The end goal for Meta is that it is no longer a service you use, but instead, the infrastructure upon which you live.
Meta is in the business of world-building
Like water to fish, Meta wants to become the imperceptible medium that permeates our entire existence. It will no longer be a choice you make but rather the space within which choices are made available to you. In other words, it’s not the company sponsoring the event, it’s the stadium in which it’s held. The idea is that Meta will be a holding company in charge of a thriving ecosystem of interconnected products and services, all seamlessly integrated into a hybrid world able to effortlessly extract profit at every point in the system.
You could play games, download content, and sign up for services, and everything would be automatically deducted from your account. Banking and investment products would be integrated within the metaverse world so that a portion of your salary would be automatically transferred into this world’s currency.
Multiple companies would compete for slices of this world, but there would be an even stronger incentive to establish vertical and horizontal monopolies. Companies would place barriers against interoperable services — and it would be more convenient for customers to remain in one walled garden where everything was transferrable and connected.
The idea that platforms are neutral intermediaries facilitating transactions has always been misleading. But now, even this pretense would be a thing of the past, as metaverse companies would play a more active role in designing the digital architecture of virtual worlds. Even today’s digital platforms are complex social and economic environments that have been developed through decades of research into social psychology. But in these new worlds, tech barons will establish the rules and create vast systems to nudge users toward behavior that is profitable for the company.
The most lucrative businesses under digital capitalism were essentially advertising companies. Apple did still get away with selling high-end consumer products. But Google and Facebook’s surveillance-capitalism business model instead sought to offer people free services in exchange for their data, which would then be analyzed and sold.
Metaverse capitalism will see big tech firms shifting more toward hardware and infrastructure, as owning the framework within which other services can be offered becomes more valuable. This isn’t just about collecting data, it’s about owning the servers and the digital worlds. We have already seen Big Tech starting to spend big on undersea internet cables and data centers to reduce data transportation costs. Alphabet and Amazon have each spent close to $100 billion investing in infrastructure and other fixed-value assets. Increasingly, the idea of tech firms as lean business models following in the footsteps of Nike and other major outsourcing companies is becoming outdated.
A second core change is a diversification of revenue sources and a decentering of the role of data and advertising. In the first quarter of 2021, 97.2% of Facebook’s total revenue was generated through its advertising business. The metaverse presents a broader range of revenue streams, from the hardware on which it operates to the games, services, and content within it. Meta can start offering subscription-based content; it can sell virtual property and experiences; and it can charge other companies for access to its world. The data-to-advertising funnel will still exist, but it will be part of a larger portfolio of assets.
Platform companies that have offered a single service will now be more likely to branch out into offering a range of services within a connected world. How the metaverse will be divided up between competing tech companies remains to be seen. It’s hard to imagine that Meta will be willing to let its competitors set up shop in their part of the metaverse or compete with them on equal terms. But others will likely be keen to invest if there are signs that the hardware starts to pay off.
Large investments in VR and AR technology will also create a greater need for precarious and poorly paid “microworkers” to train the algorithms. The engine of the metaverse will be the physical and very real world of exploitative labor — predominantly of workers in the Global South. As Phil Jones has recently argued in Work Without the Worker, the “hidden abode of automation” is actually “a globally dispersed complex of refugees, slum dwellers, and casualties of occupations, compelled through immiseration, or else law, to power the machine learning of companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon.”
Will the metaverse be built responsibly? Of course not. Rather, it will be built in whichever way appears most profitable to Meta. Any problems that emerge will be dealt with as PR issues along the way while the company prints money at record pace. Who cares about the hand-wringing of a few legislators when you own not only the digital infrastructure of this world but the whole metaverse? Zuckerberg’s “metaverse” is a world in which users move seamlessly from one corporate-owned environment to another. Facebook’s founder has assured the public that this latest wheeze will be built responsibly and in partnership with others. But in light of the avalanche of evidence of wrongdoing uncovered by whistleblower Frances Haugen, it’s hard to believe that even Zuckerberg’s closest allies believe the spin.
Featured image credit: Reuters