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[31.0] manifest destiny in the metaverse
moralizing pixelated connection
OK pals, this one will be fairly short because I am weary. A condition in some ways invited upon myself and in others simply bad kismet. Smote, not smitten!
Two weeks ago, I joined The Financial Revolutionist, a fintech media outlet, as its lead reporter. Drawing from my professional roots in a (tumultuous) financial-technology startup, I’m covering the ins and outs of the sector—which touches everything from housing to climate change to international payments sanctions à la Russia’s ejection from SWIFT.
This work has been an exciting development, not least because it offers a promising re-entry point from which to analyze the beliefs and prophetic visions of tech’s most vocal evangelists.
Last week, I attended South by Southwest (known by acronym-kinky techies as SXSW) in Austin, Texas. A defining point in tech’s liturgical calendar, the conference attracts a wide array of communities—amants of the arts, of politics, of technology—and dumps them into a three-block radius for keynote speeches, concerts, and “activations.”
SXSW is a pulpit par excellence. “Thought leaders” use SXSW as an opportunity to convert their visions of the future into missions with financial and community support behind them.
Leading to scary scenes like this!
On the other hand, critics like VICE’s Edward Ongweso and The New Republic’s Jacob Silverman used their time at SXSW to analyze—and potentially confront—the boosters that terrify them the most. Cryptoevangelists and the like.
I wandered the coulisses of Austin’s cavernous conference center, navigating a range of talks, and found myself at one entitled “Empowering creators: building the real world metaverse.”
At capacity, the talk featured two metaverse developers, a VC, and a Dan Morris, Director of Partnerships at Niantic Labs, which developed Pokémon Go.
The visuals of these games kinda sucked, making me feel like a Sim about to be drowned in a pool by my malicious teenage-gaming overlord. But we’ve already discussed how the metaverse is a corny surveillance mechanism.
Far more unsettling was the cultural vision Dan Morris offered to the audience. In a future-looking pivot, he prophesied that the metaverse will include both “escapist” experiences inside people’s homes as well as multiplayer games that will fuse “bits and atoms” together outdoors. Terrifying!
“This magic dust will be sprinkled over the real world outside,” he said. Beyond the spiritual rhetoric was something even more puzzling and disturbing. He hinted at metaverse-based tech that would encourage individuals to break out of social media-based biases and engage on a deeper level with each other. In other words, once we can no longer see each other visually—race, gender, age, ability—then we can fully appreciate our core humanity.
Even if the metaverse only offers a single skin tone for all its users, we should still ask the following questions: Really? And which one, Dan?
Even a good-faith engagement with Morris’s scalding take reveals secondary consequences. Would the metaverse bring about more Jessica Krug or Rachel Dolezal-esque charlatans—figures seeking social capital by feigning marginal identities? “Oh no I’m not racist, my online avatar is Black.”
The visuals and values of the metaverse fail to move beyond an “on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”-era approach to developing communities through digital technologies. And even with the arbitrary “Web3” versus “Web2” debate seems to overlook that the “Web” component remains, and it hasn’t done us wonders to date!
Logging off to pet grass,
Divine Innovation is a somewhat cheeky newsletter on spirituality and technology. Published once every three weeks, it’s written by Adam Willems and edited by Vanessa Rae Haughton. Find the full archive here.