In the metaverse, who collects the bins? Facebook’s new vision for the future of the internet is a virtual reality expansion of social media, where you can strap on your goggles, forget your cramped flat, transform your appearance and meet up with friends across the world. And your colleagues. And your boss.
The metaverse will be fully tooled-up for corporate use, and if the likely persistence of human resources departments in the new dreamworld isn’t enough to set dystopian alarm bells ringing, just watch Mark Zuckerberg’s introduction video. “Imagine,” Zuckerberg gasps, “you put on your glasses or your headset and you’re instantly in your ‘homespace’” – something that, for now, does not require either glasses or a headset to achieve. But this homespace “has an incredibly inspiring view of whatever you find most beautiful”. We are treated to virtual trees, romantic coastlines, trickling streams and playful fish, as Zuckerberg does his best impression of a human being with a capacity for actual wonder.
As Cop26 gets under way, there is a particularly ominous charge to the tech billionaire’s excitement about these synthesised vistas of nature unspoiled. Virtual reality has already inspired a whole subgenre of dystopian sci-fi, where films like Ready Player One embed simulated lifeworlds within a polluted and dehumanised “desert of the real”, as Morpheus – quoting Baudrillard – puts it to Thomas Anderson in The Matrix. It’s worth asking what will happen to our real-world homespace of trees, coastlines, streams and fish while we’re all plugged into the metaverse’s hungry servers.
For most of the world, Cop26 may feel like virtual reality anyway. It is taking place thousands of miles away, and many of those on the climate front lines have been de facto excluded thanks to the hoarding of Covid-19 vaccines by rich countries. With global injustice baked into the event itself, it’s hard to imagine anything of substance emerging from the rhetorical urgency of those political and corporate leaders who are able to shape the agenda. Perhaps future Cops will take place somewhere in the metaverse – a simulated utopian city of the world, a great showroom for climate innovation and collaborative working, whose delegates wear their Cop-branded headsets as the sea laps invisibly at their feet and the fires rage silently outside. But for now, Cop must make do with Glasgow. And Glasgow is all too real. You can tell it’s real because the people there can’t stop talking about bins and rats.
They’re not wrong to do so. After the last-minute collapse of a last-minute deal, the GMB union – which represents most of Glasgow’s refuse and cleansing workers – has announced that it will go ahead with a strike that threatens to exacerbate an ongoing waste crisis in the city. Complaints about fly-tipping, overflowing bins and rat sightings have soared in recent months, placing extra pressure on the city’s four-year-old SNP administration as the world comes to town. While other strike threats – especially on the railways – have been averted with late deals, the refuse and cleansing strike still has just as much power to disrupt Cop’s functioning as the thousands of climate activists pouring into Scotland’s biggest city.
That potential has not been lost on those activists, some of whom are tentatively hoping to build links with GMB – a union that also represents much of the fossil fuel sector. Greta Thunberg’s message of support for the strikes was welcomed by Chris Mitchell, the union’s charismatic refuse and cleansing convenor, in one of several viral videos from his hype-man tour of cleansing depots. Picket lines may offer a proving ground for a formidable alliance if climate activists can show solidarity – not just by listening and responding to workers’ priorities and concerns, but by putting some of their energy into supporting them.
The GMB’s power to make Glasgow look bad on the world stage has also attracted the ire of SNP loyalists, who resent what they see as an opportunistic ransom tactic by a Labour-affiliated union. Even left-leaning nationalists are struggling with the possibility of a negative spectacle. On 25 October, the veteran journalist and independence supporter Ruth Wishart tweeted that she was “ALWAYS in favour of fair pay for work done… [but] badly don’t want Glasgow, my home town, trashed in the global media.”
Wishart’s dilemma is symptomatic of a more profound cultural transformation that has taken place in Scotland recently – a new spirit of forced self-confidence, and an escape from decades of seemingly fruitless national despair. The SNP themselves have been both beneficiaries and architects of this change. They came to power in Scotland in a blaze of performative optimism, informed by ideas of “positive psychology” emanating from American self-help gurus like Martin Seligman. Supportive local intellectuals lamented “miserablism” and the “Scots crisis of confidence”. Any criticism or protest that could not be reabsorbed into this happy-clappy national boosterism was politely – and then forcefully – ushered out of the room. Scotland’s governing philosophy is a neat fit with the protective bubble of Cop26, where protesters are muzzled and consigned to the fringes and elites are welcomed in.
Yet the old despair hasn’t totally gone away. Many Scots still have a nagging sense that something is wrong – that things are wrong enough, in fact, for everything else to be tainted. This national undercurrent of depressive realism can be a kind of superpower: behind Zuckerberg’s virtual bluster, it notices the dodging of corporate responsibility; at the sight of clean streets it senses exploited street-sweepers; it can also intuit, between the polite handshakes and photocalls of an elite-led summit, the structural violence and neglect that an inadequate agreement means for the Global South, and then the rest of us a few years further down the line.
Such pessimism isn’t always good for you. But neither is what the literary critic Lauren Berlant called “cruel optimism”. Optimism is “cruel”, Berlant argued, when our need for it gets attached to something that actually inhibits the “expansive transformation for which a person or a people risks striving”. It is cruel optimism to believe that a waning normality, supposedly accessible to those who came before us, will also come to us in time; as if we can still leave things to our governments, as if they’ll make the right demands and sacrifices on our behalf. If pessimism isn’t enough to replace this, then perhaps another kind of intuition can grow from it: an attunement among ordinary people to the disruptive presence and potential of collective power, of the kind that only emerges when we let the old, passive normality die – one that spies democracy in a traffic jam, and social justice in an overflowing bin.