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1 October 2022

Metaverse in retrograde

Mark Zuckerberg’s latest iteration of his virtual world has been derided as aesthetically primitive – but is that the point?

By Justin EH Smith

In October 2021, Meta Platforms, Inc, released a “trailer”, hosted by the company’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg, to give a visual tour of its recent expansion into the Metaverse – the immersive, virtual-reality world that is expected to be the next great iteration of our internet technologies.

It was a curious piece of work. The trailer began with Zuckerberg standing in a living room with a fireplace, a stunning mountain view, and other conventional signifiers of wealth. The Zuckerberg who first greets us appears to be the real one; he quickly proceeds to summon up a nearly life-size digital avatar of himself, and then runs through a sequence of possible costumes to dress his Meta-self in ahead of a virtual meeting with his Meta colleagues (or, more accurately, is yea-saying underlings). He briefly considers some more outlandish outfits before deciding on one that exactly matches what he, the real Zuckerberg, is already wearing: an unassuming anti-fashion ensemble for which he has long been known for, consisting of a black shirt and black trousers. This comedic set-up reveals something about the mentality behind the dismal aesthetics of the Metaverse as we have seen it so far.

After Zuckerberg dresses his avatar, he enters a virtual conference room where he finds his colleagues eager to start discussing business. It is a cute and diverse bunch, for whom the boundary between remunerative labour and freely given conviviality seems non-existent. Most appear in ordinary human form, though one of them has decided to come as a robot – and not just any robot, but a huge round-edged, red cartoonish one. Though mechanical, the robot is in some respects the most lifelike of the gang, reminiscent of any number of non-robotic sidekicks from Obelix to Chewbacca. Soon enough some other colleagues phone in from the streets of Soho, New York City to share the “3D street art” they’ve discovered.

Next Zuckerberg’s wife Priscilla appears on a screen, and shows the gang what the family dog has been up to; Zuckerberg asks Priscilla to share this delightful clip with his dad. The world of the street-art hunters and of his wife and dog is – as far as we can tell – just the regular world: the real streets of Soho, a real backyard. The sight we catch of that world simultaneously ruptures all the virtual magic that was meant to enrapture us, and at the same time it reminds us just how far Meta still has to go before it mounts any serious alternative to the phenomenal reality mediated by our sense organs in contact with the ordinary world.

[See also: Does the rise of the Metaverse mean the decline of cities?]

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All of this happened almost a year ago. At the time it still seemed reasonable to suppose that what we were being shown was only an early rough draft, and that the still-hidden goods around which all the buzz had begun swirling would be delivered soon enough. How puzzling it was then, when in August of this year Zuckerberg, celebrating the opening of Meta’s Metaverse features in France and Spain, released a selfie featuring his avatar standing in front of the Eiffel Tower and the Sagrada Familia church (the distance between the monuments having been eradicated). Reaction on social media was caustic, vicious and hilarious. Zuckerberg’s fauvist-drawn face was described as “unprecedented cringe” and similar to an image you would see in a picture book for babies. One person wrote that the graphics were well-suited to the face of Zuckerberg, which appears bizarrely to have only three or four discernible features. Countless people said the image looked like a game made for Nintendo Wii circa 2002.

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It was apparently a grave failure and seemed to be a significant step back even from the modest preview we had been offered the previous year. What could have been going on at Meta headquarters?

Many people speculated that the company was simply giving up on its Metaverse project, just as Facebook has shed countless features over the years when they had failed to garner the expected interest. I rushed to a more extreme conclusion, and presumed that there was something more devious going on. Perhaps the company had conspired to make its product appear retrograde and ridiculous as part of a more elaborate and multi-phase advertising campaign, keeping the low-information masses away from investing in Metaverse real estate so to allow a privileged group of investors to buy it all up first.

These theories, however, slowly gave way to a simpler and less pleasing one. The Metaverse is only as ugly as the average of all of our species’ current unrelenting output of material and digital-cultural artefacts. Whether you approve of it or not, Meta’s vision of the Metaverse is a pretty good representation of what our world looks like today.

Some will protest that I am exaggerating; after all, it is precisely Meta’s failure to meet the standards of graphic detail and “realism” which now dominate in CGI-saturated entertainments, such as the Marvel Cinematic Universe , that has provoked the most passionate mockery. And yet our new cinematic realism is anything but. I have heard so-called “photorealism” in painting being referred to as “the neoliberalism of portraiture”. By the same token we may say that CGI-realism is what reality looks like when the only incentive to represent it is profit. The graphics in the Avengers might be “good” – unlike those in Zuckerberg’s most recent bid for our attention – but the operative notion of goodness here is not one that bears any relationship to the usual criteria of evaluation throughout the history of art. This is a “goodness” that does not bring us any closer to discovering truths about the world and our place in it, but seeks to buffer and protect us – at least momentarily – from such discoveries. So at least in this respect, though superhero movies are graphically “good” and Meta’s Metaverse world is graphically “bad”, aesthetically they are both bad in the same way.

The principal sources of aesthetically good representational art on the internet today are mostly anonymous meme-creators, and their work is, from a graphics point of view, aggressively and gleefully terrible. They delight in copy and pasting incongruous images into a single composition, with no attention given to proportions or perspective – for example putting a crying Wojak head on Joe Biden’s body, or attaching a muscular yet still somehow canine body to the head of a shiba inu dog. There is a difference between good graphics and good art, and exuberant teenaged meme-makers intuitively understand this, yet it is something that the profit-hungry content industry is, in its very nature, unable to ever grasp.

[See also: “Tech must solve a real need”: the iPod inventor Tony Fadell on virtual reality consumerism]

When we move down the scale from the extremely online avant-garde with their delirious memes, to the masses of normies, we find significant continuity in attitudes towards graphic precision and elegance. Similar to the vanguard, the masses care little about whether their memes look “good”; what matters most is raw feeling. This feeling is often conveyed through smiling or laughing emojis, or text-and-image jpegs featuring flowers, sunsets and prepackaged Hallmark sentiments.

A 2018 Wall Street Journal article reported that “the internet is filling up because Indians are sending millions of ‘Good morning!’ texts”. These texts are frequently accompanied by images, borrowed from websites such as wishgoodmorning.com, showing for example a red rose along with the words: “Good Morning to my life’s rose. Your fragrance makes all of life’s thorns worth tolerating.” Another image shows a toddler wearing a fedora telling you how to lead a good life. One 71-year-old user, who had never used a computer and only recently got a mobile phone with WhatsApp installed on it, declared with touching earnestness: “These WhatsApp messages are really my thoughts put into words.” He was soon getting up at 6am everyday to send good morning greetings to 50 friends. That same year more than 20 billion New Year’s messages were sent throughout India, and Facebook reported numerous problems with system overloads, while many Indians too reported that the constant barrage was freezing up their low-memory mobile phones.

It is worth also recalling that Zuckerberg’s social-media project grew beyond its role as a platform for Harvard University students to rate the hotness of one another into the huge data corporation in large part thanks to the agriculture-simulation game known as FarmVille, which launched on Facebook in 2009, as well as similar immersive game apps such as Happy Farm and Candy Crush. By design, these games are simple, and mildly addictive in their doling out of rewards for the completion of simple tasks (harvesting crops, lining up lemon-drops). They are also utterly unimpressive with respect to their graphics and their overall aesthetic feel. The world Zuckerberg evoked in his Franco-Spanish selfie recalled nothing so much as that of the ducks, cows and pumpkins still remembered by millions of us.

Simple, pleasing, and aimed at the mass-market, Zuckerberg understands that the Metaverse is going to draw us in by the billions, not by looking like some esoteric Wojak meme, and still less like the film Last Year at Marienbad or any of the high-art visual culture of the 20th century that a small handful of us still think any representation of reality should emulate, but rather by looking like FarmVille or a “Good Morning!” meme delivered up courtesy of wishgoodmorning.com. The 71-year-old who skipped straight from a culture of orality to a culture of mobile tech, is the ideal user of Meta’s Metaverse features. There are billions of people around the world who share broadly in his sensibility. If you are reading this, you are probably not the ideal user of Meta’s Metaverse features, but that doesn’t matter.

[See also: “We must prevent Facebook from running the metaverse”: Herman Narula on the fight for a new reality]

The aesthetics of Meta’s Metaverse were not conceived with you in mind. Zuckerberg understood that it made sense to roll the new product out, to let the extremely-online vanguard mock it for a few weeks before moving on to delivering it to others. For Meta’s business model – which has long proven to be successful – is to cater to the normies. Our “real” world remains a normie world. It demands little in the way of aesthetic excellence from the various platforms through which content is delivered, and as long as profit is the only motive for its delivery, creators have no more reason to pursue aesthetic excellence than normies have to expect it. Our virtual worlds can only be as sharp and compelling as the imaginations of the people who make them. Or, to put that another way, every real world gets the virtual worlds it deserves. We’re getting Zuckerberg’s Metaverse.

Justin EH Smith is a historian of philosophy. His new book “The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is” is out now

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This article appears in the 28 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Truss Delusion