We’ve spent a lot of time online over the past couple of years. I’ve been to conferences on Zoom, taught seminars on Google Meet, video-chatted friends on Messenger – even played board games over Skype. During the Covid-19 lockdowns each of these platforms offered the opportunity to do something that we used to do in person: to meet – albeit virtually.
For many of us, online meetings were a necessary evil, to be replaced by the real thing as soon as safety allowed. But what if the digitalisation of everyday life wasn’t a temporary adjustment to a global pandemic, but a permanent shift? What if the physical reality of our lives together is about to change?
This is the vision that Mark Zuckerberg has for us. In a promotional video last year, Zuckerberg welcomed us to the metaverse, a beautiful realm of soaring mountains, untouched forests, tasteful mid-century modern interiors and fantastical fauna.
But Zuckerberg doesn’t want the Metaverse to be merely a platform for entertainment. In his vision, the key attraction of the metaverse is that it is a place to meet other people. (He is a social media mogul, after all.) He intends the metaverse to be an alternative world in which we live with our friends. And as the philosopher David Chalmers argues in his book Reality+ (2022), virtual worlds might not be physical, but they are real places. There is no reason, in principle, why we cannot live full lives in an online reality.
That’s the goal. Zuckerberg says that the metaverse isn’t just a technology, but a point in time – the point at which most people find they prefer to conduct their business, see family and hang out with friends in online spaces. What matters isn’t simply the technological question of whether virtual reality (VR) headsets can create a fully immersive experience. What’s key, in Zuckerberg’s vision, is the social question of when people will begin using online spaces in the way we now use physical spaces.
The era of the metaverse will begin when online worlds are the place you go to find the people you want to see. That means contemporary technologies that function to replace physical activities and encounters, from social media to e-commerce to remote working apps, can be seen as harbingers of the metaverse, even if they don’t yet rely on VR technology.
This brings us to the big question. If the reason you prefer to spend time in the digital world is that your friends are there, and their reason to be there is that you are there, what will get us there in the first place? What starts the cycle?
Meta’s most prominent advertisement, aired to millions at the 2022 Super Bowl, gives an answer. Our hero, an adorable anthropomorphised terrier dog, faces a life without purpose or community when the small venue where his band used to play shuts down. After a series of lonely humiliations, an Oculus VR headset offers him salvation in the metaverse, allowing him to reunite with his long-lost bandmates on a virtual stage.
The message is depressingly clear: it is the deterioration of the physical world around us, the loss of lively streets, the fraying of communities, and the decline of public spaces that will give us reason to migrate online. We will escape to virtual reality not because it is better, but because the old world has become worse.
Perhaps this isn’t surprising. After all, video conferencing technology has existed for years. But it took a global pandemic to usher a critical mass of users on to Zoom and other platforms. Still, pandemics aside, why should we expect physical reality to decline?
We can start by looking back to another time when technological and social change threatened to transform the physical world. In her 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the great urban theorist Jane Jacobs diagnosed the forces assailing modern metropolises, leading to soaring crime rates, a flight to the suburbs, and the destruction of the urban fabric of cities across America in the latter half of the 20th century. Back then, it was the car and the expressway, rather than the internet, that threatened the life of cities. But now, as another novel technology promises to transform our lives, we should look to the lessons that Jacobs taught us.
[See also: How long does Facebook have left?]
Like online spaces, the flourishing of physical cities depends on virtuous cycles. We are attracted to areas that are lively and interesting. Places become lively and interesting when others are attracted to them. We avoid places that feel dangerous. But what keeps cities safe? Not the police – in a healthy city, you rarely see law enforcement. As Jacobs explained, it is the presence of strangers – local shopkeepers, passersby, idlers and diners – that keep city streets safe. By contrast, an empty street is a scary street.
This is why virtual worlds compete with the physical world. Like city streets, online social spaces are appealing because other people are there. The more of our time and money we spend online, the less attractive our high streets will be. Flourishing cities need high-frequency public transit. Remote working starves transit systems of paying riders, leading to service reductions. Cities are fuelled by their culture and nightlife. Zuckerberg sees concerts and parties relocating to the metaverse.
These patterns are self-reinforcing. Some people move online, leading to fewer trains, empty streets and shuttered venues, prompting even more people to move online. The logic of following the crowd means that the transformation can occur even if most people would prefer a flourishing physical world to a flourishing metaverse. And no matter how benign their intentions, once private corporations start to sell virtual reality it will be in their interests for the physical world to become less alluring, increasing the comparative appeal of their products.
What can be done? When Zuckerberg speaks, he does so with the visionary’s assurance that the rise of the metaverse is not only good, but inevitable, a manifestation of the unstoppable march of progress. This confidence is hard to challenge – no one wants to find themselves on the wrong side of history. But it should be questioned.
Jacobs’ book was a rebuke to the messianic utopianism of modernist urban planners, who were so certain that the automobile had made city streets defunct, and that dense urban districts were primitive, that they were prepared to bulldoze whole neighbourhoods in the name of progress. (Le Corbusier even proposed the demolition of central Paris, to be replaced with 18 great concrete tower blocks, ringed by parking lots and highways.) But the modernists were wrong, and their vision has been rejected. The new utopians may be wrong too. We shouldn’t let the claim of inevitability become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
But what if, as Chalmers and Zuckerberg think, a life in virtual reality really could be as good as, or even better than, the physical world? Shouldn’t we then accept the decline of our cities as the price to pay for the wonders of the new worlds we will create?
Perhaps a fully online life could be a good life. But for now, it looks as though the first online worlds will be domains fabricated for profit by monopolistic tech corporations. In contrast, the physical world contains public spaces – parks, streets and squares. But can any spaces be truly public in a metaverse owned by Meta, or Alphabet, or another tech giant?
As we’ve seen, safety in the physical world is provided by the oversight of countless strangers; whatever safety we find online comes, by contrast, in the dystopian form of ever-present centralised surveillance. In the physical world, citizens can always stand up for democracy by taking to the streets; in a virtual world, absolute censorship is possible at the whim of a corporation.
So, whether we aim to prevent the migration online or merely democratise the virtual worlds that we may find ourselves in, we cannot treat the development of a metaverse as an apolitical matter. The logic of collective choice that I have outlined means that the rise of virtual worlds will inevitably have grave and far-reaching consequences for the physical landscape that we currently inhabit.
This means we need to decide now whether these are changes we are willing to accept. If they are not, we must act before the transformation of the world around us becomes irreversible. And, if humanity is to build new worlds in the digital ether, private corporations must be, at most, partners with the public, not sole proprietors.
In short, we cannot allow the novelty of virtual worlds to blind us to the risks of relocating our social and economic activity into a realm that is privately owned and controlled by unaccountable corporations. And whatever we decide, it must be based on a simple principle: the interests of citizens must always take precedence over the entrancing visions of the utopian messiahs of the virtual future.
Max Khan Hayward is a lecturer in ethics and political philosophy at the University of Sheffield.
This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland. Wendland is vision fellow in public philosophy at King’s College, London and a senior research fellow at Massey College, Toronto. He tweets at @aj_wendland.