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28 January 2022

If tech bros get their way, the future is going to be ugly

From weddings in the metaverse to dead-eyed celebrities discussing NFTs: the 2020s are showing us that new technology does not guarantee a better life.

By Sarah Manavis

It’s hard to be inspired by any interview done on US late-night television – something that is ultimately marketing, made worse by dull questions from Jimmy Kimmel or James Corden. Yet it’s rare to find one that even the studio audience, cued by producers to laugh and applaud, finds unbearably, mind-numbingly boring. 

That’s what happened on the night of 25 January, when Paris Hilton appeared on Jimmy Fallon’s The Tonight Show to discuss her new television programme, Paris in Love. She also promoted a series of NFTs she is releasing. In one clip, Fallon pulled out a popular NFT, “Bored Ape”, that Hilton has recently purchased. The two then discussed – to a background of complete silence – how he had purchased the same one, after her encouragement. If you’re feeling bored by this description, or confused as to whom this could be interesting for, then you’re not alone: it was clear that both the stars and the audience were struggling through the stilted performance.   

The clip subsequently went viral on Twitter for its uncanny eeriness (amazingly, it wasn’t even the first time Hilton had spoken about NFTs on Fallon’s show, appearing as recently as August last year to “school” him on their value). Online, viewers noted the sinister undertone of two multimillionaires hawking a product they’re both investors in. But others asked a question many have been asking for the past year: why all of this fuss and attention for something as ugly as most NFTs? A thing you cannot hold and that, in many ways, isn’t even yours?

In the past six months we’ve been treated to a whole host of dystopian tech hitting the mainstream: the rise of NFTs, billionaires competing with each other to get launched into space, and whole virtual reality universes brought to us by Mark Zuckerberg. This week, India saw its first metaverse wedding (on non-Facebook metaverse, it should be clear) where the bride and groom dressed in basic street clothes and got married against a Harry Potter backdrop. This followed an equally drab affair in the US in December, where a couple said they wanted to start their marriage in the metaverse because they’d initially met online.

[See also: Mark Zuckerberg is fooling no one by changing Facebook’s name to Meta]

This is the future tech bros and billionaires want for us. They tell us that it will improve our lives. But instead of a bright new horizon, we’re left with a future that’s not just inaccessible and expensive, but fundamentally lifeless, boring and – above all else – ugly.

This future has been a long time coming. With the boom in new tech gadgets in the mid-2010s – items such as the Oculus Rift and Google Glass – many critics noted that they weren’t just inaccessibly expensive: they were also unattractive. Most tech platforms don’t prioritise pleasing design, but rather a kind of future depicted in 1970s kids shows; all curved lines and neutral colours, rarely moving beyond a greyscale. Most tech inventions don’t look like a future that has progressed from our current reality, but a projection of a childhood idea of what the future was supposed to look like.

Now we are stuck with an equally limited creative vision, but fuelled by more money and better technology. Together, they create the dull and ugly tech booms that we are only at the beginning of witnessing. Our artists are not great architects or designers, but instead the power-hungry nerds who have found themselves at the top of the world’s biggest tech companies. As Dan Brooks wrote for Gawker, NFTs, the metaverse and tech “innovations” like Memoji (an app that creates emojis from your face) reflect “the stunted inner lives of the finance and technology professionals who produced [them]… NFTs are the human capacity for visual expression as understood by the guy at the vape store.” The rich people designing our worlds may ensure that they’re well-funded, but can’t guarantee that they will in any way be good.

[See also: Silicon Valley Bank unmasks the hypocrisy of libertarian tech bros]

And herein lies the problem: who actually wants this future? What is the value, for normal people, of any of this? Take a wedding in the metaverse. Surely if you want to avoid seeing people in person, you’d elope, do it on the cheap; and if you want as many people at your wedding as possible, there’d be little satisfaction in, physically, seeing no one. Isn’t the fun of a wedding found in the interactions and sensations you need to be there to experience? If you can’t have the wizard-themed wedding of your dreams, it’s unlikely that watching an avatar of yourself having a digital version will give you even a fleeting sense of having had one. 

The same hollow experience applies to NFTs. The Bored Ape is customisable, and many celebrities – like Hilton – are commissioning ones to look like themselves. But it would appear that what even the richest celebrities get is, at best, an ape with a similar haircut (in so far as a chimp with blonde bob looks like Gwyneth Paltrow). NFTs also market themselves as being good for art – but one of the actual creators of NFTs has admitted that they do little to protect artists.

What those who peddle these digital experiences miss is the fact that people like to do things in a well-designed, physical environment. Physicality isn’t merely coincidental to the things we love. We don’t enjoy art because it’s expensive, and the pleasure of human engagement isn’t maximised by how easy it is – we enjoy life more when we get to use all of our senses. You need only look at e-book sales compared with print in the past ten years to see that there’s value in holding something beautiful and real, and there’s a reason we feel bad when we stare all day at a screen. It seems likely that tech CEOs and their investors – such as Fallon and Hilton – know this, but they still keep trying to convince you of their lucrative vision. 

That leaves us in a conundrum: though the vast majority of people want to live in the physical world, tech bros want to foist a digital future on everyone – and they are the ones with the power to make it so. If they have their say, we should prepare for it to get even uglier.

[See also: The spirit of the age: Why the tech billionaires want to leave humanity behind]

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