If I look back at how 2021 ended – two things immediately come to mind: the fatigue of still living with the reality of a global pandemic and how it shaped our daily lives, and the curiosity about this thing called Metaverse.
Are the two related? Most certainly – as the same isolation we got confined to in the last two years also got everyone accustomed to having ‘avatar’ lives and living in a parallel universe. Will “they” profit from it? 100% yes. Can we still do something about it? Absolutely.
As Professor (and star of The Great Hack documentary) David Carroll told me: “Today we are at a fork in the road as far as technology and society are concerned: we can take the road of ‘Cyber Punk’ (which is a dystopian vision, and a very dark world) or we can choose to take the other road, the road of ‘Solar Punk’ (which is more utopian, and through the eyes of sustainability and equality)”.
So this ‘Metaverse thing’ got me curious and it made me want to know more – as if we can’t escape from it, we better understand it properly and learn how to be active citizens in it. If our role is to take the ‘cyber sun’ road, then we better get informed on which tools we need to embark on the journey. And which governance we need in place before we do. Since the technology clock moves at the speed of light, it is imperative that we also move super fast before we find out that we have been taken on the cyber punk road as a result of either our inaction or our distraction. Hence I studied, read articles, had lots of discussions with our CEO Simon Whitehouse who knows more than me and I called the experts I knew could help put the issue on a macro level, before I got distracted with the details.
Here is what I found out.
According to my friend Auret Van Heerden, the ‘Cyber Punk’ scenario – the dystopian nightmare of tomorrow, sold to us today as a utopian world – will look a lot like this:
“We are already surrounded by connected devices, all transmitting data back to the manufacturers. The Metaverse(s) will be like super-super-apps that seamlessly link all our connected devices together. Instead of the clumsy panoply of apps we currently use, the Metaverse will effectively combine and transfer our data from activity to activity, device to device, app to app, both in the real and virtual worlds. The controller of the Metaverse will soon have enough data to know and predict exactly what we are doing and about to do next. They will then be able to facilitate our activities by inserting goods and services from preferred providers at exactly the right moment. Payment would be painless, since we would either be subscribing to those goods and services, or paying in crypto with our retinas. This would make the Metaverse host a massive data broker, finance and loan provider, advertiser and retailer. The seamlessness and inter-operability of the Metaverse would not work if we had to authorise each app, access or payment individually, so the Metaverse provider will use biometric and behavioural identification, giving them even more of our personal data. We will consent to that in the T&Cs we agree to in order to access the Metaverse. The Metaverse will add new services like AI-driven remote medicine, insurance, banking, education and training. Each one of those incredibly cheap, fast and convenient services would harvest even more of our data. The collection and analysis of all our intimate data will give the masters of the Metaverse unimaginable power and wealth. We have already allowed our phones to track all our movements, communication and consumption, but the data has been spread across multiple apps. In the Metaverse the biometric data of our urine and stools monitored by our smart toilet will be correlated with what’s in our smart fridge, what we order online, what we eat, how much and how well we sleep, our heartbeat, temperature and any number of other physical and emotional indicators. The Metaverse will know if we are getting sick before we do.”
Does this make you feel alarmed already?
Well – it gets worse. If reading until now made you think of emperor Zuckerberg and his rebranded “Meta” empire – then you are right. A Wired article by Lisa Messeri entitled “The Man, The Myth and the Metaverse” talks precisely about Zuckerberg’s new Meta rebrand launch and the speech he gave on this occasion, talking about his vision for ‘the final platform’ and how this is a ‘new frontier’. The same article quotes historian Frederick Turner and his 1893 frontier thesis (talking about American expansion and American prosperity at the expense of non-white communities). In Zuckerberg’s hands, the vision of sociality, community, and experience existing on this frontier will be devastatingly limited and inevitably structured by harm – like Auret described it to me.
This is why Lisa Messeri wonders whether, rather than striving to open ‘new frontiers’, we should instead search out different stories about technology that don’t depend on erasures and harms, and asks us to consider two frameworks that might help us take other paths (like our ‘cyber sun’ road): complexity and multiplicity.
“The myth so far has been perpetrated with simplicity: the basic story of technology’ – as Zuckerberg describes it: ‘we have smoothly gone from desktop to web to phones; from text to photo to video to the Metaverse’. To strive for complexity would require the current financial logics of the Valley to tumble”.
“So – what if tech narratives were to proliferate? What would be the result of moving away from a singular myth to multiple stories about what the Metaverse future might and could be?”
But what could be?
I found a possible answer in an article entitled “You are now remotely controlled. Surveillance capitalists control the science and the scientists, the secrets and the truth” by Shoshana Zaboff, which appeared in The New York Times in January 2020. In it, the author points out, like Professor David Carroll told me, that this third decade is likely to decide our fate. “Will we make the digital future better, or will it make us worse? Will it be a place that we can call home?”. Her answer comes via epistemic justice and rights and what she calls “epistemic inequality, defined as unequal access to learning imposed by private commercial mechanisms of information capture, production, analysis and sales. It is best exemplified in the fast-growing abyss between what we know and what is known about us”. It follows that the struggle of our digital century is over access to knowledge and that the power conferred by such knowledge will shape the politics of our time. In fact “epistemic justice and rights will have to be shaped according to three questions: Who knows? Who decides who knows? Who decides who decides who knows?”
“During the last two decades, the leading surveillance capitalists – Google, later followed by Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft – helped to drive this societal transformation while simultaneously ensuring their ascendant to the pinnacle of the epistemic hierarchy. They operated in the shadows to amass huge knowledge monopolies by taking without asking, a manoeuvre that every child recognises as theft. Our lives are rendered as data flows. Now people have become targets for remote control and for “economies of action”. “We are learning how to write the music”, one scientist said “and then we let the music make them dance”.
This new power to “make us dance” does not employ soldiers to threaten terror and murder. It arrives carrying a cappuccino, not a gun. It is a new “instrumentarian” power aimed at remotely tuning, herding and modifying human behaviour in the direction of profitable outcomes and always engineered to preserve users ignorance”.
It goes without saying then that, if we want to embark on the “Cyber Sun” road, we can’t be ignorant or passive. As “they have the knowledge, the machines, the science and the scientists, the secrets and the lies and all privacy now rests with them, leaving us with few means of defence from these marauding data invaders”.
This epoch promises plenty of disruption, but whether or not this is welcome depends on how we steer a course through change. The one big super power we have (which they don’t want us to use) is our action to push for legislation, governance and accountability.
“Surveillance capitalists are rich and powerful but they are not invulnerable” writes Shoshana Zaboff. “They have an Achilles heels: fear. They fear lawmakers who do not fear them. They fear citizens who demand a new road forward as they insist on new answers to old questions. Who will know? Who will decide who knows? Who will decide who decides? Who will write the music, and who will dance?”
Are you ready to embark on this journey? Can you see the turning for Cyber Sun Road?
Learn more here about how we plan to support companies seeking to produce and market NFT’s or enter the metaverse, whilst raising awareness of some of the most pressing societal and environmental issues of our time.