#167: Can't You Hear Me Knocking

Last week I wrote a piece for Real Life about the tech industry’s disinterest in fashion and its broader rejection of public space and the idea of a commons. The essay concludes with a critique of the metaverse concept, a more regimented simulacrum of public space where a wider range of interactions are easier to monetize—a virtual environment in which we’ll finally have digital walls where we can hang our NFTs, and where we can rub elbows with Marvel’s embodied IP. Recent metaverse announcements from Facebook and Microsoft felt instantly cynical—megaplatforms taunting their captive users with something we were sure to hate, discourse chum for the mid-August Twitter doldrums when there’s nothing better to talk about, luring us online to make our lame metaverse jokes when we ought to be reading a book at the beach instead. Whether the metaverse is an attention-grabbing troll or a genuine strategic priority remains to be seen, but either way it’s mostly just marketing gloss for something more mundane—“virtual reality with unskippable ads,” as Wendy Liu tweeted, a coercive space disguised as something more liberating.

While the marketing copy about the metaverse itself is tedious, the concept is more interesting as a microcosm of the broader internet that amplifies many of its present flaws. Rob Horning describes the metaverse as a version of Facebook from which it’s impossible to log off: “Facebook would also like to secure the ability to prevent people from any right to absence. Much as the company has strived to make having a Facebook profile mandatory to get along in everyday life, it would like to make it difficult for people to refuse to be present in the ‘metaverse’…The metaverse is fundamentally a place you will be forced to be.” As Horning points out, the internet itself is already impossible to log off from—even if we try to opt out as individuals, it shapes our reality (including the physical world) more and more comprehensively. Not that we really try to opt out anymore. We can’t afford to: Everyone begrudgingly maintains a LinkedIn profile despite the shame that accompanies actually having to use the site, and the fantasy of eventually being successful enough to delete it altogether. “The hype about the metaverse is in part trying to normalize this already existing condition,” Horning writes. “Consensus reality administered by venture capitalists.”

This past January and February, when many of us were at our most online and reasons to leave the house were at an all-time low, this inability to log off felt especially oppressive (even though it’s no less real now). I was thinking a lot about silence—how it’s largely unattainable on the internet, another form of absence that our asynchronous feeds and chats make impossible. “The physical world can accommodate emptiness and silence, or at least acknowledge them,” I wrote. “Online, those voids are just filled by other people’s content, and thus vanish instantly.” A few weeks later, I reread this essay about silence by Ivan Illich in which he argued that a true public commons is impossible without silence. Technological amplification of individual voices has transformed silence into “a resource for which loudspeakers compete.” Of course, this forces everyone to compete for that resource more frantically—to flood the soundscape with their own noise. Twitter and other social media feeds exhibit this dynamic most clearly; logging off and going outdoors (or just getting away from your phone) feels like the only reliable way to experience true silence now. The metaverse, a proprietary simulation of the physical world, might appear to promise a similar reversal of social media’s chaotic conditions, but as I argued in my Real Life essay, a Facebook or Microsoft metaverse would be the opposite of a commons: a theater for intellectual property in which sensory experience is a fully commoditized resource, every lacuna a content opportunity, and every moment of silence a reason for someone else to speak louder.

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In this week’s paid subscriber issue, I wrote about the positive externalities of restaurants, how the real estate market monetizes cultural capital, and recent efforts to commodify geographic uniqueness.