In September, my family and I move from our home in Dublin to a fancy East Coast college town, where I’ll be teaching for the semester. I grew up in Dublin, which means I have a wide circle of friends to draw on whenever I’m let out of the house. The street where I live is friendly: If I want to borrow a spatula or I need someone to look after my cat, I have only to ask.
Life is different for us in the U.S. We have, for the first time, a basement. But we have no friends. It seems as if none of the permanent faculty can afford to live in the suburb where the university has placed us. We technically have neighbors, but we never see them; they manifest only in the form of their gardeners, who are at work every day with their leaf blowers.
It’s in this strange scenario — alone on a continent, cut off from everyone I know — that I decide to try the metaverse for the first time. A whole galaxy of pals brought right to your living room? I think. Why not?
The first thing that strikes me when I enter the metaverse is the people, the avatars, their — Where are their fucking legs?
Bodies stop at the waist in Horizon Worlds, which is Facebook’s — excuse me, Meta’s — home base in the metaverse. So the price of entry to this virtual paradise is the surrender of your bottom half. Frankly, it makes the metaverse feel like a cult. Legs? We don’t even miss them!
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It’s hard not to read the fact that half of you disappears when you enter Horizon Worlds as symbolic somehow, and it has been a focal point for the widespread derision that’s been aimed at Mark Zuckerberg and Meta. Apparently legs, legs that move in concert with the user, are very hard to do. The engineers are working on it, supposedly, and the people I meet in the metaverse are constantly telling me how “legs are coming,” like the creatures of Narnia whispering to one another that “Aslan is on the move.”
I’m busy contemplating my legless torso when I hear laughter in the room. Lifting my Meta Quest headset, I see my son has come into my office unbeknownst to me and evidently finds my appearance amusing.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m in virtual reality,” I say.
“You look like that leopard in India that got its head stuck in a pot,” he says.
He has a point: The headset is decidedly antisocial. Once the Meta Quest is strapped on, it’s adios to the real world, so much so that the headset prompts you to demarcate a “play area” by spraying a virtual boundary line on the ground. This is to stop me from crashing into real-world furniture, walls, spouse, etc., when I’m in the middle of my VR adventures.
Henceforth, whenever I’m close to the edge of my boundary, the real world appears “through” the virtual one in a gritty, low-resolution black-and-white version of itself, like found footage in a ’90s horror movie. It’s hard not to suspect that this is how Meta wants you to think of analog reality.
Indeed, Facebook’s rebrand as Meta seems to signal Mark Zuckerberg’s conviction that reality as a whole is going to fall out of favor. The metaverse wasn’t his idea — the name comes from Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash — but his company has reportedly spent some $36 billion developing it. In Zuckerberg’s vision, the metaverse will be nothing less than the internet’s next iteration, one for which he will control both the hardware (Facebook bought headset maker Oculus in 2014) and the software (Meta has been snapping up companies even tangentially related to VR).
Once we’re plugged in, Meta will have unparalleled access to users’ lives, even the parts the company is not now surveilling. Giving a presentation, meeting your buddies, sitting around watching TV — all of it will be coming through your headset. It’s a hypermonopoly, a metamonopoly. Zuckerberg doesn’t just want a lock on online experience; he’s planning to move all of experience online.
So far, the gamble hasn’t paid off. Only 20 million Quest headsets have been sold — nowhere close to his goal of a billion users. On March 14, Zuckerberg announced that Meta was laying off around 10,000 workers, joining the 11,000 laid off four months earlier.
On my initial visits, the metaverse seems sort of desolate, like an abandoned mall, and ordinarily I wouldn’t be lining up to join the misfits still populating it. Now that I’m away from my social network, though, I realize how much heavy lifting was being done by the brief, bantering, checking-in conversations I used to have with my friends and neighbors. So I’m determined to find the metaverse’s true believers, those left behind when the rest of fickle reality has moved on. They may not be able to lend me a spatula, but I’ve decided that, for now at least, these will be my people.
A selfie in the $10 billion metaverse, taken by Mark Zuckerberg during the launch of Horizon Worlds in France and Spain, was mocked by Twitter users for the graphics.
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