The collapse of digital ventures like FTX shows that no amount of hype and starry-eyed proselytising can escape reality
The tiny island nation of Tuvalu recently announced that it would be the first country to fully replicate itself as a virtual reproduction in the metaverse.
Tuvalu, comprising of nine small islands in the Pacific situated between Australia and Hawaii, fears that its demise is inevitable due to human-induced climate change, and wanted to preserve “the most precious assets of its people … and move them to the cloud”.
This fatalism was perhaps part publicity stunt but also part resignation, as the Pacific nation tries to grapple with the looming climate disasters that will hit islands like theirs hardest.
But the idea that it should capture a digital version of itself, a virtual ghost in the shell, belies our flawed attitude towards technology as a saviour and the narrative that new technological worlds will inevitably replace our vibrant physical one.
The metaverse promises to be (it is not yet properly built) a fully immersive, universal virtual world powered by virtual reality and mixed reality technologies. Mark Zuckerberg popularised the term in 2021, when he announced that his company would change its name to Meta and pivot its future towards building metaverse technologies.
Since then, pundits who claimed metaverse expertise emerged seemingly overnight, clamouring to get a piece of the pie of this shiny “new” phenomenon.
This naive futurism expresses itself in different ways – as believers herald more new technological marvels – Web3, cryptocurrency, blockchain, non-fungible tokens. A menu of seemingly incomprehensible and baffling technological prophecies.
But the hype and starry-eyed proselytising could not escape reality, and we are seeing examples of these new technologies collapsing.
Meta’s flagship metaverse project Horizon Worlds is reported to be largely empty and unpopular. Even among those who visit, most don’t stay after their first month. Wall Street Journal reports that of the user-generated worlds in the platform, only about nine percent are visited by more than 50 players. Seems like even Meta employees do not want to use the new Horizon Worlds.
Meta’s stock is experiencing deep crashes, as its dogged investment in the metaverse despite lack of returns and tough economic conditions forced it to lay off 11,000 staff.
FTX, a cryptocurrency exchange once valued at $32bn and considered a linchpin of the Web3 world, has spectacularly flamed out and is now facing liquidation.
This disconnect between the promise of these new technologies and the challenges of today’s problems is rooted in a philosophy preferred by tech evangelists – known as “longtermism”.
Longtermism is the view that we should support world-changing projects – like the colonisation of Mars, private space travel, and Web3 and the metaverse – because the alleged future value these will bring humanity justifies any potential disruption in the present or immediate future.
Longtermism has advocates in the tech barons of today – including Peter Thiel, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk. For them, the concerns of the present are only worth addressing insofar as they impact on their grandiose visions of the future.
Philosopher and author Émile P. Torres criticises this way of thinking: “Why does Musk care about climate change? Not because of injustice, inequality of human suffering – but because it might snuff us out before we can colonize Mars and spread throughout the universe.”
Longtermism favours an unrealised future over a troubled present, and its believers claim moral authority with vague notions that they are doing things that will allegedly create future value, but never once thinking about the cost borne by society today.
For the island nation of Tuvali, it is heartbreaking to think that they don’t even feel like they have any choice in being able to save their physical, real world community, and all that’s available to them is an abstracted, virtual copy.
If we build new technological worlds at the expense of addressing today’s problems, the metaverse won’t be a shiny new utopia, it will look more like a digital graveyard, full of the lost memories and copies of a world we chose to ignore.
Jordan Guiao is a research fellow at the Australia Institute’s Centre for Responsible Technology. He is the author of new book ‘Disconnect: Why we get pushed to extremes online and how to stop it’
… we have a small favour to ask. Millions are turning to the Guardian for open, independent, quality news every day, and readers in 180 countries around the world now support us financially.
We believe everyone deserves access to information that’s grounded in science and truth, and analysis rooted in authority and integrity. That’s why we made a different choice: to keep our reporting open for all readers, regardless of where they live or what they can afford to pay. This means more people can be better informed, united, and inspired to take meaningful action.