Meta Narrative


From the Hedgehog Review:

It did look for a while as if the new social networks might open up space for a wider diversity of lives, conversations, communities, and experiences than was possible in the offline world. As the years have passed, however, the networks have imposed their own architectural logics on virtual life and discourse. Users conform ever more closely to one or a few of the narratives on offer, driven by powerful mimetic dynamics to converge on common thoughts, words, and actions. That is the first step; the second is to reduce the number of narratives on offer through algorithmic surveillance and behavioral nudging.

The godlike power held by the creators of the new virtual environments was easy to miss in the early, utopian days of the Internet. Even William Gibson, whose wonderful 1984 novel Neuromancer named “cyberspace” and foresaw its supersession of “meatspace,” depicted virtuality as an anarchic “consensual hallucination” in which his virus-slinging protagonist could frustrate the feds with a series of daring dodges. It is true, of course, that digital resources are vulnerable to this kind of cowboy criminality. But the real-life hackers come from outside, probing for weaknesses in the walls of the virtual worlds, while the consensual hallucinations that most of us inhabit these days are designed, like Las Vegas gambling floors, to channel us into the places their builders want us to go. The consummation of digital virtuality is a world where the story is already written and you do not make any choices at all. As long as human behavior remains a valuable resource, as it is for casinos and governments alike, virtual environments will be designed to maximize control.

And as enlargements in technical capacity allow them to become more immersive and extensive, the grip will tighten. Lately Mark Zuckerberg has begun to talk about his hopes for building a digital “metaverse,” a term he derives from Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash. The metaverse, he explains, would be “an embodied internet, where instead of just viewing content—you are in it.” As Zuckerberg stresses, the metaverse would make virtual interactions feel more like real life and bring people together in communities that span geographic boundaries. But because every move you make in a virtual environment is tracked and recorded, the metaverse would also make vast quantities of new data available to its administrators, and it would make available powerful new tools for influencing our behavior. The short but colorful history of social media shows that neither the data nor the tools will go unused.

It would be disturbing enough if, as Maçães predicts, the great lords of Silicon Valley left us to amuse ourselves in our virtual sandboxes while they went off to conquer the solar system. With an ever-expanding arsenal of digital tools at their disposal, however, they are unlikely to show such restraint. Their war against reality can never truly be won until they have triumphed over the most stubborn and deceitful of all things, the human heart.

“The House Always Wins”, Bruno Maçães, The Hedgehog Review

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