In high school I knew this kid who smoked pot, watched The Matrix, and asked his friends, “So are we… in the Matrix?” The film’s vision of a future involving leather trench coats and monochrome computer monitors has since faded to kitsch, but another much-hyped digital reality now has people posing a similar question: Are we in the metaverse yet? Well, let’s see.
The word “metaverse” first emerged in ‘90s dystopian science fiction novels — tech guys love dystopian science fiction, an irony akin to drug dealers loving Scarface and Italians loving The Sopranos. The metaverse has since become Silicon Valley’s latest grandiose plan for the future. It’s sort of a blanket buzzword encompassing virtual reality, non-fungible tokens (NFTs), cryptocurrencies, and video games. Here three distinct but overlapping forces in culture coalesce: bad taste losers, cynical hucksters, and multinational corporations. If an earlier internet’s promise to make information free clearly caused more problems than it solved, the metaverse’s proposed solution is to turn us all into aspiring intellectual property barons, constantly buying and selling ownership rights to bits of code pertaining to digital trinkets.
The Washington Post has an example:
Epic Games already let you buy Air Jordan 1s as part of a skin for your “Fortnite” avatar — and you could conceivably wear them to a battle royale in the morning before showing them off at an Ariana Grande concert in the evening. Now, say you could show up to an island in Nintendo’s “Animal Crossing” in the same attire. Okay, now say you could show up to work in your Web-gotten costume, and head off after to a group fitness class. Then imagine someone sneaks behind you and pulls your underwear over your head, lifting you up and ultimately dangling you from your locker.
OK, the last sentence is mine, but you get the picture: this is some bleak nerd stuff. “Fortnite,” “Animal Crossing,” “Ariana Grande” — these are things children like, because the metaverse is for babies.
Perhaps its biggest champion is Mark Zuckerberg, who has been invoking the term for years, claiming that Facebook will soon become a “metaverse company.” Horizon Workrooms, announced this August, is Facebook’s first big foray into the realm. Speaking on CBS the day of that product’s launch, Zuckerberg said, "I think of the metaverse as the next generation of the internet. So you can kind of think about it as, instead of being an internet that we look at, it's an internet that we are a part of, or that we can be inside of." That sounds an awful lot like what the internet has been since Myspace came out.
Indeed, linking a product to the metaverse is often little more than providing an easy PR angle for fluffy news coverage, but Workrooms is something more. It’s "basically a virtual reality service for collaborating together and doing work," Zuckerberg said. The feature allows people to don a headset (made by Oculus, which Facebook owns) to attend a conference call, complete with avatars of their coworkers. That these avatars look like Wii characters is appropriate, because Wii is for kids and so is the metaverse. It’s almost unimaginable that any adult (who doesn’t run a Silicon Valley company) could be excited about the technology.
Such a literal conception of virtual reality is not going to happen. The trend is clearly moving away from entertainment that demands full attention and towards distractions that can be constantly dipped in and out of, often for as little time as it takes for the light to change. There might be some appeal around the margins, to rich 12-year-olds and perverts, but ordinary people aren’t going to be living with headsets on. They just aren’t.
But speaking of rich 12-year-olds: one in London has made roughly £290,000 in the metaverse through his series of pixelated drawings of whales, which he sold as non-fungible tokens (NFTs) called “Weird Whales.” Financial heavyweights like Mike Tyson, Rob Gronkowski, and Steve Aoki have also gotten in on the action. Here Paris Hilton explains to Jimmy Fallon the appeal of implicit investment vehicles being hocked by literal children and professional skateboarders and all those early twitter adopters with handles like @jim: "A non-fungible token is basically a digital contract that's on the blockchain, so you can basically sell anything from art to music to experiences to physical objects."
If Zuckerberg’s idea of the metaverse involves putting on a VR headset and strutting through space, NFTs are more a manifestation of the current internet with extremely strong copyright protections. I’ll let Hilton explain: “During quarantine, I started realizing how impactful NFTs can and will be in virtual worlds. Digital art, fashion or branding can all be displayed on someone’s avatar or in a virtual environment, or traded for other goods.” So rather than just downloading a pixelated image of a little guy and making that your Twitter image, you can pay $126,000 for it, like Jay Z did. Making your avatar an NFT is a status symbol, apparently, for telling people online that you are rich in real life.
NFTs first gained widespread attention during the brief window that people were on Clubhouse; both NFTs and Clubhouse were championed by the cottage industry of get-rich-quick schemers that have emerged in Bitcoin’s wake. As NFTs are part of the blockchain, they’re purchased in cryptocurrency (usually Ethereum), sometimes for the equivalent of millions of United States dollars; that people have indeed gotten rich, quick!, is clearly the only reason people care about them. Visa has gotten in on the action, and Sotheby’s, which runs an NFT space in an online world called Decentraland.
Critics of NFTs point out that they are an obvious bubble; that minting them uses a not insignificant amount of energy; that the Winklevoss boys are involved; that the files can just be downloaded by anyone, so why would you pay for them? Defenders point to vague notions of digital authorship and conceptual art. NFTs merge the art world with that of finance, two industries that tend to insulate themselves from criticism through layers of opacity and obfuscation. But like, you don’t need to be an architect to know when a roof’s leaking, you know?
The most egregious characteristic about NFTs is just how lazy they are. Medium pioneer Beeple was mocked over the sub-Banksy level of political analysis included in his $69 million dollar collage, but most NFTs make his mockup of Hillary Clinton wearing a grill seem downright sophisticated. A sizable contingent are just sort of MS Paint splotches. More prominent are the “Cryptopunks” and the “Pudgy Penguins.” Sotheby’s just auctioned off a collection called “Bored Ape Yacht Club,” which looks like a streetwear ripoff of Paul Frank. The lot sold for $24,393,000. Surely even less effort went into making these rocks, which are also worth millions.
I am somewhat open to the idea of letting people enjoy things — though I am mean, I feel bad when I imagine some gamer having their feelings hurt — but surely this stuff, at these prices, crosses a line. When Duchamp put a signed toilet in a gallery in 1917, it was a revolutionary action. But we’ve now had a century of “anything can be art.” Every dad who’s been to MoMA has made the joke where they pretend to contemplate the fire extinguisher. So when someone makes a toilet NFT 100 years later, it’s so far beyond boring as to become crushing. Everyone involved should be embarrassed.
NFTs, like cryptocurrency at large, have been compared to Beanie Babies; both involve adults collecting childish objects without any genuine internet beyond financial speculation. But at least when the Beanie Baby mania ended, the stuffed animals were left behind. Sometimes I still come across them in thrift stores and guest-room closets as funny-sad artifacts from a pre-digital world. For better or worse, the virtual nature of NFTs and video game avatars means that, when the metaverse fails to materialize, we’ll quickly lose all evidence this craze ever happened.
Hanson O’Haver, a Gawker columnist, is a writer in New York.