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Meta Doesn’t Understand That a Metaverse is the Bad Ending

In 2011, “Ready Player One” was released. It’s a book about a dystopian future in which a few giant corporations control almost all of American life, and the majority of people are forced to live in stacks, towers of temporary housing piled precariously on top of each other. Most people in this world are trapped in poverty, with their only escape from their miserable lives being the Oasis: a virtual reality game that’s become as important as the real world. In the Oasis people work, go to school, create, and earn a living as Avatars, customized digital representations of themselves. It’s a decentralized world that everyone shares, from the wealthiest, to the poorest. Ready Player One’s Oasis is probably the most popular mainstream depiction of a Metaverse.

A Metaverse, like the Oasis, is a digital world shared by people. It’s a place where people can go to work, play games, and hang out. Central to the idea of a Metaverse is the concept of ownership. You can buy unique Avatars, places, experiences, and all kinds of items. Proponents of the Metaverse imagine a digital economy that’s eerily similar to a real world economy, with an artificially limited amount of each item, driving an infinite cycle of creation and consumption. The Metaverse is a concept that Meta, formerly known as Facebook, is going all in on.

In October of 2021, Meta announced their name change, as well as their change in focus, with a video that is over an hour long. In their announcement Mark Zuckerberg presents his version of a Metaverse hosted by and controlled by Meta, where work, social life, and leisure meet. The video is dystopian. From art that you pay for by the minute, to a variety of different paid Avatars, Meta’s clear intent with their digital world is to ruthlessly suck every penny they can out of users. And since Meta controls all of the digital markets in their world, they get a cut of every sale, they can charge for every interaction, listen in on every conversation, and spam advertisements into every available space.

The plot of “Ready Player One” revolves around a group of teenagers on a quest to gain control of the Oasis before IOI, a giant tech company, can. They know that if IOI is able to gain control of the Oasis they’re going to monetize every aspect of it, in the process making it a worse space for everyone. Right now we are in danger of the real world’s Metaverse starting under the control of the bad guys, a company that has a history of invading privacy, selling private information, and allowing misinformation to spread en masse.

In 2018 a movie adaptation of “Ready Player One” was released. It took the basic plot of the book and turned it into a giant spectacle with cameos from all sorts of Characters, from Halo’s Master Chief, to the Iron Giant. The movie made the Metaverse into a fun adventure, with all sorts of action set pieces, and exotic locations. “Ready Player One” (the movie) ended up being a fun, if generic and oversaturated romp but in it’s pursuit of light entertainment it lost most of the point of the book. The Oasis isn’t supposed to be a fun place where people go on goofy adventures, it’s the final escape from a world that is completely under the control of a few companies. 

In their efforts to push for a Metaverse it seems to have been lost on Meta that the Metaverse is the bad ending. The stories that popularized the idea of a Metaverse aren’t in favor of it, they are cautionary tales about the consolidation of power and the dangers of corporate greed run rampant. They warn about what happens when humans retreat into a digital space.

At the end of “Ready Player One” the protagonist is given a red button that has the power to shut down the Oasis forever. The end asks the reader a question: when the world is broken, is retreating into another world a real solution?

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