probablytom

Metaverse as Metaphor

Published 3 months ago.

Lately I’ve been reading The Observable Universe by Heather McCaldern. It’s a series of tiny snippets — a couple lines to a couple pages — which together compose an autobiography (/record of her relationship to her late parents), as well as a history of viruses and HIV in particular, as well as a history of the development of the internet. I imagined that a book so torn between different topics in short bursts would feel meandering at best and labyrinthine at worst, but it’s coherent and fascinating and I’m enjoying it (or, at least, the half I’ve got through so far).

There are a few pages that stuck out to me in particular on the topic of metaphor: a note on the word cyberspace, and another on some research into how metaphor affects reasoning.

“Cyberspace”

To write! Sorry, this is still a WIP.

“Metaphors we Think With”

To write! Sorry, this is still a WIP.

The Metaverse as a Metaphor for the Internet

There’s a new metaphor for the internet in town, and it has venture capital.

It’s the metaverse.

The metaverse is a lucrative metaphor for an advertising company — say, Facebook — to popularise. In the past we thought of the internet as a tool: a place to read, to communicate, to shop, to organise. We used various metaphors to describe it this way. Like cyberspace, a lot of those old metaphors don’t ring true anymore. The function of the internet is the same, but it doesn’t feel like a separate space today like it did years ago: it’s ambient and ubiquitous. People’s immersion in this digital ether has received a lot of pushback: people don’t want to be on their phones all the time, or disconnected from “the moment”.

If we thought about the internet in a new way — as an overlay on the physical world and a literal separate space when convenient — it’d be helpful for online advertising agencies whose continued growth relies on their dominance of our attention. This is what the metaverse promises. The metaphor of the internet is changing again, in a way that:

  1. Reinforces existing perspectives that we’re never properly disconnected from the digital world — it achieves this by reframing what the internet is, by changing the metaphors we interpret it through;
  2. Supports a vision of the internet that is lucrative for advertising companies in particular, by positioning the internet as something that’s omnipresent by design or definition.

I believe that the antagonists in the battle for our attention are using this trick — changing the internet’s metaphor to change our reasoning about it — to encourage us to accept an internet we’re never free from, and to discard efforts to retain the old internet we had for decades: one where all participants have an equal voice and equal power.

“A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”

For an alternative metaphor, I think it’s worth looking at John Perry Barlow’s “Independence of the Declaration of Cyberspace”, which positions the (then niche, but growing) internet as a new kind of country that would be democratic, fair, and just:

Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. You have neither solicited nor received ours. We did not invite you. You do not know us, nor do you know our world. Cyberspace does not lie within your borders. Do not think that you can build it, as though it were a public construction project. You cannot. It is an act of nature and it grows itself through our collective actions. […] We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace. May it be more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before.

There are radically different ideas about what the internet can be than “the place where Zuckerberg bestowed legs unto us”. Zuck sells us new ways to work and engage with content; Barlow framed the internet as a place where the structural inadequacies of today’s world could be corrected, where we could start again.

There were issues with this metaphor, and I’m not proposing it above all others. But: in contrast to the Metaverse, I see the original vision for Cyberspace — as a country in its own right — far more hopeful, liberating and positive than the alternative being proposed and built today.