Gary Potter is editor-in-chief of New Kentucky, the Lexington DSA newsletter. Adrienne McCarthy is a member of Topeka DSA.
In late June, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg announced his intention to construct a maximalist, interconnected set of online experiences: the metaverse. What Zuckerberg proposes is the creation of a new pervasive, segmented, virtual, and physical reality in one place online.
The metaverse has three basic characteristics: (1) it must contain both the physical and virtual worlds in a single reality; (2) it must be a self-contained, complete economy; and (3) it must be fully interoperable. In other words, our financial worlds; our spheres of entertainment; our health requirements; our nutrition; our sex lives; and our shopping needs will be fully integrated with our avatar, replacing our physical existence in the ultimate simulacra.
The metaverse is not an original idea. Zuckerberg has never had an original idea. His “success” has been based on the expropriation of other peoples’ skills, creativity, and knowledge. The term “metaverse” originally appears in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel, Snow Crash. Stephenson’s novel depicts a world that is an almost exact model of Zuckerberg’s proposed metaverse. It is a world of extreme poverty, deprivation, and hunger. It is a world of white western hegemony formed after the ideology of the technocrats. It is digital colonization, fundamentally institutionalizing racism. It is a physical environment so polluted and contaminated that most land is classified as Sacrifice Zones which can never be reclaimed. It is a world with MegaCops, Feds, and right-wing militias monitoring every aspect of human existence. The lesson of Snow Crash is clear. Technology is not neutral. It is developed and deployed with a clear agenda of economic domination, violence, and will create a fascist-tech state.
Expropriation and Exploitation
Zuckerberg’s metaverse is based on the pure concepts of capitalist expropriation and exploitation. Expropriation and exploitation are inevitable in the metaverse. They are built into the architecture of the metaverse in a variety of ways: data, metadata, networks, attention, capacity, and spectacle. Each of these modalities of exploitation and expropriation is intricately interconnected in that architecture.
Expropriation and exploitation are inevitable in the metaverse. They are built into the architecture of the metaverse in a variety of ways: data, metadata, networks, attention, capacity, and spectacle.
First, and at its most basic level, corporations like Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, Google, and the rest have ownership of all the information on their platforms. They own and expropriate all kinds of unremunerated creative and communicative labor. That means that they directly profit from the labor of hundreds of millions of unpaid workers. This is, in fact, how they started. Google, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, and others could not without access to free software and infrastructure built by tax dollars.
Second, these corporations expropriate all our metadata without compensation or reward. They seize our list of friends, our patterns of networks and relationships, and our search data. From this, they can establish a picture of every participant’s inquiries, choices, and consumer patterns. So, in the case of Google, they analyze our search patterns and create a map of potential markets they can exploit. The digital universe has brought new forms of labor, all of which have been increasingly appropriated for capitalist gain. The audience, the act of spectating itself, has been commodified (Fuchs, 2016). You cannot browse the internet or stream a video without contributing to big data. The freelancer has been drowned by crowdsourcing. Whether the freelancer creates art or writes code, competition with cheap or free labor crowdsourced by large corporations such as Amazon Mechanical Turk has lead to 60+ hourly work weeks for paltry piece-wage income. “The piece-wage is, as Marx pointed out, “the most fruitful source of reductions in wages, and of frauds committed by the capitalists” (Fuchs, 2016, p. 274).
Third, the analytics used by these communicative corporations allows them to map divisions among people. Those divisions are then ruthlessly exploited. They can create maps of complex networks of people and then both exacerbate divisions and exploit them for profit. The process of exacerbating division drives unpaid creative production by users and allows corporations to monetize those divisions. Some of those divisions are preferential regarding food, clothing, hobbies, etc. But in the metaverse profits can be realized from racism, misogyny, nationalism, and ignorance. The metaverse profits from dangerous health advice, pedophilia, the confusion of incels, religious extremism, misogyny, and ethnic hatred, to name just a few.
Fourth, the metaverse is designed to directly exploit people’s attention. Now we have a seemingly endless supply of websites and apps available online and on our phones. Certainly, the metaverse will provide many, many more. While we don’t usually have to pay with dollars for these diversions now, there is still a substantial cost. YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and a myriad of gaming platforms are paid for with time, a finite resource. It takes time to play, to post, to read, to respond. We pay dearly with our ability to focus, stealing our attention. The metaverse will demand even more of these resources.
Attention and time are finite and valuable. Even now, value is extracted from us with every click, every post, every game, every ad, and every distraction. Zuckerberg’s metaverse fully intends to limit our choices; to reduce the possibility of seeking something else, something useful and wonderful; it demands that we linger, search, and engage. Corporations frequently demand that assembly-line workers speed up their work. The metaverse will do the same, extracting from us the very value of careful thought and analysis for a world of visualized attractions. In the end, the metaverse will saturate the reserves of human attention to a pathological extent, while creating even more precarious cognitive labor as it inexorably speeds up production.
The fifth form of expropriation revolves around disposability and capacity. In a computer modulated metaverse processors, chips, mobile phones, and mp3 players are both required and disposable. Obsolescence is built into the very architecture of the metaverse. Computer systems and their components are built for a 3-year life span. Mobile phones are even worse. They become obsolete in less than two years. As consumers, we lack the knowledge, skills, and access to the components to repair them; Capitalism in general and the technology of the metaverse have the built-in assumption that its basic architecture is disposable and can simply be replaced, often at significant cost. The business of popular culture is built on the expropriation of the human capacity to make necessary repairs and even to care for oneself. The metaverse provides our food, primarily pre-packaged and frozen; cares for our health in virtual doctors’ offices; promises to find us lasting love, or at least a one-night stand through dating services, and offers us online counseling to cure the alienation and anxiety which the metaverse itself produces. The metaverse seeks to expropriate the basic skills of human survival.
Obsolescence is built into the very architecture of the metaverse. Computer systems and their components are built for a 3-year life span. Mobile phones are even worse. They become obsolete in less than two years.
Finally, and maybe most importantly, the metaverse exploits us through spectacle. This created virtual spectacle denies and destroys the idea of a common good in society. Every event, both near and far, is made available for our consumption. Drama related to someone else, somewhere else, and even in some other time frame, becomes our own. The spectacle connects to a reality to which we do not belong and are not experiencing in the reality of our lives. The metaverse promises mass connectivity but delivers mass trauma. Our attention; our emotions; our hopes and most importantly our fears are expropriated for profit (Agamben, 1993).
Guy Debord warned us in The Society of the Spectacle, that capitalism has already destroyed the language of real communication. As DeBord warned us: “Spectacular consumption preserves the old culture in congealed form, going so far as to recuperate and rediffuse even its negative manifestations; in this way, the spectacle’s cultural sector gives overexpression to is clearly theft.”
Communicative capitalism, raised to its highest form in the metaverse, imprisons us in the ultimate inexorable cycle (Dean, 2009). The more we interact through the Metaverse, the less those interactions mean. Individual creativity becomes an expropriated collective product. Personal participation becomes impersonal. By our mere participation in the metaverse, we constantly replicate and reconstitute the basic dynamic of capitalism.
Capitalism requires constant change; constant “upgrading;” and continual crisis. Neoliberal ideology requires unending states of emergency. The spectacle created by communicative capitalism creates those crises through division achieved through algorithms, consensus produced by disinformation; and the manipulation of consciousness achieved by virtual rather than real experiences.
What is to be Done?
The cost of exponential expansion of digital communication is very real for the organizing efforts of the Left. In this incessant barrage of online entertainment, how can an oppositional message even gain traction? Will we have to move from street-level, person-to-person organizing to a strategy of simply grabbing online media attention 24/7? Is it even possible to build an effective political apparatus in this environment? So, in addition to expropriating our time and attention, the metaverse will expropriate political energy. Organization, which is vital to socialism may be sacrificed to the demands of communicative capitalism.
The very business of communicative capitalism is built on participation in media networks. In many ways, this is the ultimate diversion from the capacity to organize. The metaverse will be built on overproduction and overaccumulation. The demand for attention will quickly outstrip the supply of new information. The metaverse will thus create an internal contradiction of value, yet another contradiction of capitalism.
But, there are three levels at which organizers can attack the ZuckerVerse; (1) cost and debt; (2) unionization, and (3) segmentation. While this is not the place to carefully analyze organizing strategy, these are important areas for initial consideration.
First, building the metaverse is an expensive proposition. Facebook’s own estimates put the cost at a minimum of $10 billion. Facebook’s income in 2020 was $17.18 billion. But, Facebook’s long-term debt in 2020 was $33.07 billion. Adding another $10 billion to that debt load is a heavy lift, especially in light of the fact that in 202 Facebook’s net profit declined by 13.27%.
Facebook’s own estimates put the cost at a minimum of $10 billion. Facebook’s income in 2020 was $17.18 billion. But, Facebook’s long-term debt in 2020 was $33.07 billion. Adding another $10 billion to that debt load is a heavy lift, especially in light of the fact that in 202 Facebook’s net profit declined by 13.27%.
Facebook is actually among the more financially stable tech companies. Many other tech corporations, especially in the cloud, gaming, security, and software spaces are carrying much higher levels of debt. They are highly susceptible to changes n consumer preferences, problems in developing their architecture, and shortages of components, like microchips.
Second, the corporations that would make up the necessary components of the metaverse are still overwhelmingly not unionized. Despite that, slightly less than half of all tech workers are very interested in joining a union according to a survey by Morning Consult. One union which has been successful in the tech space is the Communication Workers of America (CWA). CWA has expressed its desire to make deeper inroads into tech. Recently the United Steel Workers and the United Food and Commercial Workers have also launched successful unionization efforts in a variety of tech companies.
Finally, the metaverse as conceived of by Zuckerberg is highly segmented. There are production segments, like microchips, servers, and drivers. There are communication segments like phone companies and internet companies. There are storage businesses that make space in the cloud for the massive information requirements of the metaverse. What all that means is that are millions of points at which a small problem becomes a massive system failure. A single line of bad coding text; a few inoperative 5g towers; a missing chip or two; a successful hack can all bring at least some of the metaverse down. While it is not an organizing consideration, it is a fact in any industry, that some employees are not happy. They may dislike how they are treated on the job or they may have political differences with their employer. Monkey wrenching is a behavior that sabotages certain activities. It can be a simple act like being uncooperative or slowing down production. It can, of course, in a complex, highly segmented industry also be a more deliberate act.
So, the metaverse is not invulnerable. It embeds all of the fundamental contradictions of capitalism. As a result, it is susceptible to crisis, implosion, and ultimately collapse. Our organizing can help to make that collapse occur sooner.
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