For Meta or for Worse? Today's technology is taking escapism a step too far. Unlike the entertainment of prior generations, the metaverse risks distracting us from real world problems.
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In the months after Facebook announced its plans to rebrand as Meta, a mad dash has commenced in the tech world to build this new virtual universe. Investors are spending millions to buy up virtual "real estate," policymakers in Washington are scrambling to understand and help build the space, and everyone from Kraft Heinz to the Vatican is announcing plans to develop new virtual experiences.
I'm not the first person to look at this frenzied behavior and wonder: Where is our technology and entertainment culture leading us, and why? Is all of this just a way of escaping the pressing problems we have in the real world?
I received an email from a client recently that summarized my main concern about technology's current trajectory. The email was in response to an announcement about AKQA Bloom, our new agency focusing on today's most pressing cultural and environmental challenges. It referred to the experience of our client's son.
The son had attended a luxury event in New York, sponsored by a leading fashion label. The event's purpose was to educate attendees about "building an online brand" — something we hear a lot about these days. But instead of inspiring him, the event disturbed him. The eminent panel had agreed that focusing on online personas, and forgetting about the real world, provided the best route forward.
As he walked home past lines of the homeless, the growing disconnection between the real world and the virtual became apparent. His friends were all debating the 2022 Oscars ceremony online after Will Smith had slapped Chris Rock. While obsessing over a distant event involving people they'll never meet, they were forgetting the very real problems sitting on their doorsteps.
Our announcement about AKQA Bloom had resonated with our client in light of this. How can we hope to improve the real world by focusing on an artificial world?
Escape as a tool for good
I'm an '80s child, so I'll condense my description of the technology "back in my day" to one paragraph. To assess our current challenges, it's important to take a quick glance at the distance we've come.
When I was a kid, we had three TV channels. Then there were four (big moves!) Everybody tuned in on Thursdays to watch BBC One's Top of the Pops — the only time we could hear the week's biggest songs. Broadcasts of '60s sci-fi shows like The Jetsons and Star Trek ran on weekday evenings, and parents permitting, they provided a brief but valuable glimpse at the future, allowing us to "escape" for an hour or two each day.
Besides providing an escape, sci-fi and fantasy fiction have played a crucial part in the development of our society. Successful inventors often owed their ideas to fictional concepts in books, TV shows or films. Mary Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein animates his monster using an electric shock over 100 years before the defibrilator's invention. Portable MP3 players were based on a portable device only developed after Ray Bradbury created "thimble radios" in Fahrenheit 451. The list goes on.
Sci-fi also helped to inform our decisions in the real world when we switched the TV off. During the Vietnam War and civil rights movement in the U.S., watching the story of a fictional U.S. spaceship operated by a diverse and rational crew in Star Trek forced viewers to think about America's future. Books like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (later Blade Runner) forced us to consider our relationship with nature by depicting an almost uninhabitable earth.
These stories made us more empathetic, creative and resilient people. The research supports this. But back then, we retained one crucial element that always-on mobile devices, streaming and immersive gaming are loosening: our grip on the real world.
On separation from "reality"
Ever since I was a child, new technologies have sought to absorb more of our time in the name of profit. While some interest in the fictional may improve our lives, psychologists are now raising concerns about the monetized media landscapes children today are growing up in. Social media platforms make their money selling data accumulated from our friendships and social connections. No technology typifies this trend more than the "metaverse."
The entire concept of a metaverse rests on the premise of total immersion. Tasks that might otherwise require real-world action could be carried out in digital worlds. We'll inhabit them, shop in them, earn virtual money in them and spend our energy building brands and castles in their virtual skies. For many companies, this presents a potential new revenue stream, or at the very least, a way to engage customers. All the biggest brands have hopped aboard the metaverse train with that in mind. "And why not?" ask the companies driving it.
Well, as our client's son realized, immersing ourselves in a virtual world only serves as a convenient way to overlook very real problems like climate change or homelessness. While a sci-fi flick might encourage viewers to reconsider their understanding of the world, the metaverse asks us to distort it.
Less than a week after Will Smith slapped Chris Rock, a UN-supported report slipped through the news cycle. The report's creators said climate change has now reached a "now or never" moment. If governments can make a quick dash towards low-carbon economies, rising temperatures may be stalled. If not, well ...
To make such a rapid change is going to require drastic lifestyle changes. Our use of fossil fuels must end. To reach our net-zero targets by 2050, we'll probably need to create new technologies (and perhaps a few from recent sci-fi films.)
Among all this, one thing is for certain: Immersing ourselves in virtual worlds as the real world burns outside cannot be the solution. It's time to remove our headsets, roll our sleeves up, and get working.