“Divine task! Immortal mission!” enthused one excited American politician in 1846.
William Gilpin was promoting a doctrine that became known as Manifest Destiny – the idea that Americans were both divinely chosen and uniquely equipped to conquer new territory, and should do so without delay.
Urged on by exhortations “to animate the many hundred millions of its people, and to cheer them upward”, this would rapidly turn a collection of bickering coastal settlements into a continental empire.
Now Silicon Valley has digitised Manifest Destiny for its next expansion project, and nothing embodies Californian techno utopianism quite as well as pioneering new territory while leaving behind the mess it’s already created for the rest of us to deal with.
Later this week, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg will give us more details about the new cyberspace he wants to dominate at his annual developer conference this week. It already has a name, the ‘metaverse’, and will be conjured for us out of electrons and silicon.
Some 10,000 software developers in Europe will take part and Facebook will adopt a new corporate identity to reflect its importance. The Facebook brand is perhaps too tarnished for Zuckerberg’s Eden 2.0.
The metaverse will be like a sprawling 3D web, “an embodied internet where instead of just viewing content, you are in it”, in Zuckerberg’s words.
You’ll be able to blend his fake world with the real world using augmented reality goggles. Or if you like, choose never to leave, and inhabit it completely using a virtual reality helmet. Facebook sells one of those, called the Oculus. Alternatively, you can simply drop by as a virtual voyeur.
Zuckerberg hopes that the metaverse will attract both consumers and businesses, who will want to host meetings in his virtual world. Naturally, advertisers are being wooed too, and the Facebook founder has promised lots of opportunity for promoters of that other parallel universe, crypto finance.
Now you may wonder, with a company which only recently abandoned as its corporate motto “move fast and break things” leading the charge, what could possibly go wrong? In fact plenty, as we were here not so long ago, with an early virtual reality universe called Second Life.
This was an unruly 3D social network that became the most hyped internet creation of 2006, offering participants the chance to throw off the shackles of the physical world and levitate from place to place online.
Despite resembling a crude child’s game – many Second Lifers chose to represent themselves as borderline disturbing semi-human furry animals, or “furries” – Second Life rapidly attracted vanguardistas, self-promoters, and large corporations suffering from FOMO (fear of missing out), such as IBM.
The media rushed in; Reuters “embedded” a correspondent in Second Life, who changed his name to “Adam Reuters”. This was surely the Jamestown phase of digital Manifest Destiny.
But not surprisingly, with few rules, things in Second Life quickly took a dark turn. Gatherings were attacked by flying cartoon penises sent by pranksters – which is not something one has to worry about on a typical office Zoom call. It attracted participants keen to abuse, and even be abused. Second Life rapidly earned the nickname “Sadville”, which stuck.
So will Facebook’s metaverse be a playground for perverts and exhibitionists, where abuse is routine? The omens aren’t good.
“No one company will own and operate the metaverse,” promised Nick Clegg, growing into his role as Zuckerberg’s avatar back in the real world.
While an unruly cartoon Facebook may end up predictably squalid, the metaverse may actually be the start of something much worse.
Underlying the Valley’s enthusiasm for 3D virtual worlds is a collection of utopian Silicon Valley ideas often called transhumanism, or post-humanism.
This is less of a philosophy than it is a collection of prejudices, embodying a disdain for the physical world, with its messy politics and onerous social obligations, and a revulsion at the human body and biological reality.
“Biology is superficial, Intelligence is artificial,” enthused the pop star Grimes in 2018 in her post-humanist hymn, ‘We Appreciate Power’. She urged us to “Pledge allegiance to the world’s most powerful computer. Simulation – it’s the future.”
Grimes is the mother of Elon Musk’s seventh child (named ‘X Æ A-12’) and Zuckerberg’s metaverse is here to fulfil her request.
The writer Mary Harrington calls this vision ‘Meat Space Lego’. Here, “human bodies are not sacred, let alone inseparable from consciousness. They’re inert meat we’re entitled to enclose for profit, instrumentalise at will, and rearrange like toy building-blocks to suit our sense of self”.
She points out that while this may be liberating for the (mostly male) participants, who will face no inhibitions on their freedoms, it poses some specific challenges to women, for whom biology remains a reality.
Today’s enthusiasm for fluid gender identities is only the start of the phenomenon, Harrington suggests. Another future casualty, she predicts, will be any discussion of human nature, as this becomes an Old World topic.
But like the homesteaders charging through the Great Plains, this is another mess that can be left behind, like the apparently insurmountable tension between bullying and free speech back on today’s 2D Facebook.
In 1846, Gilpin – later Governor of Colorado – talked of “untransacted destiny”, something Grimes would recognise today. But already the metaverse looks like Facebook in 3D – a tone deaf product of megalomania, whose problems are obvious to everyone except those building and promoting it.
This column first appeared in The Daily Telegraph.