The metaverse is just the latest incarnation of Las Vegas

From December 1, Facebook Inc’s stock ticker FB will be relegated to the dust of time. The world’s largest social media company will instead officially morph into Meta Platforms, to trade under the official ticker MVRS.

The move follows Mark Zuckerberg’s bold decision to tie the company’s future evolution with the development of what is loosely described as the metaverse. In coming years, Zuckerberg hopes, people will transition to seeing his empire as primarily a servicer to this new digital realm. That means investors in the near $1tn market capitalisation company — and broader society — will have to get a grip on what exactly is the metaverse.

It’s not that easy to describe. Today, it exists on many disjointed planes — from gaming universes to virtual conference call systems. Its first and most famous incarnation was probably the Second Life platform, notorious for being a flop although it still boasts some 200,000 active daily users. Zuckerberg’s vision will benefit from far superior tech.

“The metaverse will feel like a hybrid of today’s online social experiences expanded into three dimensions or projected into the physical world,” reads the Facebook spiel.

But it’s also likely to be an attempt to standardise the metaverse’s consensus reality so that value can be harvested from users in even more creative ways. That may sound alluring to investors, but economists, politicians and activists should take heed.

Facebook’s move may also be a jarring acknowledgment that for some tech leaders, the base reality of our world is at risk of losing its investment appeal relative to the metaverse.

BBC documentary maker Adam Curtis’ once opined that “all of us in the west — not just the politicians and the journalists and the experts, but we ourselves — have retreated into a simplified, and often completely fake version of the world”.

The forward march to the metaverse pushes this trend to the extreme. It sends the message that perhaps our true world is so corrupted, so divided and so unfair, that it isn’t worth saving after all. Alternatively, we can photoshop reality to the point we can all pretend everything is as pretty as we experience it in our own heads. Also known as cultivating delusions: don’t worry about your lousy life, come join us in your own dreamworld.

Not only is this a damning verdict on digital technology’s capacity to generate growth on the ground, it’s a recognition that future growth is now, more than ever, dependent on initiating a brain drain away from attempts to improve things in base reality.

There is no better metaphor for what’s going on than the story of how Las Vegas was turned from a barren Nevada wasteland into a hedonistic escape from the harsh realities of The Great Depression in the 1930s.

Many will know about the role played in that evolution by Nevada’s unique legal stance on gambling and quickie divorces from 1931 onwards. Others, such as viewers of Martin Scorsese’s epic “Casino”, will also be aware of the role played by the mob in mobilising funding to the region.

But also key was US president Herbert Hoover’s greatest legacy, the Hoover Dam, built between 1931 and 1936 situated less than hour away by car from Las Vegas.

What the architects of Las Vegas realised early on was that the Hoover Dam’s development would — given the economic conditions of the time — attract a large but desperate workforce to a highly unappealing region of the country, where not much else was easily available. Once there they could be captured.

As the New York Times commented on July 26, 1931, the home for dam workers, known as Boulder City, also had been purposefully structured by paternalistic authorities to tame the sinful tendencies of old fashioned Wild West towns. It was to be a zero-fun habitat by design. The result was a city with “more regulation, red tape and general supervision than the government has ever ventured upon before”, the report noted.

Suffice to say, it would not be long before the allure of Las Vegas’ more hedonistic offerings would woo workers like moths to a flame. But rather than offering salvation, or sustainable wealth, Las Vegas only delivered them to another extreme form of exploitation. A scenario where the house always wins while the user’s pockets are plundered, their dreams are often crushed.

In the long run, if there is any moral to the Las Vegas story it’s that if you want to bootstrap a fantasy realm for the purpose of enriching a small elite at the expense of users, it helps to have a repressed, desperate and captured demographic within your proximity. With the metaverse it’s unlikely to be any different. You’re still going to be the product. You may be more accepting of it, but only because base reality is getting more and more like historic Boulder City by the day.


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