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Eenie Meenie Mynie Meta
Zuckerberg's Metaverse is like metastasized Twitter in the Pine Barrens
Links are at the end, ravenous.
This edition is going out late but not never.
“The greatest poverty,” wrote the poet Wallace Stevens, “is not to live in a physical world.”
A new avatar materializes in the room, a young Hispanic guy with short hair and a goatee and the username RicardoCortazar. His appearance causes a stir among Texasmarshall and his cronies, who have upped the snickering and now level some personal remarks. “What’s that on Ricardo’s face?” inquires Texasmarshall. “Looks like he dipped his chin in dogshit.” Hur-hur-hur, go the cronies.
“What did you say?” RicardoCortazar says. One of the cronies tells him something along the lines of “Fuck off.” “Now, now,” Tex says, chuckling, in his Boss Hogg voice, “he’s a good little Mexican boy. He’s gonna check my tires for me later.” Shrieks of appreciation from his onlookers.
“Why are you saying this to me?” RicardoCortazar says. “Is it because I’m colored?”
This causes uproar. The henchmen clamor that he can’t use racist language in here. “Seriously? You’re calling me a racist?” RicardoCortazar says in disbelief. But already a poll has appeared to say he’s been reported for violating the guidelines, and a vote is being taken on whether to boot him: A moment later, he vanishes, still protesting.
The price of joining Mark Zuckerberg’s Metaverse is the cost of a virtual reality headset. Zuckerberg’s current version, the Meta Quest 2, retails for $399. He no doubt knows the price but not necessarily the cost. $399 for him is not precisely nothing but may as well be; for many of the billion users he hopes to attract—or perhaps hoped, given his recent evisceration of Metaverse development teams—it’ll seem like a lot.
Irish writer Paul Murray spent some time in the Metaverse during his six-month exile from his home town of Dublin, and the results are catalogued in a long New York Magazine piece. As seems to be de rigueur for new visitors, his first thought on seeing his now-fellow denizens was “Where are their fucking legs?”
I’m busy contemplating my legless torso when I hear laughter in the room. Lifting my Meta Quest headset, I see my son has come into my office unbeknownst to me and evidently finds my appearance amusing.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m in virtual reality,” I say.
“You look like that leopard in India that got its head stuck in a pot,” he says.
That’s yr. editor’s takeaway of Murray’s experience: floating legless, watching a crew of racists go after and eject a Latino visitor, and then falling victim to them himself when he tells them he’s doing a story on the joint, all the while looking to the outside world like a mammal with a pot jammed onto its head.
Anybody who spends much time on Twitter has fallen victim themselves or witnessed others falling victim to coordinated attacks by swarms of objectionable people, often enough resulting in the victim’s suspension from the platform due to mass reporting by the attackers.
The difference between attacks like that on Twitter and the equivalent of it that Murray describes is that on Twitter, the attacks come via texts and from, sometimes, hundreds or thousands of people, while in the Metaverse, the crowds are smaller but the attacks are in the attacker’s own voice, and they can kick someone off the platform with a vote, without suffering the tedium of reporting their target to some remote authority.
Either way the experience can be traumatic—yr. editor got suspended from Twitter for a week after suffering a small such onslaught, and was surprisingly strongly affected by both the horrible things people were saying and the week-long sensory deprivation—but hearing people yell at you is qualitatively different than seeing them yell in tweeted text.
That kind of thing doesn’t seem to happen as much in the Metaverse, perhaps because the population there is so low. Murray experienced more in the way of feral children than feral adults.
A man in a fedora bobs by, his username, Nutsacksandwich, floating over his head. (I’ve changed usernames throughout this article but not by much.)
“Hi,” I say.
“He said he wanted to eat my penis,” Nutsacksandwich says to me in a high-pitched child’s voice. This is my first conversation in the metaverse.
Murray can expense his VR headset if he paid for it, but most other users will be shelling out for their experience. At least on Twitter one can get harassed for free.
Yr. editor has historically been a physical guy, but also an interior one. I don’t know if Wallace Stevens, who seems to have spent a lot of time in his own head in his own room, perhaps despite his day job, has it entirely right. Virtual reality has a lot of potential for people who aren’t comfortable with the physical one, or who are at physical risk from it, although the technology would seem to have a long way to go—spending any significant length of time with a $400, two-pound helmet on one’s head sounds daunting.
When the techies get the headgear down to something perhaps approximating the size and weight of mountaineering glasses, and the designers are making enough money to render a virtual self with legs, then we’ll talk.
Murray’s story is a pleasant read. Check it out.
“Poverty persists in America because many of us benefit from it.”
When the Johnson administration launched “an unconditional war on poverty in America” in 1964, it wasn’t just lofty rhetoric. It set a deadline. Sargent Shriver, the director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, announced that “the target date for ending poverty in this land” would be 1976, the bicentennial. “We once had ambitions about poverty abolitionism,” Dorian Warren reminded me, and we can rekindle that sense of urgency.
So rather than wait around for Congress to act, we should begin to act ourselves. Poverty abolitionism isn’t just a political project, after all; it’s a personal one, too. For starters, just as many of us are now shopping and investing in ways that address climate change, we can also do so with an eye toward economic justice. If we can, we should reward companies that treat their employees well and shun those with a track record of union busting and exploitation. To do so, we can consult organizations like B Lab, which certifies companies that meet high social and environmental standards, and Union Plus, which curates lists of union-made products.
Sociologist and author Matthew Desmond says that poverty is a failure of public virtue as much as a failure of public policy, giving as one example the pandemic-powered increase in the child tax credit, which reduced child poverty by half and offered a graphic example of how giving money to people can solve problems.
And then of course we quit doing it. He also compares the U.S. approach to poverty to that of other developed countries, which spend much more per capita on the kinds of social welfare that help reduce poverty, and whose residents, he says, sometimes refer to unpalatable circumstances as “American-style deprivation.”
This is the sort of thing one would be unsurprised to see in the Red magazines yr. editor favors, but doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of poverty one ordinarily finds the New York Times, where poverty is still often enough viewed as a cultural issue if not a product of character flaws, and the sums of money required to adequately address it are viewed as large enough to unnerve a reasonable centrist, rather than the relative pittance they actually are.
Music for cool cats with bells on
I hadn’t heard of PRONOUN til this missive, and I like them. Both guitarists have an Edge-like sensibility, and the lead vocalist is nothing like Bono. Fiona Apple is Fiona Apple. The video is also very Fiona Apple-like, and is some interesting art.
PRONOUN, “i’ll show you stronger;”Fiona Apple, "Fetch the Bolt Cutters."
And that, Comrades, is all there is.
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Be well, take care.