PHOTOGRAPH: DAVID PAUL MORRIS/BLOOMBERG/GETTY IMAGES
Tech oligarchs are encouraging the creation of virtual worlds as a cheap way to avoid problems in the real one.
THE FUTURE OF virtual reality is far more than just video games. Silicon Valley sees the creation of virtual worlds as the ultimate free-market solution to a political problem. In a world of increasing wealth inequality, environmental disaster, and political instability, why not sell everyone a device that whisks them away to a virtual world free of pain and suffering?
Tech billionaires aren’t shy about sharing this. “Some people read this the wrong way and react incorrectly to it. The promise of VR is to make the world you wanted. It is not possible, on Earth, to give everyone all that they would want. Not everyone can have Richard Branson’s private island,” Doom co-creator and former CTO of Oculus John Carmack told Joe Rogan during a 2020 interview. “People react negatively to any talk of economics, but it is resource allocation. You have to make decisions about where things go. Economically, you can deliver a lot more value to a lot of people in the virtual sense.”
Virtual reality is an attractive escape, but it’s not a solution to the world’s ills. The problems of the real world will persist beyond the borders of the metaverse created by companies such as Epic, Valve, and Facebook. Without decisive and radical action, our planet will continue to burn, the gap between the rich and poor will grow, and totalitarian political movements will flourish. All while some of us are plugged into a virtual world.
Worse, the virtual world will be one owned and controlled by the companies that create them. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a Facebook-branded set of VR goggles strapped to an emaciated human face—forever.
By the principle of the free market Silicon Valley lives and dies by, virtual reality is a loser. Only 1.7 percent of Steam users have a VR headset, according to a December 2020 hardware survey. And while it’s true that sales of headsets are up during the pandemic, roughly 30 percent in 2020 over 2019, video game sales in general are up overall.
Valve released Half-Life: Alyx in March 2020, just as the lockdowns were beginning. This was the first new Half-Life game in 13 years, the continuation of a franchise fans had been desperate to play for more than a decade. It sold well for a VR title, somewhere north of 2 million copies, but didn’t match the incredible numbers of 2020’s top-selling titles and was quickly forgotten by the mainstream press. Unless you’re really into VR, you probably weren’t talking about Half-Life in 2020.
The reasons why are obvious. First, virtual reality is expensive. At the high end, Valve’s premiere headset—the Valve Index—costs $1,000. On the cheaper end, Facebook’s Oculus Quest 2 is $299. To play Alyx, those headsets need to be wired to a high-end gaming PC. The price of these machines vary, but something that can handle VR will cost around $1,000. Once the machine is built and the headset hooked up, the player will need to carve out a dedicated physical space to play the game. Most games require a minimum of about 6.5 feet by 5 feet, but the more space you have the better.
VR requires an incredible amount of cash and free space to set up properly, and the headaches don’t stop there. Right now, it reminds me of the early days of computer gaming. It works most of the time, but I’ve spent hours tweaking settings, adjusting controls, and reconfiguring hardware in a desperate bid to achieve the optimal experience.
Cash, space, and time is no guarantee that you’ll enjoy VR games. Some people experience nausea and vertigo in virtual reality. Sometimes, you can overcome this by properly adjusting the hardware or slowly exposing yourself to the technology. Some people get their “VR legs” and adjust. Others never do. Setting aside VR sickness, the technology is incredibly inaccessible for differently-abled people. The industry made huge strides toward making video games accessible to a wide range of people in 2020, but virtual reality—with its bulky headsets and strange controllers—is simply impossible for some people to use.
But all these problems can be overcome. As Carmack mentioned in his Rogan interview, tech companies will drive down the cost of the headsets. “Moore's law may be crapping out in terms of absolute performance, but we've still got a lot of price-performance that we can drive out of these things,” he said. “We can have virtual reality devices that can get cheap enough that lots and lots of people will be able to have these.”
Carmack was explicit about the importance of tech companies pushing virtual reality. “Not everyone can have a mansion. Not everyone can have a home theater. These are things we can simulate, to some degree, in virtual reality. Now, the simulation is not as good as the real thing. If you are rich and you have your own home theater or mansion and private island, good for you ... you’re probably not the people that are going to benefit the most,” he said. “Most of the people in the world live in cramped quarters that are not what they would choose to be if they had unlimited resources.”
That’s absolutely true; most people in the world live in cramped quarters and would choose not to. But Carmack’s solution is to create a virtual world where people can escape. It’s a promise of the future where the living conditions are still cramped but people have accepted their material conditions and retreated into a fantasy world created by the tech companies.
And it will not stop at screens and speakers. Elon Musk is working on a brain-machine interface called Neuralink. Similarly, Valve’s Gabe Newell is heavily invested in creating the literal matrix. "We're way closer to The Matrix than people realize," Newell told IGN in 2020.
In a televised interview with New Zealand’s 1 News, Newell was explicit about creating a world where brains and computers interface and computers are able to make changes to the brain. He even called the body a “meat peripheral” and further dehumanized the physical form. "You're used to experiencing the world through eyes. But eyes were created by this low-cost bidder that didn't care about failure rates and RMAs, and if it got broken there was no way to repair anything effectively, which totally makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, but is not at all reflective of consumer preferences,” Newell said, sounding like a cartoon villain.
For Newell, the goal is to achieve a fantasy world better and more fascinating than the real one. "So the visual experience, the visual fidelity we'll be able to create—the real world will stop being the metric that we apply to the best possible visual fidelity,” he said. "The real world will seem flat, colorless, blurry compared to the experiences you'll be able to create in people's brains.”
If this all sounds like a nightmarish vision of the future where the world burns around us while we retreat into fantasy worlds, you’re not alone. “There’s this piece of art that goes around the internet of this dystopian kid in a corner, drooling, with goggles on with rainbow pictures and it’s a terrible looking place,” Carmack told Rogan. “And people say, ‘This is the world you’re trying to build, people plugged into virtual reality and ignoring the world around them.’”
Carmack’s response isn’t encouraging. “Is his life really better if he takes them off and he’s in this horrible place?” he asked. “I live in Dallas. It’s 100 degrees there. We change the world around us in all that we do. We live in air-conditioning. People don’t generally go, ‘Oh, you’re not experiencing the world around you because of air-conditioning’ … That is what human beings do, we bend the world to our will.”
If you want a picture of the future, imagine a Facebook-branded set of VR goggles strapped to an emaciated human face—forever.
For Carmack, virtual reality is a path to making the world a better place. “That’s how the world gets better, by building technologies and distributing them to people so that they have something better than they would have had if that didn’t exist,” he said.
That assessment of virtual reality ignores several fundamental lessons we’ve learned about technology in the past few decades. Far from liberating the world, technology has introduced new methods of control into our lives. Power changed hands as Silicon Valley came to dominate our lives. Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon wield an incredible amount of control over our lives, and much of the power they wield is occluded.
The rush to create digital worlds ignores both the hard realities of the physical and the ways we might all be manipulated if tech companies control not just the apps we use every day but the very world we inhabit. Look at Epic, whose Fortnite is lauded as the first metaverse. Far from being a land of unrestrained freedom and palatial palaces for everyone, Fortnite is a popular video game that sometimes hosts impressive live events while slowly selling its inhabitants goofy costumes.
Virtual worlds will be molded in the image of their creators, not their participants. Already, landlords are dividing up real estate in the blockchain-backed metaverse Upland. When Apple and Fortnite go to war, it’s their users who suffer. Virtual worlds can be anything we want them to be, but Silicon Valley sees them as a place to push digital mansions and movie theaters on the hoi polloi. It will be a simulacrum, an ersatz world like our own with the pain edited out.
You can bet they’ll charge top dollar for it.