It was 1999 — my senior year of high school. I was sitting in the second row of a packed Marcus movie theater straining my neck to watch one of the biggest movies of the decade.
I thought The Matrix was mind-blowing (at least the first one). At the time, the film was highly criticized because it was released less than a month before the Columbine school shooting. The shooters wore black trenchcoats similar to what the movie’s main characters wore in the climax.
Over the years, the philosophy, symbolism, and message behind The Matrix became the bigger discussion. Like many Sci-Fi flicks before and after, it has been viewed as somewhat prophetic.
But, what I have to admit scares me a little right now, is that the prophecy seems to be coming true in an almost literal sense. And, to misquote Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I’m not so sure I’m ready to welcome our digital overlords.
What’s really troubling is … I think a lot of people are ready.
Enter the Metaverse
Facebook recently rebranded itself as Meta. Founder Mark Zuckerberg stated in an interview with The Verge that he wants his company to lead the way in developing the metaverse.
What’s the metaverse, you ask? It’s basically a virtual, digitalized, alternative world. Or, as Wikipedia describes it:
“The metaverse is a neologism typically used to describe the concept of a future iteration of the internet, made up of persistent, shared, 3D virtual spaces linked into a perceived virtual universe.”
But Zuckerberg makes it sound waaaay cooler than that. Check out the video to see what’s in store.
If you’re recalling games like Second Life and The Sims, you’re on the right track. More recently, Roblox, Fortnite, and Minecraft are also pioneers foreshadowing this much bigger metaverse vision.
So, are Zuck and Meta truly building a digitized utopian future? Or, are we headed for a dystopian disaster?
The Metaverse vs. The Matrix
In The Matrix, Neo learns that his reality is an illusion. The world and his life are actually a simulation. Artificially intelligent machines took over everything and turned humans into energy sources. In this story, we all become body batteries.
In Zuckerberg’s metaverse, things seem much friendlier, don’t they? Cartoon avatars. The ability to go wherever and do whatever with whoever whenever. That’s literally how I imagined heaven as a kid (without the cartoon avatars, but that would be a nice touch).
In The Matrix, humans lived in a realistic world — not a utopia. And in the metaverse, we won’t be batteries. However, a line Zuckerberg delivers in the Meta video above is a huge hint as to what the goal of all this really is:
“Our hope though, is that if we all work at it, within the next decade the metaverse will reach a billion people, hosts hundreds of billions of dollars of digital commerce, and support jobs for millions of creators and developers.”
The catch is right there in the bolded text. Hundreds of billions of dolla dolla bills, ya’ll! And Meta will be happy to take a nice chunk of that. Thank you very much!
Maybe you’ve heard this before, but there is a reason that we all use Facebook for free. We’re not the customers. We’re the ones being sold. Facebook and other social media outlets offer a way for advertisers to reach targeted audiences. That’s most likely going to be the Meta business model as well. Advertisers pay for access to you, and your friends, and your kids.
(Full Disclosure: I work in marketing and advertising and have used it for that very purpose.)
A lot of the controversy surrounding Facebook and other social media companies right now is around hate speech, disinformation, and the division these things cause. Then there are also privacy concerns and the ways social media is impacting young people psychologically.
Those are real and serious problems. Of course, Facebook/Meta leadership is already trying to explain how those issues would be handed in the metaverse. But, I worry there’s another issue that isn’t getting enough attention.
Unfortunately, the real promise of the metaverse is meant for brands, not individuals. It opens up a whole new way to spend your money (or your crypto as the case may be).
It’s hard for me not to imagine the metaverse as a gigantic digital shopping mall. This shopping mall is plastered with billboards. Spammers, scammers, and creepy pervs will be wandering around everywhere. And, we’ll often be paying for products made of nothing but pixels (imagine the profit margins).
In my mind, the metaverse won’t look like Meta’s PR video. It will look like the world we see in the Disney film Ralph Breaks the Internet:
That’s not the first time animated movies gave us a warning about something like this. Remember the spaceship full of overweight earthlings in Pixar’s Wall-E?
We can all see it coming. We understand how ridiculous it is and how dangerous it could be. Is this what we want our future to look like?
In the metaverse, we won’t be batteries used for energy. And yes, there will be many who try to use it to control and manipulate the masses. But make no mistake … the most exciting thing about the metaverse isn’t being able to connect, create, and build a better world. It’s about making money.
The metaverse isn’t being made for you. It’s being made to sell more stuff and make more money off of you.
What COVID relief taught me about the economy
Remember back in 2020 when it seemed like the entire global economy was shutting down as we holed up in our houses? Everyone knew that small businesses would close, people would lose their jobs, and a recession was coming.
The U.S. government stepped in and sent multiple checks to many Americans.
Some people really needed those checks. Others not so much. But the truth is, it wasn’t really about helping people in need and providing relief to individual families. The government wasn’t that worried about people getting evicted, struggling small businesses, or even the middle class. The CARES Act just had a convenient acronym. The big concern was what would happen if we all stopped spending money.
It was about continuing to grease the gears of an economy based entirely on overconsumption.
We were told not to stick those stimulus payments into savings. I never heard a politician recommend giving it away to someone struggling to meet the rent or donating to a charity. We were informed that our job was to spend it and stimulate the economy.
Ordering takeout, buying electronics, and subscribing to more streaming services was our patriotic duty. No doubt – some of that money went to buy V-Bucks and Robux so we could get a better assault rifle in Fortnite and cooler outfits for our Roblox avatars.
Even though stats show Americans didn’t always spend their COVID relief payments, we definitely did not stop spending.
Amazon posted huge profits during the pandemic. Walmart saw its online sales skyrocket. And yes, The Financial Times also lists Facebook as No. 6 among the 100 companies that profited the most during the pandemic. What else were we supposed to do during lockdown? Play checkers?
The harsh reality is our main purpose in the lives we’ve created for ourselves is to spend money.
That’s why the idea of universal/guaranteed income tends to get some bipartisan support. It’s not just a liberal entitlement thing proposed by political hopefuls like Andrew Yang. In fact, conservative economist Milton Friedman was even a proponent for a form of universal basic income (UBI).
Here’s what Martin Luther King Junior wrote about it:
“We must create full employment or we must create incomes. People must be made consumers by one method or the other. Once they are placed in this position, we need to be concerned that the potential of the individual is not wasted. New forms of work that enhance the social good will have to be devised for those for whom traditional jobs are not available.”Martin Luther King Jr., Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?
That’s right. Civil rights leader MLKJ thinks we “must be made consumers by one method or the other.” I hate to say it, but I’m not so sure I agree with him on this one.
He also suggests that we’ll need something to do with our free time if we aren’t working to earn a paycheck. Dr. King brings up enhancing the social good in lieu of traditional jobs. But how many of us would rather plugin to the metaverse, tune out the real world, and maybe get in an argument with some random avatar about a topic like Critical Race Theory?
Honestly, that seems more likely.
I’m not saying UBI is a bad idea necessarily, but I wonder about the effects on our lives and the consequences for society.
Could the metaverse be a way to keep us busy and amused? Don’t we see what’s happening right under our noses? Maybe we feel the way the character Cypher felt in The Matrix. We’re okay with it.
I wanted to believe …
When I first saw The Matrix back in 1999, I didn’t even have my own email address yet!
I left for college where I got an internet connection in my dorm room and majored in Mass Media Communications. I started noticing how quickly technology was changing everything. It made me feel excited and optimistic about change.
I worked in local news as social media entered the scene, changing the way news spreads. I started blogging and became a digital marketer. Then, I started following the plans and exploits of celebrity tech giants and entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Elon Musk.
To me, innovations like self-driving cars, the internet of things (IoT), virtual and augmented reality, CRISPR gene editing, and all sort of other disruptive technologies were mini-miracles and revolutionary ideas. However, slowly but surely, my skepticism has been kicking in, causing me to question the motivation behind things that are pitched to us as progress.
Maybe it’s a trade-off. Driverless cars could save thousands of lives. But perhaps there’s a reason Google is so interested in autonomous driving technology. If we’re not watching the road, we’re going to be on our Google Pixel phones where we’ll see Google’s ad network, watch YouTube, buy things from Google Play, and keep doing our most important job … consuming.
I wanted to believe all these companies were leading us to a brighter future. I’m not the kind of person who believes in maintaining the status quo. But I’m starting to wonder if innovation can actually be used to do that exact thing.
Escaping the Metaverse
I’m definitely not the first and won’t be the last person to draw parallels between the metaverse and The Matrix. For example, there’s this tech professor on Medium and this article in Fortune. Even the Twitter account for a new, upcoming Matrix movie is getting in on the action.
I’m not trying to make jokes and clever observations. I’m also not a technophobe. Maybe I’m a hypocrite. Because as soon as I hit “Publish” on this article, I’m going to share it on Facebook.
Regardless, I do think we have a choice to make now and in a future with or without a metaverse.
We can choose how we use technology, including how often and for what purpose.
We can choose what to engage with. We can choose to isolate or to connect. We can choose to use it to help us understand other points of view or reinforce our own. We can choose to vote with our dollars or we can waste it on things with little to no value.
We can tour museums and explore exotic places in virtual reality. Or, we can experience what nature and local artists have to offer right where we live. We can choose to create something meaningful and unique and share that with the world. Or, we can choose to lip-synch on TikTok and remake memes with misspellings and dumb jokes.
Or we can do it all. That is, if we are strong enough and wise enough to find some balance.
My fear is that we won’t do that. My fear is that we’ll keep chasing quick hits of dopamine and try to satiate our appetites for true creativity by posting unboxing videos and reaction videos and choosing the right GIF to send to our coworkers.
I don’t know what will become of this site or the concept behind The Creative Mission. I do know that you were born to create, not consume. And while Zuckerberg promises we’ll be building a creative economy in his version of the metaverse, I have my doubts.
But the choice is yours. What will you create? Where will you create it? Who will you create it for?
We’ve all got something to offer. And the real universe is offering us something too.
As I’m writing this blog post, I’m sitting in front of a west-facing window watching the autumn sun set on Green Bay, Wisconsin, while my two oldest sons get into a good old-fashioned fight on the trampoline in the backyard.
Not gonna lie … it’s beautiful.
I would have missed it if I was immersed in a virtual world playing ping-pong.
I highly doubt anyone will ever be able to create a world or a universe that’s better than the one we live in. So, we should probably try to enjoy it, take good care of it, do something worthwhile, and add something real to it while we’re here.
Categories: The Mission
Interesting and well presented essay using an apt movie reference to illustrate your points.
As a Gen Z I was around at the birth of home computing and the internet when it truly was the wild west as it was new and undiscovered country.
The idea of one company holding so much power over people’s lives is very disturbing especially seeing how entire populations can be manipulated over the past two years.
Experiencing the ‘real’ world is important for people of all ages but particularly the young as they have grown up in a world of technology and know no other world. The ‘real’ world is where they learn the lessons that allow them to actually do things that benefit them and others. It is also where they experience real human interaction without the buffer of a screen.