Identity and Imagination in Silicon Valley

Metaverse and the Future

If you read the news, it is likely that you will come across stories that point towards a technological dystopian future. Just today, April 19, 2022, a story was published concerning a hacking group and their technology which has been used to spy on human rights activists and journalists throughout the world. Stories like this are becoming more common and effect various activities ranging from state intrigue to corporate products. Admittedly, many of us enjoy benefits from the technological explosion throughout the 2010s. Our phones have become more advanced, new social media platforms allow us to interact with others in novel capacities, and our digital lives have become seamless. Gone are the days when mobile phones were the size of bricks and limited only to making phone calls. Now it is possible to order an entire meal with one app. It appears, however, that the drawbacks of this technological progress may now be catching up to us. Facebook’s vision of a metaverse is the embodiment of this fusion of technological progress and dystopian future. The technologies that Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Meta Platforms, Inc. (previously Facebook), plans on developing are truly something out of a science fiction novel. This begs the question: Whose imagination is creating our future? How can Silicon Valley oligarchs like Zuckerberg and science fiction authors, such as Octavia Butler, find such radically different applications of imagination in the same genre?

In an interview for Democracy Now!, adrienne maree brown, a Black feminist philosopher who studies the work of Octavia Butler, describes Butler’s writing as “visionary fiction.” In this style, brown explains that Butler would “look ahead at the future and then write ourselves in” (brown). This genre is broadly known as Afrofuturism. To exemplify the fusion of current circumstances and future change, one can look at Butler’s 2003 short story “The Book of Martha” for instructions.

In the story, God asks a young Black woman named Martha to make a significant change in the world to improve it. The caveat is that, after the changes in society or human nature have been made, Martha will be placed “at the bottom level of society.” Upon hearing this, Martha responds that she “was born on the bottom level of society…born poor, black, and female to a fourteen-year-old mother who could barely read.” Martha eventually chooses to base the revolutionary changes around everybody’s dreams, but her status in society always informs her decisions.

At this point, one might ask how Butler’s short story relates to the dystopian news articles and technological plans created by Silicon Valley tycoons. Just as the identity of tycoons such as Zuckerberg are central to their imagination, Martha’s identity is central to her imagination. Her standing at the bottom of society because of her identity instructs her on how to make changes. Similarly, I expect that the identities of the key players in Silicon Valley inform their decisions about future developments.

I must clarify that the development of this technology is not inherently detrimental. The virtual reality components needed to create a metaverse and the facial recognition technology that is used in surveillance are not evil in and of themselves; rather, it is their unreflective applications, often by corporations or the state, that makes these technologies so damaging: they re-affirm the status quo. They merely replicate this world rather than creating a more sustainable or just future; it is a continuation of the same structures of this world (e.g. racial capitalism). When Zuckerberg spoke about the metaverse, he discussed the metaverse in relation to a 29-year-old science fiction novel called Snow Crash. Written by Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash envisions a virtual reality paradise that people use to escape a dystopian reality. Zuckerberg is quoted in the article as saying: “Obviously, [Snow Crash] has this whole environment around [metaverses] that’s sort of negative”. He continues to say that he “[…] [doesn’t] think it has to be that way”. The reason for Zuckerberg’s optimism regarding the use of his eventual metaverse are not clear, but I suspect that, to some degree, his identity and more importantly, his lack of reflection on his identity as a political location plays a part.

In Silicon Valley, the elites are primarily white and male. Therefore, it is a white male imagination that overdetermines the visions for our future. Unlike Martha, Zuckerberg is at the top of our current social hierarchy. He is white, male, and extraordinarily rich as a result of Facebook’s success. This, I believe, insulates him from the potential downsides of his technology. Regardless of whether Zuckerberg thinks that he or some regulatory body will be able to prevent the negative effects of a metaverse, he no doubt is aware that his status will protect him no matter the consequences.

The downsides of metaverse are, admittedly, still unclear. In his article for Jacobin titled “Facebook’s ‘Metaverse’ Must Be Stopped”, Paris Marx makes various predictions as to the negative effects of the metaverse. Marx expects that the metaverse will introduce new forms of worker exploitation. Basing his analysis off of the history of gig workers in Silicon Valley, Marx explains that the metaverse will “make it even harder for workers to demand their rights be respected and have any leverage over their employers”. The metaverse would transport worker exploitation across an expansive virtual world. Mark Zuckerberg has likely not considered this element.

Zuckerberg is no Martha. The problem of replicating or deepening exploitation in current reality does not even occur to him as a potential problem, because it is not a part of his lived experience. In the current system, his social identity comes with social privileges. Both Martha and Zuckerberg draw upon their identity to inform their imagination; the difference is that Martha’s identity reminds her to consider those at the lowest position in the hierarchy, while Zuckerberg’s identity insulates him from the potential negative effects of his actions and power. Whether or not the metaverse comes to fruition remains to be seen, but it cannot be denied that, currently, the imagination that dictates visions of the future is overwhelmingly white and male. A future determined solely through this lens of identity will only benefit the currently-privileged, forgetting those groups that are historically-systemically marginalized or exploited.

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