Is it a “metaverse” or “immersive platform capitalism”?

The immersion advertised by the “Metaverse” is far more than a better consumer experience. On the contrary, it has far more complex techno-political connotations. This is not a technical question of how consumers use an extended reality device, nor is it a so-called “post-human” question of how the new technological revolution promotes the mutual symbiosis of humans and machines…

1.  What is “immersion”: from brain in a vat to brain-computer interface

In 1974, the 36-year-old American political philosopher Robert Nozick envisioned such a situation in his masterpiece Anarchy, State and Utopia:

Suppose there is an experience machine that will give you any experience you want. The best neuropsychologists can stimulate your brain and make you feel like you are writing a great book, making friends, or reading an interesting book.And you’re actually floating in a container all the time, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you enter the life of this machine and program the experiences of your life?

With such a wonderful setting, Nozick leads the reader to the following question: Is there anything else that matters to us besides the inner experience of our lives? In fact, what Nozick is really trying to do here is by drawing absolute boundaries (what he calls marginal constraints) on the actual existence of individual human beings in opposition to utilitarian philosophy reducing it to some kind of quantifiable happiness The act of “experiencing”. As he puts it: “The question of who we would be in the eyes of the visionary has little meaning to us unless it is reflected in our experience. But what we are will matter to us, which Is it strange?”

After a lapse of seven years, another philosopher, with the help of science fiction, came up with a darker, more specific and more famous hypothesis than the “experience machine”. In Reason, Truth, and History, Putnam asks the reader to imagine that he has been operated on by an evil scientist, and his brain is taken out and placed in a nutrition bowl; but the brain’s nerve endings are connected to a computer, which gives it the The illusion of business as usual: everything seems so real, even though it’s just the result of a computer’s electrical impulses being sent to the nerve endings. Going a step further, Putnam envisions a massive collective hallucination, where all brains are connected to an automaton, living together in a virtual world that doesn’t exist, meaning people can talk to each other— – In case of loss of mouth and tongue.

If the above two stories are just thought experiments by philosophers, then as Elon Musk begins to develop brain-computer interfaces, these crazy ideas seem to have the possibility of “dream come true”. This is not an alarmist. In fact, the idea of ​​brain-computer interface has already been realized in advance and successfully industrialized as “companion hardware”, that is, VR (virtual reality) products promoted by the concept of “metaverse”. It is also a revolution in human-computer interaction. The R&D and production of brain-computer interfaces and VR series products (glasses, headgear, handles and various somatosensory devices) means that technology has fully penetrated the human body. The consequences of this technological revolution are said to bring users a more shocking and more realistic “immersive” experience.

In this year’s popular metaverse mythology, “immersion” based on XR technology is a key selling point, as Zuckerberg said: “You can imagine the ‘metaverse’ as an embodied Internet, where , you don’t just watch the content, you are in it.” Similarly, the propaganda copy of the metaverse in China is inseparable from the word “immersion”: “create an immersive virtual social platform”, “based on extended reality” Technology provides immersive experience”, “The immersive experience that is hard to tell from the real and the fake is the core feature of the ‘metaverse'” and so on. Not only that, with the rise of the “metaverse” wave, the pursuit of immersion seems to spread to all aspects of human life, ranging from immersive script killing, full-sensing immersive cinema, to an immersive metaverse with the effect of international law. Embassy. Immersive entertainment, immersive teaching, immersive marketing… The human brain “immersed” in a nutritional bowl seems to be more than just a philosopher’s humor.

So, has anyone ever thought about what is so-called “immersion”? “Illusion is immersion,” says Michael Heim, a “cyberspace philosopher” who has long studied virtual reality. He cites Wagner’s three-act opera Parsifal as an example to illustrate the “mystical nature of virtual reality”, which was performed only in a specially designed building far from the city center, where the audience had to walk a long way. Road, and to study the opera script beforehand, because the play is “long, mysterious and full of complex and important details”. All this is to make the performance of the play a solemn ritual, fully engaging all the senses of the audience, so as to make people fascinated, mad, like a dream. Heim went on to comment: “Virtual reality will one day get a similar frenzy of commentary, not just for the shock but for the insight into the experience.” He also draws on the science fiction author Gibson’s “The Cyber ​​Wizard” to illustrate the virtual reality of cyberspace. In this novel, the user is directly connected to the computer through the brain-computer interface and enters the network, abandoning the heavy body and letting the mind wander freely in the boundless space. This kind of physical and mental separation in cyberspace is described in the novel as “a kind of consensual hallucination…” It seems that the so-called “immersion” is also about the hallucination of the senses, which is the separation of body and mind, The separation of “existence” and “experience”.

Nozick is worried that the “meaning of life” will be eroded by “experience”, so he tries to draw an absolute boundary for individual freedom. Although it may not be the case, his concerns are worrying. The price of sensory fascination is often the sinking of reality. Dai Jinhua said with great insight in a speech: “When we wear VR glasses, we see, and we can’t see at the same time.” Just as VR equipment is often both glasses (a tool for “seeing”) and an eye mask at the same time (The veil of “seeing”), when the protagonists of “Ready Player One” (one of the most frequently mentioned sci-fi movies in the “Metaverse” copy) become saviors and heroes in the game world, the slums they are in, Still a slum.

At this point, a voice of opposition has long been unable to hold back: “Immersion does not equal escape, and the metaverse does not equal VR, in addition to virtual reality, we also have augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR) technology, they can all help us intervene and transform real life.” Indeed, as Heim said: “The ultimate promise of virtual reality is not to control or escape or entertain or communicate, but to change and redeem our sense of reality. Intellect.” The separation of mind and body created by virtual reality technology is actually an aspect of a more important overall process, that is, the unprecedented deep involvement of technology in human perception, and this technology-mediated perception method will eventually Reshape reality itself. However, this reshaping of reality is by no means a further “expansion” of human perception, as some progressives claim.

Take the most popular application of the so-called “augmented reality” technology – Alipay’s New Year’s five blessings event as an example: in Alipay’s AR interface, we can see that a hexagonal frame is set in the center of the camera screen, We need to place objects with the word “Fu” inside the frame to collect five “Fu Cards” to get red envelopes. In fact, such an operation is not only a kind of training for Alipay to use habits of future users, but also a cultivation of new viewing methods. The function of the hexagonal frame here is equivalent to a “seat frame” in Heidegger’s sense – it is a collection of certain arrangements, “to make people take reality as a holding thing in a custom-made way. Unmasking.” AR makes the hexagon in the center of the camera picture seem to exist a priori inside our eyeballs, and in an automatic way, defines the center and edge for us, and defines our viewing method and visual logic. “Where this customization dominates, it dispels any other possibility of unmasking.” That is to say, any kind of “augmented reality” technology is also, in another sense, “decreasing reality”, the question is what exactly does technology enhance us when we see the world through XR?What is weakened? Who sets the rules for this? “The immersive Internet is likely to be both an intimate Internet and an invading Internet.” If we are unreflectively “immersed” in the rules interface created by others, as McLuhan put it, put our eyes, ears, Nerves are rented out to those who profit from it. So, is technology bringing us human liberation or deeper exploitation?

It can be seen that the immersion promoted by “Metaverse” is by no means a better consumer experience. On the contrary, it also has far more complex technical and political connotations. This is not a technical question of how consumers use an extended reality device, nor is it a so-called “post-human” question of how the new technological revolution can promote the mutual symbiosis of humans and machines. The terminal equipment we use is only the tip of the iceberg of a behemoth. Behind these friendly “interface” environments, there are huge computing power, massive information, and huge capital supporting these information and computing power that are disproportionate to individual users. put in. The relationship between man and machine is essentially the relationship between the individual and the system, how the individual is more closely embedded in the system, and how the system expands to realize the discipline of people. Therefore, in order to better understand this process, we need not only philosophy but also a more macroscopic view of political economy.

2. The  Metaverse: Building the Universe on a Platform

Before turning to political economy, let us once again return to Nozick’s discussion. From the perspective of political philosophy, Nozick’s hypothesis of “experience machine” involves the struggle between the two traditions of liberalism and utilitarianism. As Nozick’s opponent, utilitarianism upholds a hedonistic ethic that expels the metaphysical concepts of “God” and “soul” on which previous natural law theories relied, and is measured by human experience of pain and pleasure It tries to quantify the “happiness” of people through the principle of maximization, and takes the pursuit of “the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people” as the ultimate goal of its philosophy. Thus liberal philosophers are all concerned that this ethic based on the “calculation of the total amount of happiness” will make the sacrifice of individuals desirable, and that in a society organized on utilitarian principles, there will be no individual rights. Get a stable guarantee. The problem is not that simple.

What threatens our freedom is not some abstract “ideological error” but a new ideology that accompanied the maturation of nineteenth-century capitalism. The 19th century was the era of the rise of utilitarianism, and it was also the era when the huge productive forces released by the British Industrial Revolution changed the world. The form appears in the archives. Science and technology are used in the operation of political power, and political rule has increasingly become a “technology for regulating life”, thus opening a precedent for “technical governance”. The most famous of these is the Panopticon, designed by utilitarian founder Jeremy Bentham, in what Foucault calls a “panorama installation” in which prison administrators are able to use minimal Maximize effectiveness with cost input – make surveillance everywhere. It can be seen that the consequentialism and maximization principle of utilitarianism are not the whims of some philosopher, but are inherent in the triangle chain of power-technology-ideology.

In a sense, the world we live in today is on an extension of the 19th century: posthumanism abolishes the definition of human nature and reproduces the utilitarian consequentialism in cybernetics based on the “stimulus-response” model principle; with the rise of information technology, the digitization and quantitative management of people pervades every corner of society; and the “panoramic open-view device” pioneered by Bentham has developed to this day, and has expanded from a special scene to capital This is a common feature of ideology, hence the term “surveillance capitalism”.It’s just that the “watchtower” in the center of the prison has been replaced by what Putnam calls “automatic machines”, and the prisoners in the prison have become “brains in a vat” connected by automata. In the face of the more than 100-year history of capitalism, the concept of “metaverse” seems somewhat empty and poor. The “new thing” before us is nothing but a comedy show that has been repeated countless times.

Whenever a structural crisis of capitalism emerges, a new technological myth begins to announce impatiently that “the future is here”: before the world war provoked by imperialism has yet to subside, Gieddes “divides the machine age into smoke. and the old technological age of the steam engine, and the new technological age of electricity and radium that conquered noise and pollution”; when the United States had not yet emerged from the Great Depression, Mumford, a disciple of Gieddes, began to advocate that hydroelectric power would bring electricity itself “revolutionary changes”; during the world’s stagflation crisis in the 1970s, Toffler found that human civilization was entering the “third wave”, this time it was computers to play the savior; and now, “capital lack of new hot spots, A new direction is needed.” So the concept of “metaverse”, which had been proposed as early as the 1990s, was transformed and made its debut.

In fact, those large domestic companies that are considered by the outside world to be entering the “metaverse” often began to pay attention to and invest in related industries many years ago, and are generally not interested in the “unrealistic concept” of the “metaverse”. Rather, it reminds us that what really matters is not the concept of the “metaverse” itself, but what lies behind it, obscured by new concepts and new rhetoric, what capital has been doing for a long time – a techno-capital evolutionary trend. When the prisoners in the ring prison become “brains in a vat” with the development of technology, what is the metaphor of the watchtower/automaton in the center of the system monitoring everything? The answer is platform. “Surveillance capitalism”, in its material basis, is platform capitalism. This platform-based business model represents the new form of monopoly capitalism in the 21st century, “the way platform companies achieve market dominance is different from the market monopoly model of the 19th and 20th centuries, they are not obtained through direct ownership. control, but constructs the behavioral rules and parameters of platform participants through the platform’s data and algorithms, exerting a deeper level of control over the market.” In other words, the monopoly of platform capitalism is not the monopoly of production, but through the The rule control of the exchange link between production and consumption, respectively, from the production and sales ends to seek excess profits from users.

Due to the “network effect” that causes marginal costs to decrease with the increase in the number of users, platforms naturally tend to monopolize, and the long-term venture capital of American financial capital further accelerates the formation of a “winner-takes-all” situation. “Just as the binary nature of data makes things either one or zero, rather than somewhere in between, the tendency for the kind of corporate dominance that capitalism is already familiar with becomes even more uncompromising.” , with the intensification of competition among Internet companies, capital will inevitably develop more control technologies, making the platform’s intermediary status more unshakable – this is why platform capitalism often has the so-called “creative monopoly”.

Capital monopoly and technological innovation coexist, which makes the propaganda of technology myths by platform companies often become an important ideological strategic weapon for capital expansion. From the production logic of platform capitalism, to re-understand the “immersion” promoted by the “metaverse”, it is not difficult to find that this technological selling point that brings people the experience of “mind liberation” is precisely the comprehensive upgrade and iteration of platform control technology. logo. In fact, as early as the beginning of the Internet, the potential economic value of “immersion” has been discovered. According to Goldhaber, the godfather of “attention economics”, attention has become an increasingly important asset in the information age. This asset is not a physical object, but exists in the attention of others to you. In order to realize the assets stored in the hearts of others, it is necessary to rely on information to interact with others. Therefore, Goldhaber pointed out with insight that information technology is actually a kind of attention technology; The value is the scarcity created by the relative poverty of attention.

The development of information technology has made it possible to capitalize attention, and the acquisition of attention is closely related to human sensory ability. And “only those who have the ability to feel will become the attention resource.” It can be seen that to control people’s attention, it is necessary to control people’s senses. Attention technology is also a sensory technology, and “immersion” just means the hallucination of the senses, which means the technology’s manipulation of the human perception ability. In fact, when we can’t “swipe the phone” by ourselves on the short video platform, our eyeballs have been requisitioned by the platform, and our attention has become traffic, serving the proliferation of platform capital.

With the emergence of extended reality, the call to the senses will gradually expand from the eyeball to the body, which means that the technical discipline of capital on the human body will be raised to a whole new level. The development of platform capitalism is associated with the ability to control the attention of consumers, which has led to the design of the way human-computer interaction is an area of ​​particular importance. “As the main way for users to interact with the platform, the interface occupies a key middle position in the wider ecosystem.” Looking at the development history of Internet companies, it is not difficult to find that every “interface revolution” will bring about a new revolution in the entire industry. Shuffle.

Therefore, investment in “metaverse” related industries such as AR and VR is essentially the competition of Internet companies for the exclusive qualification of the future human-machine interface. The purpose of this platform capital’s competition for the next expansion node is nothing more than the pursuit of larger user scale and stronger monopoly power. Take the former Facebook company, which changed its name to Meta, for example. Before it hyped the concept of the “metaverse”, Facebook began to vigorously promote the development of chatbots. “Users do not need to use a separate application or website to access businesses and services. , simply accessed through Facebook’s platform, which will make Facebook’s chatbot platform the primary interface for online business transactions.”

That said, a bot-dominated chat interface would allow users to bypass rival sites and search engines and settle everything inside the Facebook platform. So when Zuckerberg claims that the Metaverse will allow users to “not just watch content, but be in it,” let’s understand that’s exactly what Facebook has wanted to do for a long time. Since the competition of platform capitalism will eventually lead to a more serious monopoly, then with the metaverse, it must be a deeper binding of the platform to the user. All of this suggests to us the most ominous meaning of the word “immersion”—inability to extricate oneself, to be unable to stop. “As people increasingly expect and even ask us to be immersed in these types of spaces, we may experience less immersion and more drowning or loss of control.”

When our relatives and friends are all using the same social software, uninstalling the software is likely to mean losing contact. And when your boss assigns you tasks through a platform service, refusing the service will risk losing your job. In this case, the “voluntary agreement” between the network platform and the user will have a coercive force comparable to the law, which jurist Feng Xiang calls “hard rules”: “The formulation and implementation of hard rules are mostly The behavior of merchants does not need to go through the political process to brew debate, express public opinion, nor does it rely on the inner restraint or legal awareness of the public/users.” With the increase of users’ dependence on the platform and the weakening of bargaining power, forced consumption and overlordship brought about by market monopoly The terms tend to give a sense of servitude akin to a feudal hierarchy.

At that time, the “two new poor people” will be integrated into the unique identity of “production and marketing one”, using the leased cyber land to maintain their living, and paying the landlord “rent and pay in the form of data, membership fees and unpaid labor”. interest”, this is what John Dean described as “neofeudalism”: “The digital platform is the new ‘water mill’, its billionaire boss is the new lord, thousands of workers and billions of users are the new peasants.” In fact, the “metaverse” can be seen as a further development of platform capitalism or “neo-feudalism” that devours all outer space in a more immersive way, with separate or combined platforms For the base, the human life world has been re-edited. All in all, this is the slogan they put forward for the big companies who are the first to enter the game: “Build the universe on the platform!”

3.  Conclusion It is dangerous to sing praises for things that you do not understand. The overwhelming propaganda and public opinion offensive around the “metaverse” like Facebook, in its main aspect, only proves that capital is becoming more and more profound to people. control, and the ambition of Internet platforms to further strengthen monopoly. In contrast, other discussions seem to suggest other possibilities for a “metaverse.” For example, there is a voice that “like the W3C World Wide Web Standard Protocol, the Metaverse needs to build a common protocol for every company to develop in a common and interoperable universe.”

However, the key question is who can participate in the process of formulating the “general agreement”. If the “agreement” does not restrict the monopoly privilege of the first entrants, then this form of equal legal document is just a manifestation of the will of the platform alliance of large enterprises That’s it. Another point of view is to pin the hope of freedom on the decentralized blockchain technology, “In the world of web 2.0, digital assets are owned by the platform in the form of traffic. In the world of Web 3.0, digital assets can be Complete individual rights through technologies such as blockchain, which are owned by oneself.” This radical privatization scheme understands network data as what Nozick calls “land without lords”, and anyone can use “preemption first” Obtain an asset that belongs to oneself in the way of “get”, and history and reality have repeatedly proved that this seemingly “decentralized” organizational logic will lead to re-centralization and extreme inequality in distribution results. As long as we think about which big companies and stars are investing in virtual assets such as NFTs today, it is not difficult to find that monopoly is the pass of monopoly, and poverty is the epitaph of the poor.

While none of the above comments are satisfactory, I do not wish to end this article with a pessimistic eschatological note.In the face of productivity advances brought about by the Internet, anti-tech Luddism is almost as blind as any technological myth. The most urgent task is to truly liberate our technological imagination – this is not to imagine “the future has come” along prefabricated tracks designed by capital, as people usually do, but to dare to “derail” the locomotive of history, like Like what the protagonist did at the end of Snowpiercer.

How sci-fi would it be to imagine a world without capital? When technology has created so many miracles that we can’t even imagine, a “people’s democratic online platform” without advertisements and VIPs may no longer be a utopia. If Allende hadn’t been killed by the warlord, it’s hard to tell whether the Internet today would have changed. Fortunately, at the moment of writing this essay, Borrick, who is regarded as the young successor of Allende, has returned to the presidential palace in Chile. The panic of capital over this bad news is especially reflected in the plummeting stock price.When the birthplace of neoliberalism begins to turn to the left, and when the voice of the people is heard again, we may have the confidence to ask, where will the “metaverse” built on the capital platform eventually “avalanche”?

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