Mass poverty, large-scale refugee movements, climate change, energy crises, and pandemics – many pressing issues of our time appear like ingredients for excellent science-fiction dystopias. And yet, another concept of popular dystopian science-fiction is being actively brought about by today’s tech giants: the Metaverse, first envisioned 30 years ago by Neal Stephenson. Its current proponents hail it as a near-perfect utopia, a fusion of material and virtual reality that will offer new forms of entertainment and ways to work and live. The many dystopian warnings of completely immersive virtual worlds controlled by entities with questionable intent are happily ignored.
The concept as such is not new but has, in some rudimentary form, existed since the 1970s. The MUDs of the early digital networks, Ultima Online, Second Life, and Roblox, to name a few, were and are already Metaverses in many respects. The future Metaverse, as propagandized by the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, differentiates itself in some key points: It will make use of immersive technology (VR and AR) on an unprecedented scale; it will utilize new methods of tracking virtual property and currency via blockchain technology; it will function as an environment for both work and recreation that is to be seamlessly integrated into everyday life; it will collect data on a massive scale to create individualized experiences unlike anything before.
But perhaps it’s not all grim corporate dystopia? Why not enjoy it as “an online utopia, a holodeck for the home” (Ernest Cline, Ready Player One)? Maybe it can even be read as a blueprint for a better world? Reminiscent of early dreams of the internet as a place where people could interact independently of their bodies and be free from any form of discrimination on the grounds of gender, race, class, or age, the Metaverse might be our next chance for such a utopian society.
It is a fundamental question for the future of society at large: What shape will this new Metaverse take? Will it mirror the injustices of our current reality (as the internet does in many ways), or do we have the power to turn it into something different? Its development and our acceptance of it will be significantly molded by our answers to philosophical and ethical questions like: What is reality in contrast to virtual reality? What is the value of a life lived in virtual reality? How can the Metaverse subvert existing social structures and bring about utopian justice and equality, especially when it is contrived to be monopolized and exploited commercially?
With these questions in mind, the summit will investigate the Metaverse’s ludic, technical, narrative, and political potential. We will look at the transmedial cross-sections of influential ideas and review which opportunities, possibilities, and risks lay in the actual Metaverses of our time and possible future ones.