Spend how much for what and where?

So far, the metaverses don’t promise new frontiers for humanity. Instead, they make real-world problems increasingly invisible.

At the end of November 2021, the NFT Metaflower was sold for 149 Ether Tokens in The sandbox. If you are unfamiliar with The sandbox is (or if you don’t yet know what an NFT is), the transaction (“who bought what where with what?”) may seem completely irrelevant. However, it is anything but. This purchase is, on the one hand, a telling sample of the current behavior of technology-driven economic trends. On the other hand, it is an indication of a widening gap separating the real world from what is now called the metaverse – something that not so long ago was called cyberspace.

The sandbox is a virtual game world where players can build, own and monetize their gaming experience. A quick look Sandbox’s Twitter profile allows the user to know what type of assets are currently available for purchase: mainly, virtual real estate auctions, many virtual lands and NFTs. NFT (Non-fungible tokens) are unique “things” that can be bought (or sold, traded, or stored) on a blockchain. A blockchain, in turn, is a decentralized and distributed database shared between nodes in a computer network, securely storing information (mainly transaction records) electronically. NFTs stored in these blockchains mostly behave like cryptocurrencies, but with an important twist.

NFT and lavish virtual “stuff”

Whereas cryptocurrencies are fungible (you can buy two Bitcoins, if you can afford it, and exchange them for Ethereum and then redeem your Bitcoins if you wish, and you will get the same thing: Bitcoin), NFTs are not fungible, unique. Pretty soon, NFTs (which could really be anything in a digital format) became the new hype. “Much of the excitement right now,” says Mitchell Clark, “is around using technology to sell digital art. […] Much of the conversation is about NFTs as an evolution of art collecting, only with digital art. Take, for example, a 50-second video of Grimes that sold at auction for almost $400,000. Or this other video, by Beeple, originally listed for $66,666 and auctioned for $6,600,000 nearly a year ago. That’s $15,000,000 more than Monet’s water lilies, as Clark notes. The 149 Ether Tokens paid for The metaflower are the cryptocurrency equivalent (or were, at the time of the transaction) of approximately $650,000.

At the end, NFTs are speculative assets. Like any other speculative asset (stocks, metals, art, baseball cards) investors buy them expecting their price to eventually rise. The concept is, in this sense, not new at all. Several different online marketplaces allow people to buy and sell these NFTs. OpenSea is currently the first and biggest of them all, at least according to their own website. And in case you were wondering, The Metaflower is a virtual mega-yacht “with two helipads, hot tubs and a DJ booth, among other lavish amenities.”

If you think there’s something troubling about this, you’re not alone. Articles like those by Jonathan Jones describe the allegedly art-related NFT craze as a wild monetization of digital culture that has nothing to do with reviving the careers of up-and-coming digital artists. Instead, the NFT craze serves money (and the collector’s ego) for money. This is the high point of speculative economics, says Jones. And, like anything economic, things are a bit more complex than just saying “spend that amount of money on Things is false.” We must question the way in which these economic dynamics are designed and implemented, and how they transform the notion of value. What is the value attributed to these NFTs? Consider, for example, the case of Sultan Gustaf Al Ghozali, a 22-year-old computer science student from Semarang, Indonesia, who converted and sold nearly 1,000 selfie images as NFTs. According to Ghozali, he took pictures of himself for five years – between the ages of 18 and 22 – to reflect on his graduation journey. He quickly earned around $1,000,000.

Metawhat, again?

the metaverse (whether it’s Zuckerberg, The sandbox, Minecraft, Warcraft or any other) might appeal to some, maybe millions, maybe even most. However, the costs of access (think of the gadgets users need just to get online, plus the minimum technology access requirements needed to do so, not to mention the purchasing power needed to acquire any of these NFTs) will likely aggravate already existing social and economic gaps.As William Gibson once said, “The future is already here; it’s just unevenly distributed. It’s not just about whether you should buy an NFT or not. Rather, it is whether or not these NFTs will define much of our already tech-driven economies.

Keza MacDonald is right that virtual worlds can (or could) be “incredibly liberating”. The overarching promise of cyberspace (now renamed the “metaverse”) is that “it makes us all equal, allowing us to be judged not by our physical appearance or our limitations, but by what goes on in our heads, how we want to be seen. The dream is of a virtual place where the hierarchies and boundaries of the real world disappear, where the nerdy dweeb can be the hero, where the poor and bored can step away from their reality and live somewhere more exciting, more rewarding. The case of Al Ghozali and his $1 million NFT selfies seems to prove that this is the case, but this seems to be an exception. As MacDonald puts it, “Anyone who is marginalized in the real world, however, knows that is not how things work. Virtual worlds are not inherently better than the real world. As Sergio Olmos explains, what the promoters of metaverse continue to close your eyes is the fact that hardly anyone will want to connect just to replicate their own already existing imperfect state. “The metaverse will either be the most successful cosmetic surgery procedure of all time, or nothing at all,” says Olmos. This could eventually lead to an ideal “Aryan world” – Aryan here meaning, according to Olmos, “everything that is fashionable at the moment”.

The idea that a metaverse (and its allegedly decentralized NFT trading market) will solve all real-world problems is also rather naïve.. MacDonald explains that multiverses can only “reflect the people who make them”, “people for whom real-world problems are mostly invisible.” To start, no big tech company has yet found a way to effectively moderate anything online (from hateful comments on a blog to widely disseminated fake news campaigns) to protect their platforms from manipulation and abuse. Of course, the multiverse can be used to “visit” your grandfather, “attend” a concert, “go to the office”, or sell your own unique NFTs. But it can obviously be used for less innocent purposes. Why wouldn’t it be, given what’s already happened with Facebook?

These metaverses do not promise new frontiers for humanity. At least not for now. They don’t use these resources to make online education widely available, to raise resources to close the technology gap, or to raise money to alleviate real-world problems. So far the multiverse is yet another marketplace to spend money on things, “Except here, the empty promise that buying things will make you happy,” as MacDonald puts it, “is further exposed by the fact that the things in question don’t physically exist.

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