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February 7, 2022

To the Metaverse and Beyond

Habib William Kherbek on the future of digital property, with image curation by Ania Catherine and Dejha Ti
Credit: Ania Catherine and Dejha Ti, On View, 2019
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To the Metaverse and Beyond

Ah the metaverse: The coming community in which we will be free to create new forms of identity, culture, and exchange that will liberate us from the surly strictures we face in the material world with its various social and structural entropies. The metaverse will allow us to create a world that isn’t bound by the hierarchies… Wait, we’re getting a message from our correspondent in Decentraland. What’s that? Sotheby’s has just opened an auction house in Decentraland? This is incredible news, especially for artists, given how many of them already sell their work through Sotheby’s. It looks like the metaverse is living up to all of our expectations, and beyond. Meta beyond

For those who aren’t familiar with Decentraland, it’s a metaverse platform released to the public in 2017. The place is, perhaps in more ways than one, a game first and a metaverse second. The project allows users to purchase plots of land, and use its own currency tokens, “Mana,” for transactions. The NFT frenzy has only inflated the properties and commodities available in digital territory, and in April 2021, Sothebys decided to get in on the action, opening a virtual gallery in Decentraland’s version of New Bond Street for the exhibition and sale of NFTs. The presence of one of the most powerful auction houses in the world in Decentraland offers the platform a kind of legitimacy all such speculative technologies crave. Even The Matrix needed a material world to support it, but the advance of elite, private art institutions into metaspace shouldn’t come as a particular surprise to anyone. The business of the metaverse, after all, is business. 

Ania Catherine and Dejha Ti, On View, 2019, Commissioned by the SCAD Museum of Art, Installation still, Courtesy of Operator

The question of what the metaverse economy will look like is an encompassing one, but as “partner content” by in the Financial Times suggests, it won’t be entirely unrecognizable from our own verse. The uncredited authors — who knows, perhaps the advertorial was written entirely by AI — note that the expanding metaverse is already showing “the beginnings of true society, with individuals settling land, interacting socially, exchanging goods and asserting ownership rights.” Meet the new ‘verse, same as the old ‘verse…

Property ownership, and, ultimately rent-seeking, is literally written into the structure of the metaverse, from the proprietary code and hardware used to actuate it to the internal structure of the space itself. The authors of the FT piece note that “[a] key economic concept of Decentraland and other metaverses is adjacency of land. All metaverse parcels are contiguous to others at a fixed location — within a finite geography. This creates scarcity due to the limited amount of property supply.” Thus MetaAlexander wept, for there were no more land parcels left to enclose. 

Ania Catherine and Dejha Ti, On View, 2019

The deep inscription of enclosure logic as a feature of the metaverse should be familiar to anyone who has been watching the behavior of companies comprising the overwhelming share of the digital economy as they have locked their advantages into place. The capacity to enclose and seek rents is the model of almost every company in the platform economy, as anyone who has tried to order an Uber in recent years will know. Of course, platform companies are only building on logics and infrastructures set in place by the giants of the digital economy: Amazon, Google, and, last but not least, Facebook. Sorry, Meta. 

The expansion of Facebook into metaverse technologies is a logical step for a company that seeks to enclose and monetize all the data it can. Erstwhile Facebook’s high profile intervention in metaverse economies may be especially embarrassing, but the world as envisioned in the promotional video that launched a thousand satires is anything but new to observers of the metaverse. 

Ania Catherine and Dejha Ti, On View, 2019

As far as art is concerned, Zuckerberg’s promo video is notable for offering a clear example of the kind of art that will thrive in the logic of the metaverse. For those who don’t remember, or who have blocked it out, Zuckerberg and his meta-pals are hangin’ in a zero gravity holodeck designed “by a creator in LA,” playing cards. Zuckerberg checks in with a “friend,” Naomi, who is late to the affair, and she tells him that she’s in Soho hanging for some AR artwork secreted by another “creator” at various spots in the city. “3D street art,” Zuckerberg asks, his voice almost betraying actual emotion. Soho Naomi sends a link to the poker game from hell and the meta-gang ooh and ahh at the “amazing” tentacular squiggles appearing before them. “Wait, It’s disappearing,” Zuckerberg exclaims, perhaps already reading the viewer’s mind and detecting their reserves of will to live. “Hold on, I’ll tip the artist and they’ll extend it,” The Soho Expeditionary Force tell Mark. Refreshed by a micropayment, the artwork can continue for the entertainment of all. The day is saved. 

While, for my tastes at least, the work that Soho Naomi sends Mark isn’t quite up to the exalted standards of NFT classics like the Lazy Lion project. Nevertheless, the logic is clear: The business of art will be subject to the same infinite commodification that data suffers in the platform economy. The art may be universally available, insofar as an artist may want it to be, but the kind of art favored by the metaverse economy will obey the same kind of rent-seeking logic of those seeking to take up space in Decentraland. The NFT as a medium of exchange and value sequestration has always borne the stain of enclosure and artificial scarcity. Though the fetishization of ownership is at least more honest than the fetishization of “connoisseurship” that characterized traditional artist-collector-curator relations. 

Ania Catherine and Dejha Ti, On View, 2019

Based on the description of how Sotheby’s plans to use its Decentraland address: as “a proprietary, custom NFT marketplace” and “destination for NFT sales,” it is hard to envisage the metaverse as a means of liberation for artists. The logic of enclosure is literally written into the metaverse’s structure. Visitors hoping to take part in the auction will “need to create a personal profile and receive a unique avatar created by crypto designer and digital artist Pak, who was the subject of the auction house’s debut NFT sale.” Amidst all the hype and hubbub, it’s good to see that the values of the art world won’t be lost entirely as new locations for value creation are established. 

Believers do exist, however. Not least among them is the respected and savvy collector of digital art Sylvain Levy, who is quite optimistic about the possibilities afforded by large-scale AR projects: “The metaverse, in my dream, isn’t governed by Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon. It will be an island of happiness and freedom where cyber-flâneurs are free to go from one experience to another with a focus on art and humanity.” 

Ania Catherine and Dejha Ti, On View, 2019

Wouldn’t it be nice, as someone once sang. Discursively, though, there are genuine implications for existing traditions of digital art. The metaverse will be a major intervention in the history of telematic art, for example. The early promise of telematic art, that works would bring together communities across the planet and create a kind of universal oversoul of creative exchange would turn Pollyanna herself sarcastic from today’s vantage point, but the emergence of a digital art peep show as a business model should be enough to make the digital avatar of Roy Ascott’s rotating disembodied head weep a digital tear. The market was always already living in the landmarks of telematic art, particularly the kind of large-scale, institutional informatics pieces that characterise Ascott’s works. Nevertheless, where telematic artists may have been overly optimistic (or willfully blind) about their relationship to capital, the enclosure logic that characterises metaverse art activity means that today — and even more so tomorrow — the market can be said to be structurally entangled with the work itself. The infinite market is literally coterminous with time-based experiences like those depicted in Zuckerberg’s original MetaDispatch. Ars longa, vita brevis — and the ars lasts even longer if you remember to tip.   

Ania Catherine and Dejha Ti, On View, 2019

The announcement of a competitor metaverse by the government of China made fewer headlines in Western publications than Zuckerberg’s projection of a funky meta-workspace, but it does represent a potentially more proximal and therefore more threatening proposition. The wedding of technology to state power has a notoriously grim pedigree. For every mass electrification and vaccination program there is a federal death penalty or Tuskegee Experiment looming in the mists of (deliberately forgotten) history. 

“China’s Metaverse,” created by Baidu and named Xi Rang — translated variously as “land of hope,” “breathing earth,” “swelling mould,” and, perhaps inappropriately given what we know about the role of land speculation in the metaverse, “idle soil” — benefits from the direct involvement of state power. The reproduction of a “Metaverse with Chinese characteristics,” will almost certainly be as hyper-capitalist as the Chinese version of communism. Indeed, more than 400 companies have already trademarked metaverse commodities. The escape of the metaverse into the IRL wild is all but explicitly stated in the Magic Zuckerbergian vision, the capacity for companies to manifest IRL with metaverse knowledge is one form of corporate abuse of data, for a government like the one that operates concentration camps filled with its own Muslim citizens in Xinjiang Province to have the capacity to intervene in the world is something else entirely.

Ania Catherine and Dejha Ti, On View, 2019

Possibly the biggest question of all related to the metaverse, however, is what it will run on. The idea that anything resembling the metaverse will exist by the time the COP targets for the phasing out of fossil fuels expire is all but impossible. Given the rate at which signatory states have been pursuing their targets, the notion of metaverse infrastructure being built and sustained entirely through renewable energy is highly suspect. One may rest — if “rest” is the right word — assured that we’ll still be burning dinosaur bones by the time Zuckerberg plays his inaugural metaverse hand of Texas hold ’em with his employee-bots to celebrate Meta’s 50th anniversary. 

The justifiable furore about the creation of a new class of carbon-intensive digital commodities that erupted as the Bored Ape Yacht Club began its maritime takeover of the OpenSea may have been ineffectual thus far in affecting the biggest and most dangerous digital waste-machine, Bitcoin, but at least it is a conversation that is not going away. Some of the pressure to move to the drastically less profligate — though more centralized and less “trustless” — system of proof-of-stake does seem to be having an effect on the crypto discourse, though very little has yet been said about the entropic Death Star the metaverse would be for the planet. In the metaverse, everyone lives on Alderaan. The sheer scale of keeping a global system of ubiquitous, infinitely monetized VR running at even a minimal level would involve energy use that would shame even the US Defence Department, currently by itself commanding a carbon footprint comparable to that of Sweden (all of it). Just to keep the meta-lights on would be curtains for the climate. 

Ania Catherine and Dejha Ti, On View, 2019

The good news, of course, is that the metaverse in anything like the Zuckerbergian rendering doesn’t and perhaps cannot exist, not within the lifespan of almost anyone living now. Technology, as Eric Ravenscraft has noted, would have to advance a long, long way before anyone could hope to enjoy even passively some of the meta-treats that we’ve been promised.

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Habib William Kherbek is the writer of the novels Ecology of Secrets (2013), ULTRALIFE (2016), New Adventures (2020), and Best Practices (2021). His short story collection, Twenty Terrifying Tales from Our Technofeudal Tomorrow, was released in August 2021.

Ania Catherine and Dejha Ti are an LA- and Berlin-based experiential artist duo. Referred to as “the two critical contemporary voices on digital art’s international stages” (Clot) and an “LGBT power couple” (Flaunt), they create large-scale works with a signature poetic approach to technology. They have been recognized with the Lumen Prize, S+T+ARTS Prize, and ADC Awards.