The Metaverse and the Ethics of Digital Colonialism

The New World's shores beckon with untold riches. We bring smallpox and glass beads.

AI-generated artwork of colonial ships reaching shore, a native inhabitant watches them from a sand dune.

I don't have time to write longer-form pieces, so I will try shorter-form writing that drives a point home succinctly-ish and assertively-ish. Some of this is the bane of SEO best practices, but the truth about those best practices is that they don't lend themselves to generating new or unique thoughts in any way whatsoever. It's easily arguable I have never tried to write anything of my own to rank high on search engines. I have to accept this trade-off to make a point and not repeat what others have said elsewhere.


Who owns the metaverse?

I heard someone say something interesting once:

We stole this land from the natives, so why do I have to pay a mortgage?

That's a great question! You pay a mortgage because, under capitalism, private property rights exist. At some point, however, private property did not exist, and "public good" was the default state. No real "owners" of property existed, as no organization could enforce rules that defined property.

The laundering of public goods into private goods is known as primitive accumulation. The initial act of claiming a right to ownership and enforcing that right is why the sayer of the quote above has to pay a mortgage – someone got to the land before them, and subsequently, they own the land. The mortgage isn't a sign of actual ownership. The mortgage is a sign of a rental agreement, not in the typical sense of a rental agreement, but a rental agreement nonetheless. Play by the rules, and we will let you have your home.

Currently, several tech companies are building a new digital continent to exploit to enjoy these very profitable rental agreements in a new land they've reached first – let's be cheeky and call this "digital accumulation." They're now looking for people to stuff on ships and send to this new frontier.

Digital accumulation and selling shovels

This period of digital accumulation is composed of several steps, much like primitive accumulation.

The first is to hype up the new continent. The streets are all paved with gold (even though there are no streets yet). This is the Digital New World, free of the political and cultural baggage of the Physical Old World, where you can finally "be yourself" – whatever that means. Luckily, it's an ambiguous enough promise that sets a bar so high you must get in on it now!

Colonizers of this new continent must be enticed to hop on the boat and travel the Digital Ocean to the Digital New World. They must be encouraged to buy Digital Shovels so that when they are in the Digital New World, they can dig for Digital Gold – someone has to pave these Digital Streets, after all.

The Digital Boat Tickets and Digital Shovels come in the form of costly headsets and other devices (and that all happens here in the Physical Old World with gross and dirty Physical Old World Money, oddly enough).

Who gets to colonize the metaverse?

Currently, the Meta Quest Pro starts at a retail price of 1,499.99 USD. Let's take a shortcut and say that this is the Digital Boat Ticket and the Digital Shovel price rolled into one – it's very likely there will be several more costs along the way by the time this adventure is done, but this is a good baseline to work from.

Who can buy this device?

Back here in the Physical Old World, the most likely candidates of ownership for something with this kind of price tag are those who benefited most from the period of primitive accumulation during the colonialism of the 1500s onward. This is probably you – someone living in a wealthy Global North Euro- or Ameri-centric state. You might not feel like it, but you are a direct beneficiary of that original primitive accumulation. The wealth your country has accumulated comes directly from that initial capture of the public into the private and the subsequent enforcement of that material philosophy. Any wealth you have is simply on loan from the organization that owns it – such as the nation-state you live within.

Do you know who cannot afford the Digital Boat Ticket? Those in the Physical Old World who exist in areas left impoverished by the original colonialism and the original period of primitive accumulation. This is a purchasing power problem made very clear by the vast wealth and income disparities between these two groups.

So that is one... ironic? aspect of this whole series of events. The colonialism keeps on colonializing.

A further "irony" is that the labor of some of these people went into the sourcing of materials and components for the Digital Boat Ticket. The lithium mine that was on native land and captured by child soldiers, and which has children currently working within it? The Foxconn workers committing suicide by jumping from factory windows? That all goes into the price of the ticket: 1,499.99 USD.

I feel like I must be using the word irony wrong here. None of this seems all that funny.

Digital boats and physical Dramamine

I've been bearish on virtual reality headsets for as long as they've been pumping them out, from the Virtual Boy and on to today's car-downpayment-headset presented to us by Meta (formerly Facebook). We are physical creatures, and there exists no easy way to get us to strap on a VR headset and not feel sick.

This happens for a similar reason as to why people get seasick. In the case of seasickness, your inner ear detects motion as the waves move your boat up and down and sideways, but your visual senses are not matching what the inner ear is feeling. Indoors, you see a static room, unmoving, but your inner ear is saying you should be seeing things sloshing around. Or you see the deck you are on as stationary while still feeling movement. Your body sends stress hormones out from the confusion, creating physical anxiety. This anxiety results in you feeling sick.

The situation is reversed with virtual reality headsets, but the results are the same. Your inner ear detects no motion, but your visual senses do. Again, this mismatch between the senses creates stress hormones, causing anxiety, sickness, and discomfort.

However, you can become acclimatized to the situation. If you spend enough time on a boat, your body eventually says, "Well, I guess this is just how things are now." You will stop feeling sick over time...

...until you step off the boat and onto dry land again, where, now accustomed to a mismatch between its senses, your body again recoils in horror at a new mismatch. You might find yourself stumbling around as you have grown used to shifting your stance to the boat's rocking motion. You might even throw up, as your inner ear now matches your visual senses – something your body had forgotten about. It's seasickness all over again but in reverse.

The issue here, of course, is that entering and spending any time on these Digital Shores means that your physical body will grow accustomed to Digital Sickness. Once used to this system, the Physical World will be the anxiety-producing state. Digital Colonization will likely come at the cost of an eventual abandonment of the Physical Old World, as the old would create anxiety, and the digital would not.

The success of the metaverse

I don't think humans will dive into this in the way it has been hyped. I know no one personally who owns a headset that isn't paid to own a headset. As I said, I've been bearish on VR for a long time, and I think we have hit the limit of the digital fiction we have been selling.

But I have been wrong before. Maybe this will take off and become the Next Big Thing. In that situation, the above concerns will be quite valid. I don't think those creating this new Digital Continent and selling the Digital Shovels have thought this through completely. The ethics remain questionable.