Updated: Jun 8
On October 28, 2021, CEO and founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, first announced the corporation’s rebrand. The social media company would now be called Meta, and Meta would henceforth focus on a new platform: the metaverse. The term metaverse is an amalgam of the Greek prefix meta, meaning beyond or transcending, and -verse, short for universe (López-Díez). The metaverse first appeared in the 1992 sci-fi novel Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. In his novel, Stephenson used the term as a synonym for Virtual Reality.
At its core, Virtual Reality or VR, is an immersive medium.
Immersion surrounds users and submerges them in a new reality or fictional world. Immersion is not new in Western media. Novels have long captured reader’s imagination, Trompe l'oeil paintings have since fooled the eye, and films have had a detailed history of transporting spectators to vast and incredible worlds. In many ways, immersion has been the ultimate aspiration of media’s innovation, and from novels to paintings to films, media has slowly approached this goal (Kim). VR promises to finally realize true immersion. It promises a sort of sensuousness and embodiment so exhaustive that what is actually mediated will feel real.
Meta’s metaverse is predicated on the two core tenants of immersion, as I’ve already discussed, and interoperability. Interoperability refers to a sense of continuity across various platforms, applications, and services. Through interoperability, one account or avatar can access a variety of experiences seamlessly. Zuckerberg sees the metaverse as an “embodied internet” and he envisions it as a space for gaming, work, exercise, communication, shopping, and a whole lot more. The metaverse for Zuckerberg would foster more meaningful social interaction, increased productivity, and an enriched, expanding economy.
While Zuckerberg’s vision for the metaverse sounds enticing and innovative, it is also worrisome.
For the sake of concision, I raise three main concerns.
1. Data Collection
Facebook’s business model depends on data extraction and advertising. As the age-old adage goes, if it’s free, then you’re the product. Facebook collects user’s data (interests, browsing habits, and other personal information) to sell to private interests and to micro-target advertising. Because VR requires extensive and detailed in-put such as tracking the user's physical surroundings, VR media like Meta’s metaverse allows for much more profound data collection. This pervasive data extraction rouses a variety of privacy and security concerns (Di Pietro).
2. Selling Eyeballs
Similarly, Facebook’s business model demands users to constantly engage with content. The longer a user consumes content, the more fruitful an opportunity Facebook has to expose users to advertisements and to collect data to sell. This paradigm motivates the corporation to prolong user engagement. What is the significance of “selling eyeballs” in a truly immersive space? How might corporations manipulate immersion to promote prolonged consumption?
3. Critical Thinking
Lastly, immersion often threatens critical thinking. During the advent of popular movies, German theorist Siegfried Kracauer warned of the pacification encouraged by immersion. And in a similar fashion, the French philosopher Guy Debord once explained how cinema’s immersion compromised “the criticality of the viewing subject.” In essence, immersion encourages passivity (Elwes). VR enables a far more profound form of immersion and in this sense, it increasingly promotes passive viewership and troubles critical thinking.
Ultimately, the metaverse poses a variety of concerns and it inspires various questions… What does it mean to have a corporation creating this space? Whose interests will be the priority? And lastly, how might users critically engage with VR?
A German playwright from the early twentieth century inspires an effective answer to my final question.
Nearly a century before Zuckerberg announced Facebook’s rebrand, the German playwright and theorist Bertolt Brecht articulated a new, reactionary canon of theater: Epic Theater. Epic Theater emerged in response to the conventional form of dramatic theater. Brecht believed dramatic theater to be too illusory and pacifying. It drew the audience in and dulled their critical capacities. In a word, dramatic theater was too immersive for Brecht.
Inspired by Karl Marx, Brecht wanted his theater to be didactic. Unlike dramatic theater, he did not want to render his audience passive, instead the German playwright wanted to move his audience to critique not only the musical in front of them, but the world around them as well. Brecht wanted his theater to not only explain the world, but change it.
To do so, Brecht developed a theatrical device he called verfremdungseffekt or the estrangement effect in English. Verfremdungseffekt creates a sense of distance between the play’s content and the audience. It estranges the audience and counteracts the mechanics of immersion (Brecht).
Verfremdungseffekt takes on many forms in Epic Theater. It takes the form of an actor playing more than one character. It looks like the bizarre, uncanny personas produced by the Brechtian technique of gestus. It takes the form of actor’s breaking the fourth wall and talking to the audience. All in all, verfremdungseffekt seeks to expose theater’s construction. It reminds the audience that what they are watching is indeed a play.
Brecht desired to literally draw back the curtain on his musicals.
By estranging the audience and inhibiting immersion, Brecht’s Epic Theater is empowering. It encourages the audience to actively and critically engage with the content before them and it emphasizes media’s inherent construction. I argue that by applying the principles of Epic Theater to the VR and the metaverse, media-producers can better equip their audiences with critical thinking.
Brecht, Bertolt, and Edith Anderson. “Theatre for Learning.” The Tulane Drama Review, vol. 6, no. 1, 1961, pp. 18–25.
Di Pietro, Roberto and Stefano Cresci. “‘Metaverse’ Security and Privacy Issues.” The Third IEEE International Conference on Trust, Privacy and Security in Intelligent Systems, and Applications, December 2021.
Elwes Catherine. “The Dialectics of Spectatorship.” Installation and the Moving Image, 2015.
Kim, John W., "Rupture of the Virtual" (2016).