Chicken or egg? Will the metaverse become a dystopian nightmare as imagined by science fiction books and films, or does our culture of dystopic sci-fi become a self-fulfilling prophecy?
Movies, books, games and TV shows have a dual relationship with society: they are born out of a social context, but they can also influence society in return.
And when it comes to technological innovation, science fiction occupies a central role, so much that it has been defined as a “form of modern-day mythology” which significantly impacts how people think about and envision the future.
“Narratives are shaped by the world, as much as the world is shaped by narratives,” says Martina Mendola, a PhD in Contemporary Literature from Trinity College Dublin.
She examines recent media coverage of the metaverse in a post on Medium, writing that Second Life, The Matrix, and Snow Crash “are the main (if not the sole) cultural sources to build a common understanding of the metaverse.
“These are sources not only in the sense of being used as references, but they appear to be mental models of a world,” she says, “that has already begun being constructed, imagined and experienced through games, novels and movies.”
Right now, she believes, the metaverse is composed 50% of technology and 50% of storytelling.
That sci-fi extrapolates from the present to depict a mirror of ourselves in the future is of course its very essence. “The danger,” Mendola says, “is to be trapped into an ineluctable view of the metaverse that is dystopian by design.”
Movies, games and novels alone cannot create behaviors, she acknowledges, but given enough time and exposure, “they can give birth to irrational fears and desires: beyond being escapist entertainment, they raise ethical, political and existential questions about the new technological world that become deeply entrenched into one’s worldview.”
The history of the sci-fi genre has mirrored the prevailing view of technology at the time. When technology arose to become a driving force for society change in the 17th century it was closely connected to the idea of progress.
Francis Bacon’s novel New Atlantis (1626), for example, presents a utopian community driven by scientists whose discoveries and inventions bring prosperity and happiness.
A century later, the industrial revolution revealed the social toll of the myth of progress and the failing utopia of the age of machines. Novels such as Frankenstein (1818), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), The Time Machine (1895) and The War of Worlds (1898) captured this embryonal fear that when the dark side of humanity met the dark side of technology, catastrophe would ensue.
The first World War brought powerful anti-science fictions in the form of novels and movies like Metropolis (1926) and Brave New World (1932) that explored the dangers of a blind technological progress.
Works such as Orwell’s 1984 (1949) and Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1964) expressed the “technophobic fear of losing our human identity, our freedom, our values and our lives to machines.”
These ideas solidified with the arrival of the internet. William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) presaged a “frightening near-future tales of cyberspace cowboys, weaponized cyborgs, underground genetic surgeons, and evil multinational corporations struck a deep cultural chord.”
Graphic novel Watchmen (1987) found human flaws in superheroes, not least threatening to use the atomic power of the bomb to wipe out humanity.
Cyberpunk grew to become one of the most powerful subcultures of the 1990s, writes Mendola. “In these dystopian views, the human body is turned into an interface, and the computers become the new brains, so that humans get trapped and manipulated in an inescapable technological cage, exemplified by The Matrix (1999).”
The academic wants to us to “critically interrogate the cyberspace mythology,” informing our views of the metaverse “to understand how we can use it to consciously design our futures, while simultaneously “loosen the powerful grip of myths of the future on the present.”
Tech utopia is still present. It’s “rooted in the Silicon Valley culture of progress, disruption and innovation at all costs.”
The metaverse may be a wild frontier, but here at NAB Amplify we’ve got you covered! Hand-selected from our archives, here are some of the essential insights you’ll need to expand your knowledge base and confidently explore the new horizons ahead:
- What Is the Metaverse and Why Should You Care?
- Avatar to Web3: An A-Z Compendium of the Metaverse
- The Metaverse is Coming To Get You. Is That a Bad Thing?
- Don’t Expect the Metaverse to Happen Overnight
- A Framework for the Metaverse from Hardware to Hollywood and Everything in Between
If there is a danger in having big tech companies shaping their visions of the Metaverse, she argues, “there is also the danger of having science fiction informing our collective visions of what the Metaverse will be like.”
Mendola looks to author Margaret Atwood for an answer. Atwood has said she prefers the definition of speculative fiction, rather than dystopia.
“Her strategy is to push actual scenarios to their fictional extremes, to portray what could have happened. The it is what makes Atwood call her novels ustopias, a mix between dystopias and utopias: because despite the worst premises, the worst remained constrained to fiction.
According to Atwood, every narrative has both utopian and dystopian elements within it, if we look closely enough.
Inspired by this, Mendola says we should all take sci-fi with a pinch of salt (as if we don’t anyway).
“We should… critically interrogate the material, instead of letting it dictate how we envision a future against which we evaluate present technology and its direction.”