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Not Another Utopia

Issue 62 | March 2022

Sir Thomas More wrote the original 'Utopia' 500 years ago. In the book he imagined an island, somewhere in the New World, where life was very much more organised than it was in Tudor England.

On the plus side, More envisaged a socialist state with free hospitals and education. There was no private property. If you needed stuff, it was stored in warehouses and available freely as and when you needed it. There was religious tolerance. And the law was simple so that everyone could clearly understand the difference between right and wrong.

On the minus side, there was slavery. Sex was regarded as necessary to produce children but was otherwise frowned upon. And there were no taverns.

Utopia was 200 miles across with a circumference of 500 miles. In the middle of the island was Amaurot, the largest city.

The key words there are 'free', 'tolerance' and 'simple'.

Words that were bounced around liberally in the early days of the internet when it was seen not so much as utopian but as Utopia.

It was where democracy would be extended. Where powerful new communities would form to set others free.

Running through it and making revolution possible was the information superhighway.

Remember?

So many optimistic predictions.

"Just as a beehive functions as if it were a single sentient organism, so does an electronic hive made up of millions of buzzing personal computers." That was Kevin Kelly writing in 1996.

Technology was going to bring positive social change. Yippee.

On the plus side, it is said that all of human knowledge is now available on your mobile phone. Relationships have been liberated when you swipe right. And Covid has shown that the of constraints of time and space dissolve when you have Zoom.

On the minus side, well...there are plenty of dystopians out there. They talk about the manipulation of the truth and subverted elections. And of alienation, trolling and cybercrime.

I only mention this because we humans have a knack for forgetting history.

Karl Marx had a vision of a utopian economy. And we know how that turned out in Russia and in China under Mao.

Jim Jones had a vision of a religious Utopia, and that ended badly at Jonestown in Guyana when over 900 of his followers died, some murdered, others by suicide.

In its early days, Google was delightfully Utopian. Don't do anything evil. Free food. Ambitions to give sub-Saharan Africa free wi-fi from balloons in the stratosphere.

It was a privilege to work there.

But I've just Googled 'Google sucks' and got 1.9 trillion results in 0.49 seconds.

That tells you something.

And now we have the metaverse.

Here are some random grabs.

"The metaverse will inspire a bustling new economy at every level."

"Once the metaverse is executed, there will be new opportunities through advertising – a $1 trillion opportunity by expert estimates."

"Super exciting about the Metaverse is you can customise your avatar. Don't like your eyes? Your hair? Your age? You're in the driver's seat! Change your eyes, cut your hair."

My heart sinks.

Especially when I consider that Facebook has renamed itself Meta and Mark Zuckerberg is a shining-faced evangelist of it.

And why is it not remotely reassuring to read that Facebook has invested $50 million to "ensure the metaverse is built responsibly"?

Paradoxically, this mistrust could be the best thing to happen to the digital future.

The Facebook/Meta brand is so perjured, whatever the company tries to do next is going to be monitored very closely.

Those taking a close interest in the metaverse include regulators and law-makers.

They've been fed raw meat in the last few months by whistle-blower Frances Haugen.

She is the Facebook engineer who testified to both the US Senate and the UK House of Commons that her former bosses "put astronomical profits before people."

Nadine Dorries is determined that a safety-first mindset will prevail in the unfolding of Web 3.0 and the metaverse. She is the UK's Culture Secretary whose Online Safety Bill is being considered by Parliament. One of her proposals is that social media executives should be criminally liable for safety breaches.

In other words, Meta's Head of VR, Andrew Bosworth, could go to prison if sexual harassment in VR gaming, already a thing, is left unchecked.

We live in hope, eh?

Seriously, though, I for one am pleased that fences are going up across this brave new (virtual) world. Utopias don't work. Thomas More knew this. The word 'utopia' in ancient Greek means 'nowhere'. The metaverse deserves better than that.

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