What’s a Meta For? — part one
Big Tech’s Search for the Ultimate Escape Hatch

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Medium on 19 November 2022

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Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg may one day be remembered less for his social network or his Oculus virtual reality platform than his introduction of the term “meta” into popular awareness. With two parts desperation over a declining subscriber base and one part hope that he could breathe new life into his dying business model, Zuck announced he would be dedicating his time — and the company’s capital — into the supposed next generation of digital life. Facebook became a holding company called Meta.

The notion of going “meta” has been around a long time — at least since the first play-within-a-play in Elizabethan theater. But where meta-theater tends to make audiences more aware of the artifice of the play, Zuckerberg’s Meta is intended to do the opposite: to fully immerse the user in an alternate, digital reality. For in its new incarnation, meta has less to do with dramatic irony than a hunger for transcendence, escape, and dominion that characterizes Silicon Valley titans from Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos to Peter Thiel and Elon Musk. (See my new book, Survival of Richest if you want to laugh at how preposterous yet common this “mindset” has become.)

Embracing a mishmosh of undefined virtual reality and blockchain technologies for the even less defined Web3, Zuckerberg intends Meta to “level up” the internet, and reframe everything we currently think of as digital technology. The same way TV could be thought of as going meta on movies, Netflix could be seen as going meta on TV, or aggregation platforms like Facebook went meta on individual websites, Meta is intended to just go meta on everything. It’s one big map that replaces the many territories. By staking such a claim, Zuckerberg does us all a great favor. He may not be able to build such a thing, but he is revealing the faulty foundations of the Silicon Valley Mindset, which is to transcend whatever problems we may be facing by rising above the real world and escaping to the next one: going meta.

Like salvation to a Christian, enlightenment to a Buddhist, or the IPO to a venture capitalist, “going meta” and operating at least one level above the mere mortals down here on terra firma has become the ultimate goal of any self-respecting tech titan. Conditions on the ground, if they’re even acknowledged, are mere externalities to the greater mission to venture beyond our world and to the next one.

To Jeff Bezos, the planet on which the rest of us must live is simply the solid surface against which his Blue Origin craft can push against as it journeys upward to the heavens, just as his employees and customers provide the earthly fuel and funding for him to reach escape velocity. He proved he could amass enough capital by “going meta” on online retail and aggregating everyone else’s businesses into one big “platform of platforms,” as the chief evangelist of his company’s cloud service once called it, to achieve, himself, what Americans could achieve collectively over 60 years ago.

For Peter Thiel, founder of Paypal and Palantir, going meta means exponentialism or, as he puts it in the title of his business book, rising from Zero to One. Adapting his Stanford philosophy professor Renee Girard’s theories of mimicry, scapegoating, and Christian ascension to the business world, Thiel argues that the successful builder of the future must operate at least 10x or “one order of magnitude” above the competition. “Competition is for losers,” Thiel famously quipped. One must “level up” instead. It’s akin to the digital business phenomenon tech publisher Tim O’Reilly called Web 2.0, where developing applications isn’t enough for internet companies: they must think of their products as platforms on which other companies’ applications can run. Only then are they in a position to commodify everything one order of magnitude beneath themselves.

With examples like this, it’s no wonder that everyone wants to go meta. But there’s also something about this moment in history that motivates the quest for a new sort of escape hatch. The ongoing pandemic, political violence, fear of our own neighbors, and catastrophic thinking all combine to make our lives more isolated and digitally dependent. There has been a shift, an increase in both real world threats and virtual opportunities, encouraging us to experience as much reality as possible through the safety of our smartphone screens. From a safe remove, we can control the chaos of incoming symbols through internalized binary switches: friend/foe, like/block, woke/maga. The further we can reduce the real world to bits, the more easily we can “swipe left”, and the more we are enabled to escape the complicated mess of reality and go meta, ourselves.

Besides, in a media environment where digital symbols dictate activity in the physical world, reality doesn’t stand a chance.

Derivative financial instruments and ultra-fast trading so completely dominate the stock market that the New York Stock Exchange was actually purchased by its derivatives exchange in 2013. So the stock market, which was already an abstraction of the human marketplace, was consumed by its own abstraction. Or consider Bitcoin, the crypto funeral pyre through which we prove our devotion to a coin by burning what is left of the planet’s limited energy store. We don’t do this “proof of work” to accomplish or serve any function other than to prove we have done it. It is quite literally the process through which we convert atoms to bits, reality to its meta-stasizing counterpart.

What distinguishes such efforts from their real-world analogs is their utter disconnection from the ground and disregard for whoever is living back there on it. In Zuckerberg’s demo of Meta, virtual people float around with nothing from the waist down. (Legs are coming next year.) It’s paradise for anyone who doesn’t want to deal with the soil, friction, or genitals — not to mention the tent villages of homeless people on the edge of Facebook’s corporate campus. Like transhumanist Ray Kurzweil uploading his brain to Google’s processors, or tech investor Sam Altman migrating his consciousness to an AI cloud, the dream is to transcend the chrysalis of matter and metamorphose from nature to the technosphere.

The implications may be more profound — and hazardous — than ditching one’s vinyl Beatles albums for a Spotify account.

First off, unlike an old record collection, the natural environment and human condition can’t simply be relegated to a dumpster. Yet the exponentialists have cherry picked from another half-baked philosophy, effective altruism, to justify exactly that. As best I can cobble it together from Elon Musk and others’ tweets, as well as the writings of philosophers Nick Bostrom and William MacAskill from which they are cribbed, we can eschew the on-the-ground reality of today’s eight billion or so humans for the benefit of the future trillions of humans and human-based AIs who will spread throughout the galaxy once SpaceX develops a decent warp drive. The ends justify the means, especially when the ends are meta.