The Meta Lab is a new series of essays exploring the potentials and ramifications of emerging technology in society. In our first article, contributing writer Joyce Li examines the discussions surrounding the potential of the metaverse as a utopian vision.
TEXT: Joyce Li
IMAGES: Courtesy of various
Derived from the Ancient Greek prefix μετά, the word ‘meta’ has a meaning of succession and transformation, and denotes a higher nature, indicating a quest, or a pursuit, and a change of condition in place and time. In our present times, the digital realm is increasingly seen as a space for creation, instigation, and postulation. Through this series, we hope to capture this moment of change and transformation through varying perspectives from artists, scholars, and thought leaders in the field of science, technology, and philosophy. With the development of blockchain technology, NFTs, artificial intelligence, as well as the maturing of VR and AR technology, we are at a unique point in time where we are experiencing a digital renaissance, posing an opportunity for us to take part in shaping the future.
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, everyday life has become increasingly digitalised, from the way we interact with one another, to how we live, work, and play. With the emergence of the metaverse comes an opportunity for new creations: the creation of individuals, communities, and societies, as well as a potential for a utopian dream. And so we begin the series here, through the exploration of the potential of the metaverse as a utopian vision.
Humanity in a Virtual World
Ever since Neal Stephenson’s imaginary cyberspace was born, technology has been chasing the dream of this virtual world, of real time interaction in the digital space, a brand new world that transcends physical boundaries and geographical constraints, where we interact through the representations of ourselves using avatars. Second Life is commonly described as the first virtual world that preludes the metaverse. Launched in 2003, the multiplayer online game by Linden Lab enables social interaction through the use of avatars. “Residents” of Second Life can build, create, purchase, and trade virtual properties and services with other players.
In artist Cao Fei’s 2007 work i.Mirror, we experienced the mortal horrors of reality in Second Life through the eyes of avatar China Tracy. In the three-part machinima, we see a virtual world of excess, capitalistic consumerism, loneliness and companionship, and at the same time, fantasy, utopia, love, and diversity. Familiar questions and yearnings we face in our physical world are brought to life in the virtual world, questioning the role of an artificial utopia that is ultimately created by humans. Cao’s subsequent work, RMB City: A Second Life City Planning (2007) reimagines the future of China in an alternate realm. Through the appropriation and reinvention of existing buildings and objects, the artwork is imbued with a utopian vision that is dystopic at the same time.
RMB City was a live project and opened to the public in 2009. Not only was it a declaration of nationality, but it was also a monumental undertaking of the creation of a utopia. It had a running economy, including a governance system with a new mayor every three months, real estate opportunities, a manifesto, and hosted several events and projects until its closing in 2011. Fifteen years on, the questions prompted by RMB City are still valid and may be more relevant than ever as we pave our way to the future of the metaverse. Starting with a clean slate, we are faced with the opportunity to create social spaces, and spaces of work, leisure, and transaction in the digital realm. How this space will unfold remains to be seen.
The Metaverse in 2021
In 2021, we witnessed the mainstream adoption of NFTs and the metaverse following Facebook’s announcement of rebranding to Meta, promising the future of social media in the metaverse, where VR, AR and computer-generated 3D spaces will become the playing field for social interaction, collaboration, education and entertainment. While virtual worlds such as Meta’s Horizon Worlds and Microsoft’s AltspaceVR focuses on VR technology as an extension of reality to connect, creators-led platforms such as Sandbox and Decentraland are built on the distributed ledgers of blockchain and celebrates ownership, interoperability, and encapsulates the value of digital assets through the digital scarcity of NFTs. Virtual land and digital assets are traded as NFTs, token holders of the virtual platforms are also able to participate in governance of the platform through a Decentralised Autonomous Organisation (DAO) structure, denoting real ownerships of participation in the virtual world.
As we witness the exponential growth of technologies that form the basis of the future metaverse, there are contradicting views on its development, some related to questions around data sovereignty, privacy, and security; others on the ramifications of humanity. In a recent conversation with The New York Times, Jaron Lanier, often dubbed as the father of VR, shared his views on the metaverse as both an opportunity for us to have a deepened appreciation of reality, and at the same time the potential slippage into the “dark side”. He says, “The economic incentives in the economy are to exert more and more behavior modification control over people.” In Lanier’s 2017 book Dawn of the New Everything: Encounters with Reality and Virtual Reality, the data scientist had already warned us of the potentials of unconscious human manipulation in VR. He writes, “It’s clear that with good enough sensors, good enough computation, and good enough sensory feedback, a Skinner box could be implemented around a person in a waking state without that person’s realising it”. As Lanier stresses, one way of preventing the ‘Skinner’s paradigm’ is data dignity: “This is the alternate economic model for the internet that I and many others have been interested in… It’s called data dignity. The data has been the raw materials driving the largest companies. And there’s no particular reason why that data shouldn’t be paid for.” 
We are now at a unique crossroad where there is an opportunity to learn from the past and to take part in shaping the metaverse of the future. While some has proposed rules for the metaverse, others are leading by examples in the hopes that we are not only able to glimpse back at the optimism of the 80s when the concept of VR was synonymous with its potential for genuine human connection, but acquire a deepened appreciation of the world around us, and construct a society where values of democracy are upheld.
In The Hands of The Creators
From past urban studies we have learnt that human activities require defined public spaces, while humans co-create spaces, the design of these spaces also influence the characteristics and behaviour of the people. Henri Lefebvre contends in The Production of Space (1974) that all spaces are social, and can be seen as a reflection of social life based on the values and social production of meanings . Without the constraints of the physicality of space, there is common consensus that public space can also be “virtual” in nature.
“I believe that the metaverse is a blank canvas and the next frontier of human civilization. And it doesn’t matter if you’re an artist or a designer, anyone who creates can create for the metaverse and create objects and services that make others’ lives enriched. That actually brings forth some kind of value and I think that the aesthetics and the philosophy behind the metaverse should be about humanism,” says artist Krista Kim who founded the Techism Movement in 2014 and is known for the creation of the first NFT house on Superare. 
The advancement of digital technologies in the 90s and the widespread use of the internet and social media has enabled cultural output to be distributed to a wider audience, shaping the way we experience culture, identity and dynamic fields of economy. As the development of Web 3 advances, and the rise of the creator economy and NFTs, artists and designers now have a role in the co-creation of these virtual spaces.
Towards a Global Vision
While getting unanimous consensus on the future of the metaverse may be far-fetched, a global vision may not be too dissimilar to our current reality—where an economic order will tie together different virtual worlds—given that there is a common belief of the metaverse. The current development of blockchain technology reflects the potential of a society that is inherently different to that of the traditional hierarchical, centralised structures of institutions. This re-conceptualisation of authority also lends itself to an expansion of human consciousness on the utilisation of technology in a socially responsible manner.
The development of Web 3, including blockchain technology and NFTs are fundamental to the development of the metaverse ecosystem, and how they will be developed and regulated will also impact the utopian vision of an open interoperable global village. As the virtual and physical world merge, we have already seen institutional resistance. Crypto is banned not only in China but in Algeria, Bangladesh, Egypt, Iraq, Morocco, Qatar, and Tunisia. Around the world, 42 other countries have put forth restrictions, with other countries looking to regulate digital currency. The ban on crypto threatens the interoperability of existing blockchain-based metaverses.
As more people onboard virtual worlds, human behavior and virtual communities will become increasingly complex. Small communities will grow into larger, more complex groups, each with their own set of culture and values. Seemingly harmonious groups will become an illusion as they grow. As pointed out by Lanier, it is likely that there will be “a combination of some regulation mostly for extremes, some management of incentives, and some kind of a culture of guidance for decency” in the metaverse, yet we must not fall into the fallacy of setting up solutions for the future, but instead to “remove the worst incentives, try to make the future easier for the people in the future to work with, and trust them.” Through time we will begin to see different layers of society and a cultural milieu within the space. Instead of being seduced by utopian ideals, or discouraged by dystopian visions, it is important to consider both possibilities and dilemmas of the future metaverse, and to see them as guidance of ethics and morality.
 Lanier, 2017, Dawn of the New Everything: Encounters with Reality and Virtual Reality, Henry Holt and Co., New York
 Lefebvre, 1991, The Production of Space, Donald Nicholson-Smith trans., Oxford: Basil Blackwell. Originally published 1974
 Digital Art Fair, 2021, DAFA 2021 Art x Tech Dialogue “Metaverse and The Future of Art Collections”, Youtube
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