Billionaires See VR as a Way to Avoid Radical Social Change
Tech oligarchs are encouraging the creation of virtual worlds as a cheap way to avoid problems in the real one.
THE FUTURE OF virtual reality is far more than just video games. Silicon Valley sees the creation of virtual worlds as the ultimate free-market solution to a political problem. In a world of increasing wealth inequality, environmental disaster, and political instability, why not sell everyone a device that whisks them away to a virtual world free of pain and suffering?
Tech billionaires aren’t shy about sharing this. “Some people read this the wrong way and react incorrectly to it. The promise of VR is to make the world you wanted. It is not possible, on Earth, to give everyone all that they would want. Not everyone can have Richard Branson’s private island,” Doom co-creator and former CTO of Oculus John Carmack told Joe Rogan during a 2020 interview. “People react negatively to any talk of economics, but it is resource allocation. You have to make decisions about where things go. Economically, you can deliver a lot more value to a lot of people in the virtual sense.”
Virtual reality is an attractive escape, but it’s not a solution to the world’s ills. The problems of the real world will persist beyond the borders of the metaverse created by companies such as Epic, Valve, and Facebook. Without decisive and radical action, our planet will continue to burn, the gap between the rich and poor will grow, and totalitarian political movements will flourish. All while some of us are plugged into a virtual world.
Worse, the virtual world will be one owned and controlled by the companies that create them. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a Facebook-branded set of VR goggles strapped to an emaciated human face—forever.
By the principle of the free market Silicon Valley lives and dies by, virtual reality is a loser. Only 1.7 percent of Steam users have a VR headset, according to a December 2020 hardware survey. And while it’s true that sales of headsets are up during the pandemic, roughly 30 percent in 2020 over 2019, video game sales in general are up overall.