A couple of weeks ago, I attended the CoMotion conference in downtown Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo neighborhood. It’s primarily a technology gathering, so it featured a now-predictable array of scooters, flying cars, grocery-delivering robots, takeout-delivery drones, and, most delightfully, internet-enabled miniature tractors. I’m not convinced that any of this heralds “bold new frontiers of the mobility revolution” quite the way the organizers would like it to. But the annual conference, and its doodads, have the distinct advantage of being real.
I can’t say the same for what’s going on a few blocks away.
At the same time I was attending CoMotion, news broke that Staples Center would be getting a new, $700 million replacement for its namesake office-supply store: Crypto.com Arena. Having carried the Staples name since its opening in the dark ages of 1999, Los Angeles’s signature indoor stadium—and a cornerstone of its downtown revitalization—is now trading brick-and-mortar for blockchain-and-cloud.
The analog era has officially come to an end, a couple decades shy of its 600th birthday.
Depending on whom you ask, cryptocurrency is either a foolproof investment, a Ponzi scheme, an eco disaster, the ultimate expression of personal liberty, or a great way to launder money. Though the blockchain technology on which cryptocurrency is based presumably obviates the need for intermediaries like banks or governments, Singapore-based Crytpo.com is itself an intermediary that facilitates cryptocurrency investments and transactions. Go figure.
Cryptocurrency is either a foolproof investment, a Ponzi scheme, an eco disaster, the ultimate expression of personal liberty, or a great way to launder money.
How lame is this deal? So lame that, at Crypto.com Arena, “3,300 square feet will become a dedicated Crypto.com ‘activation space’ featuring crypto-centric interactive experiences for sports or music fans.” This is a sentence that would have made little sense even a year ago. But here we are. If I read it correctly, you’re going to get to hang out with fake Taylor Swift and fake LeBron James and pay for the privilege with fake money. This is at a venue where they play actual sports and hold actual concerts. (I guess now we’ll call all other transactions “dollar-centric.”)
A recent New York Times headline declared, “Crypto Is Cool.” (It’s really not. Miles Davis is cool.) Be that as it may, with the naming rights, cryptocurrency thus moves from the geekiest, most invisible corners of the internet and into the urban fabric of Los Angeles.
However weird cryptocurrency may seem, what lies ahead promises to be even weirder. The Staples Center deal comes only a few weeks after another California institution, Facebook, announced its intention to create the “metaverse.” Just as cryptocurrency is money that takes place in cyberspace, the metaverse (Capital M? Lowercase m? Who knows …) is, basically, life that takes place in cyberspace. In Mark Zuckerberg’s imagination, every human will be able to work, socialize, and play in the offices, conference rooms, concert halls, and amusement parks of the metaverse (not to mention its brothels, drug dens, and militia group meetings). Presumably, Bitcoin, Ethereum, and even Doge would be accepted as tender, with “legality” being irrelevant.
“You can do anything you can imagine,” Zuckerberg promises. “You will experience the world with ever-greater richness.”
I am not looking forward to this.
I think we’ve progressed far enough as a society to recognize that almost every seemingly useful technology has downsides: Cars destroy the climate. Smartphones make us anxious. Flying cars will favor the wealthy. People will trip over grocery robots. So, I think it’s obvious that, however useful the metaverse may be for meetings with the sales team and maybe some new genre of theater (pornographic or otherwise), the metaverse is a mental health epidemic waiting to happen. The past two decades of life on screen have been anything but nurturing; what could possibly go wrong when the “screen” is all-encompassing? It’s going to be equal parts Zoom, 8th grade, NextDoor, 4Chan, and Fortnite—except a million times worse. But if history is any guide, Zuckerberg will find a way to make it seductive, or if he can’t, he will buy the company that does. If it’s coupled with schemes to amass and spend fake currency on fake things, the hedonic treadmill is going to end up on warp speed.
“Mostly [Zuckerberg] foresees us consuming content in ever more elaborately antisocial ways,” Amanda Hess put it chillingly in the New York Times. “And yet the aesthetics of the metaverse, with its ghastly translucent holograms, evoke the specter of death. Its schedule of activities reads like an advertisement for a virtual retirement community where isolated millennials can live out their final days, gazing at what Zuckerberg calls ’a view of whatever you find most beautiful’ as advertisers conceive of new ways to drill advertisements directly into their skulls.”
Those are just the direct downsides. What concerns me far more, though, than Zuckerberg’s pallor or the thought of tech bros falling overboard at virtual yacht parties, are the indirect downsides. The metaverse envisions an incorporeal environment where everyone can have a grand old time. But what about the real environment?
I don’t need to catalog the flaws of the real world. They are numerous, profound, and, for many people, tragic. Solutions require imagination, effort, consensus, compromise, and, of course, money. If even a few solutions came to bear in American cities, surely fewer people would want to decamp for cyberfantasies.
The trouble is, the more we entertain those fantasies, and the more time, energy, ingenuity, and capital (crypto and otherwise) go into creating them, the less time, energy, ingenuity, and capital we will have to invest in the real world. The spectacle of human suffering that the privileged world only barely notices today will become just another reason not to take off the VR headset. The promise of building a new world—especially of the type that thoughtful planners, architects, and engineers might envision—will give way to simulacra constrained only by screen resolutions and processing power.
The rise of the metaverse and the decline of the human environment threatens to become a vicious cycle. Our avatars will live in perpetual Ibizas and interminable Burning Mans while our real selves wallow in garbage, pollution, distrust, and regret.
It’s not unlike the insidious, albeit indirect, influence of skyscrapers on cities: the awe-inspiring view of a cornice hundreds of feet in the air distracts from the project of creating humane places at ground level.
In that sense, the metaverse is the invisible complement to the even more ridiculous vision of moving humanity to Mars. Capitalists would spend trillions to establish a homestead on a barren rock—and excite the masses with techno-utopianism (as if no one has seen The Martian or Total Recall)—while watching the rain forests burn. (Not coincidentally, both are supported by Elon Musk, who never seems content with developing useful technologies but rather wants to outdo himself with sociopathic, terraphobic fantasies.)
For now, the Lakers, Clippers, and Kings will still perform actual contests in front of actual fans in an actual physical location. For dozens of nights a year, for the foreseeable future, tens of thousands of Angelenos will continue to commune with each other and share in the human drama of life. That’s fun, right? They’ll do the same on a smaller scale in countless ways in cafes, stores, bars, theaters, sidewalks, and all the other third spaces where civic life takes place. And yet, now a civic institution has been repurposed to hasten its own demise. If Crytpo.com’s parent parent company gets its money’s worth, it will slowly drain the life out of not just Los Angeles, but every other corner of the world where the internet and its overlords have cast their web.
The real game is now afoot: Planners have only a few years to create places that will save humanity from itself. Cities need to get better—more attractive, more equitable, more diverse, more friendly, less polluted, etc.—for all the old reasons and, these days, many more. Now, cities aren’t just competing against the suburbs or other cities. They’re competing against forces that are ubiquitous, potentially addictive, infinitely wealthy—and that aspire to negate the very idea of cities. Those are forces that threaten to wipe out even the friendly robots with whom I was hanging out the other day: Who needs to pick up a date in an automated velocicopter when you can just don a VR contraption?
In all honesty, I don’t think everyone is going to succumb to the metaverse, and I don’t think the laws of economics are suspended for Bitcoin. But something weird is coming, and the Staples deal makes it unsettlingly real. When a company spends $700 million to create an “activation space,” we know we need to do something about real spaces. So, while planners should rightfully keep an eye out for automated cars and drone-able lunches, they should also keep track of the price of Bitcoin. The higher it flies, the more vital their work becomes.
Featured image via the Financial Times.