Even Walmart Is Worse in the Metaverse

I prefer real life to whatever this will be

Italy, Woman withVRgoggles sitting on wall in city
Eugenio Marongiu/Image Source/Getty Images
Kate Wagner
No Thanks

This morning, a video was posted on Twitter by some guy named "Homo Digitalis" titled "This is How Walmart Envisions Shopping in the #Metaverse." I'll let you watch it for yourself:

In the video, you, the disembodied shopper, push a cart through aisles of poorly rendered consumer goods. A white, attractive and chipper virtual assistant (because service labor is feminized even in the utopia of the Metaverse) offers you a wine pairing to go with what appears to be watermelon. Your glowing hand clumsily drags the bottle into the cart, staggering a bit as it does so. Lag. A shopping list appears before your eyes, crowding your field of vision with a slurry of information. Once the item is in your cart, the shelves sink into the ground and you are left with a gray, eerie, foggy expanse as the next shopping scene emerges — a vast nothing, unsettling as it is vacuous. Cue mechanical sounds as shelves fully stocked with items rise around you once more, slowly and clumsily animated. For all its futurism, a lot of the "Metaverse" seems like a reversion to a clunky skeuomorphism we thought we left behind with the iPhone 8.

The viewer goes through various scenes like this, each lauding the conveniences of proposed Metaverse commerce. In one, the assistant informs you that your smart refrigerator has somehow called Walmart to tell you don't need milk after all, there's a gallon in the fridge. In another, you're informed that your car is waiting in the garage, your oil change is finished. When you finally get to the end of your list — which includes a TV that will be brought to your car by drone — you pay online and exit the store. Wait —— are you even in the store?

Perhaps the most unsettling thing about the Walmart video is that one is not sure where, physically the viewer is doing their Metaverse shopping. At first I assumed this ordeal took place at home, the shopper sitting alone in a dark room, connected by all kinds of wires to a virtual reality headset. But then came the bit about your car being in the Oil and Lube shop around the back, the bit about the TV being delivered via drone. No, there can only be one conclusion: The viewer has driven to Walmart and instead of simply doing their shopping in the real world, has been hooked up to a Metaverse VR station located, I don't know, maybe somewhere near customer service. If you think this is beyond stupid, congratulations — you are a well-adjusted member of society.

This touches on perhaps the core of the so-called Metaverse proposal: that even boring things like meetings are exciting by virtue of being there. Tech companies like Meta (aka Facebook) literally believe this shitty, poorly animated, barely spatialized reality is better than real life, some kind of improvement on the grubbly real world. It is not, which is why it sells itself via ads that are deterritorialized, deliberately ambiguous about what is real and what is online — it needs this blurry distinction to look sexy, to make it seem like the future, an alternative and credible space, to blur the truth which is that you're wearing a headset shopping at Walmart.

Hence, the Walmart scenario is presented as an augmentation to a quotidian task operating in the real world, or so I initially thought. But there is a possibility even more depressing than “sitting in a Walmart wearing a headset.” What if I don't actually have a car in the Oil and Lube Shop because I really am at home in a dark room hooked up to wires? The car is my Metaverse car, the TV is my Metaverse TV, the milk is my Metaverse milk, all paid for in real money of course. Do I drive back to my shitty Metaverse apartment that I rent from my Metaverse landlord because we've already financialized real estate in the Metaverse which means I'm probably priced out of homebuying there too?

The Walmart video isn't the only one that leaves us questioning which "reality" we're operating in. Take this example from H&M:

Clothes shopping is a highly social and tactile experience, which is perhaps why online commerce didn't kill retail entirely. We want to browse, we want to touch, we want to try on. We are reminded constantly — for better or for worse — of the physicality of our bodies. Like the Walmart example, what's unclear about the H&M video — which somehow has even worse, gaudier, uglier architecture than an irl H&M — is whether these clothes are for ourselves, in the real world, or for our avatars, which, I suppose could become idealized versions of ourselves. After all, they've got to lure us into this bullshit somehow.

As an architecture critic, I find this particular video even funnier than the Walmart one because all the viewer does is walk in and look at a 2005-esque rendering of a store. There's no experience here — you're not even shopping, there's no concept for trying things on, it's literally just vaporware for something that maybe could be further developed if enough hedge fund idiots invest in it. Buying things can be a very satisfying experience, and this video couldn't even recreate or stimulate the basic covetous instincts of virtual commerce.

Promotional materials for the Metaverse are littered with these kinds of undermined realities. A good example is the beyond insipid ad for Meta wherein teenagers start vibing to a painting by Henri Rousseau, which of course isn't good enough until it starts moving around in squiggle-vision like keys being jingled in front of a baby:

In viewing an advertisement like this, we must remind ourselves constantly that the Metaverse is a virtual space whose access requires virtual reality equipment (conveniently also manufactured by Facebook). When we remember this inconvenient truth, the ad takes on a surreal quality — are these children actually in a museum? Or are they actually all hooked up to machines in their bedrooms? Is this supposed to augment Rousseau or replace the museum itself? This ambiguity is intentional. These companies rely on you not asking too many questions of the system requirements for our new, more fun social order.

This presentation of friends hanging out, arguably "in real life," is part of a broader campaign tech companies are waging, which is that the Metaverse is some kind of more physical social network, some kind of fun collective experience, when in reality, it is vehemently and at its very core antisocial. Meta almost admits this themselves in their ad for its Quest virtual reality headset which, I must add, is supposed to be funny:

In the ad, two friends get together in the Metaverse not knowing that they are neighbors — they fight and game and knock things about, having fun in the virtual world but in the real world — they scream at each other through the wall, keep it down. Inadvertently, this ad undermines all of the slick key jangling of the others — in it, our actors resent each other and the social fabric of real life because it interferes with getting their online virtual fix. Virtual connections are prized over the real social bonds of cohabitation, which are presented as an inconvenience.

This raises an essential question: what then, is the purpose of trying to sell us virtual reality? Perhaps, like NFTs, it's a cynical cash grab, attracting big money from investors who think that the next big thing in tech is automatically, unquestioningly credible. But what if there's something even darker at work, which is that the real world will become so uninhabitable, so wracked by disease and climate change that the Metaverse will become the only alternative solution — and even then, what are we doing with it? Going to Walmart? Is this a paucity of the imagination, or rather an early attempt at inuring us into thinking this janky contraption can give us some kind of normalcy as everything falls apart?

There have been many comparisons of virtual reality to science fiction, but the one the Metaverse reminds me the most of isn't Tron or Ready Player One, or even the eponymous term for a corporatized reality coined by Neal Stephenson. It's Philip K. Dick's 1965 novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. In this novel, the Earth has become so hot that one can't live without special suits, and in the interest of preserving the human race, the UN forces a certain quota of human beings to colonize nearby planets. This reality is so grim, so destitute, so barren, that in order to escape from it, the colonists take illegal hallucinogens and play with Perky Pat, a kind of Barbie-like doll, engaging in socio-religious fantasies of pleasant consumerism. The corporation behind Perky Pat — much like Facebook knowing that, for example, they have abetted genocide — knows that their product is not being used in the way that's most ideal, and yet they embrace this anyway and provide special playsets meant to augment the drug-fueled escapism.

We are fortunate at this current moment in history that our Earth, though rapidly warming before our eyes, is not yet the uninhabitable place found in Dick's novel. There is still a world worth fighting for, and this is worth insisting adamantly and repeatedly as more and more of this bullshit gets served to us as some kind of paradise or escape from problems that can still, albeit with tremendous political struggle, be solved. The more I see from the Metaverse, the more I want to scream, "I live in the real world and I will die in it." I will not be coerced or persuaded by fake H&Ms and being a size two in the land of ones and zeros. I will not be seduced by maybe owning a digital house just because I've given up on buying a real one.

Most urgently, and contrary to what cynical tech bandits believe of me, I like to live in the real world, where I can touch things, where I can smell and taste things, where I can feel the airy envelopment of a cathedral, where I can walk and travel and be with others. There is nothing in the Metaverse that can compete with waking up on a foggy morning in Ljubljana, nothing that can replicate the feeling of a warm bath after a long day sitting at a desk, nothing that can replace watching a basketball game with friends in a bar that smells like old curtains, nothing that makes me look at a preternaturally warm January and think, I give up — I give it all up.

Kate Wagner is a critic and journalist. She is the creator of the blog McMansion Hell and has served as a columnist at Curbed, The Baffler, and the New Republic. In addition to architecture, Wagner covers professional cycling as a correspondent for a variety of publications.