The Week: metaverse slumlords, Grand Theft Auto, and dead villains
Ladies and gentlemen: the weekend
Welcome to this week’s free edition of The Terminal. If you’re not a subscriber and you’d like to be, hit the button below. I’d be ever so grateful.
New boss, same as the old boss
The New York Times had a piece this week about land speculators buying up tracts of territory in emerging metaverses, on the expectation of future profits:
In October, Tokens.com, a blockchain technology company focused on NFTs and metaverse real estate, acquired 50 percent of Metaverse Group, one of the world’s first virtual real estate companies, for about $1.7 million. Metaverse Group is based in Toronto but has virtual headquarters in a world called Decentraland in Crypto Valley, which is the metaverse’s answer to Silicon Valley. Decentraland also has districts for gambling, shopping, fashion and the arts.
“Rather than try to create a universe like Facebook, I said, ‘Why don’t we go in and buy the parcels of land in these metaverses, and then we can become the landlords?’” said Andrew Kiguel, a co-founder and the chief executive of Tokens.com.
“Why can’t we be the landlords?” strikes me as the motivating impulse of a lot of Web3 work in its nascency. For all the bluster about smashing up entrenched centres of internet power and returning the spoils to the empowered digital individual, there are a whole lot of prospective internet slumlords whose ultimate ambition is just installing themselves at the top of a new rentier hierarchy.
I’m actually a successful digital landlord myself. Earlier this year I bought two cells of land corresponding with my apartment building on Earth 2, another of these seemingly endless prospective metaverses, for about twenty dollars. It’s apparently appreciated in value by about five bucks. Great.
Out of touch
I’ve been playing the remaster of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City a little bit recently. The many problems with these remasters have been well publicised, and it’s very obvious they could have used a little more time in the oven, but they’re still a ton of fun. I can gladly confirm that mowing down beachgoers in a supercar based on a Lamborghini Countach while blaring Hall and Oates’ Out of Touch still possesses a certain, how do you say, je ne sais quoi.
But it also has me thinking. Vice City is an early example of nostalgic eighties revivalism in mass culture, which reached a fever pitch in the last decade. The game was originally released in 2002, and is set in 1986. If a similarly vintage-themed Grand Theft Auto game were released today, it would be set in 2005. It would be difficult to to create something that so totally captured an idealised and aestheticised spirit of the 2000s as Vice City did with the eighties, and it’s hard to imagine such a product being particularly appealing on those terms. Who would be the audience for that, really?
There’s a bit going on here. As has been pointed out over and over, the notion of being able to divide culture into legible decade-long blocks is now largely deprecated, even on the basis of intangible feeling. People in the eighties knew they were living in The Eighties — it was an epoch of excess and a reasonably monocultural aesthetic reified by pop culture. (It’s worth remembering that Vice City is not so much a tribute to the era but a more specific pastiche of the visual and narrative feel of Miami Vice, which now seems interchangeable.) There are plenty of cultural markers you can point to which capture the essence of the 2000s — fashion, technology, music, cinema — but they don’t really pull together into a truly coherent whole. Even media which studiously attempt to draw a line around that feeling, like the TV comedy Pen15, feel like a grab-bag of references and touchpoints rather than something distinct. The 2010s, when social media splintered the monoculture even more savagely, will be even harder to eulogise.
But an interesting counterpoint to this can also be found in the Grand Theft Auto franchise. The latest game in the series, Grand Theft Auto V, originally released in 2013, is getting its second re-release next year for modern consoles. This is because the game’s online multiplayer component is a phenomenal money printer for publisher Take-Two Interactive, and they want to keep that rolling.
The game is set contemporaneously, in a fictionalised representation of Southern California. But because it is now for all intents and purposes an eight-year-old game, it’s actually functions as a bizarre time capsule. Millions of players are regularly booting up an open-world simulation of Los Angeles in the early 2010s, and it actually feels extremely of that time and place. Check out the first trailer, which dropped in 2011, and you’ll see it all, including references to the financial crisis and the US home foreclosure wave:
Trolls on notice
Good bit from Cam Wilson in Crikey about the Australian government’s new ‘anti-troll’ legislation, which is really just a way of giving media organisations an exit route to wriggle their way out of a pernicious High Court ruling:
When Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Attorney-General Michaelia Cash announced a social media bill, they said it was about one thing: stopping online anonymous trolling.
“The government is going to take further steps to protect Australians and, in particular, young Australians online because that is what we all deserve,” Cash said.
More became clear on Wednesday. The Attorney-General’s Department released an exposure draft of the Social Media (Anti-Trolling) Bill, along with a commitment to establish an inquiry investigating online harms. What these show is that, beyond the spin, this law is primarily about cleaning up a messy High Court decision about defamation.
What I do find interesting is the broader sense that the government thinks there are concrete votes in manoeuvres against big tech, and that there’s political capital in dressing legislation up as efforts to hit US companies and the online trolls they enable. This is despite the fact, as the Sydney Morning Herald reports, this legislation really just confuses matters on that front.
A poll also published by the SMH found that “two-thirds of Australian adults back the idea of holding Facebook and other social media companies responsible for posts made on their platforms”.
But, as has been revealed time and time again, no one seems to have any coherent idea of what that actually means, how it should be implemented, or what the average person should get out of it.
I told myself I wouldn’t write about ConstitutionDAO again, but it keeps doing things which feel so entirely representative of where crypto is at that I simply cannot resist it.
So, the project failed, a hedge fund guy beat them to buy the Constitution, and the creators walked away. But the $PEOPLE tokens, which were originally envisioned as a means of managing the governance of the document, are still kicking around. Those who got refunds burned their tokens, but a lot of people didn’t get their refunds — often because the Ethereum gas fees were too high.
But, for whatever reason, people started to pump those tokens, and $PEOPLE quickly became the shitcoin du jour. This is from Coinmarketcap:
As you can see, it’s on the decline for now. But at that peak, they were worth $0.16 USD, and were doing hundreds of millions of dollars in trading volume per day. If I’d liquidated at that point, my small experimental contribution to the project would have been worth over two grand Australian. (Minus the gas fees necessary to actually convert that into fiat, which are currently high.)
I briefly skimmed the Telegram channel where token holders were trying to convince themselves (and possible investors) that this was a truly decentralised DAO with limitless potential. All bullshit obviously, but it’s always nice to behold a live bag-pumping operation.
Heroes and villains
Last week I shared a link to a story about how the mix of pop psychology and the demands of content maximalism had demystified and killed the villain. “Screenwriters are obsessed with providing damp-squib answers to questions that nobody was asking,” writes Dorian Lynskey.
Then, today, more information emerged about the Netflix Texas Chainsaw Massacre film which, like the recent Halloween sequels, disregards the past few decades of the franchise and operates as a direct followup to the first movie.
Tobe Hooper’s original movie is a genre masterpiece, with villain Leatherface (like Michael Myers in Halloween) being so successful largely because of his inscrutability. The film’s famous (and strangely beautiful!) final shot works on that basis. So here’s producer Fede Alvarez on the chainsaw-wielding psycho in the newly Netflix-ified sequel:
It’s basically the same character, who is still alive. Our take on it was this guy probably disappeared after everything he’s done. You know, how do you catch a guy who has a mask? Once he removes the mask and runs away, it’s very easy for him to hide somewhere. This story will pick it up many, many years after the original story. He’s been in hiding for a long, long time, trying to be a good person.
Say no more.
Good writeup on the intellectual strains of the new illiberal right. Great quote: “Conservative activists are always retro-futurists of a sort, imagining into being—from within the heady stew of modernity—a grisly simulacrum of the 'old world.' Stutter-step utopians, they move things forward by trying to move them back."
Further to the above, I wrote for subscribers about a new ‘crypto-citystate’ project that is trying to capture some of that reactionary energy.
Love a retro culture-jamming vibe: Hackers Are Spamming Businesses’ Receipt Printers With ‘Antiwork’ Manifestos.
This FT piece on the metaverse as a new Las Vegas was doing the rounds, and is good.
A great story on COBOL, the ancient programming language widely used in the world’s business, financial and administrative systems. Quote: “The second most valuable asset in the United States — after oil — is the 240 billion lines of COBOL.”
Extremely my shit: a long read on an eccentric monk who has built a scrap metal cathedral on the outskirts of Madrid.
Revisited this profile of Virgil Abloh after his death this week.