Rittenhouse in the Zuckerverse

virtual reality gun
Photo by Emanuele Cremaschi/Getty
Baratunde Thurston
December 2, 2021

One of the most rewarding aspects of my work at Puck has been receiving feedback from our engaged community of subscribers. This week, in the wake of the Rittenhouse verdict, the dawn of Meta, and yet another school shooting, I’m opening my notebook to respond to some of the most urgent emails from readers. If you have critiques, additions, or further questions, write me back at baratunde@puck.news. My inbox is always open.

In the wake of his not guilty verdict, Kyle Rittenhouse has been turned into a hero on the right: he appeared on Tucker Carlson, was endorsed by members of congress, and will be the subject of a documentary. How have you interpreted and internalized the Rittenhouse trial?

To be honest, I didn’t internalize the Rittenhouse trial. I can’t give my energy to every tragic failure of American society. I can’t ingest and process all the racialized trauma this country serves up, just like none of us can give equal attention and empathy to every school shooting. It’s sad but true. I did, however, read up on the trial after it was over and listened to some quality analysis, which helped me to update my own understanding of what went down in Kenosha—primarily that this was a story of white people fighting white people in the streets at a protest over police killing a Black man. I didn’t see that coming! Here are a few other thoughts:

First, the right needs better heroes. They worship that sad white couple who brandished guns at a protest that wasn’t concerned with them. They made “Let’s Go Brandon” a rallying cry as a new way to say “Fuck Joe Biden,” which is just immaturity atop immaturity. Millions of them are listening to the MyPillow guy. Others are so enamored of The Lost Cause, of sovereign citizenship and the valorization of extrajudicial violence that I was not surprised when they rallied behind a man-child who helped create a dangerous situation and then used that legal pretext to kill people. For a deeper and better analysis of the militia culture on the far right, read my colleague Tina Nguyen’s article about the G.O.P. becoming the party of Rittenhouse.

Second, Wisconsin needs better gun laws and probably better prosecutors. The fact that Rittenhouse escaped responsibility in part due to the length of his rifle just feels like bad legislation (or perhaps legislation corrupted by effective and well-funded lobbying). Acknowledging the experience and effectiveness of Rittenhouse’s defense team (he performed very well on the stand) doesn’t negate the fact that the prosecution couldn’t even load the multimedia evidence effectively. It was embarrassing.

Third and last, we have to decide if we really want to live in a society in which everyone we encounter is potentially, legally, carrying a firearm. Rittenhouse goes to Kenosha to help defend some building and decides to grab a gun. A medic goes to a rally and decides to grab a gun. They meet, guns drawn; one has his arm nearly blown off. Another two assailants, both unarmed, are shot and killed. We already have grotesque levels of gun violence in this country. And we will only have more when any argument can plausibly escalate to an armed conflict. When I leave for my morning walk, is my new exit protocol going to be, “phone, wallet, keys… glock?” That’s so broken and so sad. 

I lied when I said the third point was the last. Here’s one more. Who benefits when everyone buys a gun? People who make and sell guns. I’d love to see some analysis of the funding for changing all these laws and how much the weapons industry is driving this madness.

The 1619 Project has received nearly as much criticism as praise. It may not be surprising that Trump condemned it, or that the NYT‘s conservative columnist Bret Stephens dismissed it. But a recent Washington Post article also accused it of contested historiography. How do you think about The 1619 Project? 

I think about it as a long-needed update to the story we tell ourselves about ourselves. When it was first published, I described it in my August 2019 newsletter as a project that “examines the long term effects of slavery on the United States.” I consider it patriotic work. 

I don’t literally think the United States was founded in 1619 rather than 1776, but I do think it’s important that we examine the actions early settlers took that set the stage for 1776 and the refinement of chattel slavery. The racialized legal and economic system we erected to support it were massively defining elements of the country I call home, and they still impact us all today.

The recent Post article is extraordinary in its examination of the project, its shortcomings and its strengths, and I highly recommend you read it. What stood out most to me was the update that writer Wesley Morris made to his original essay about the role of Black culture and the line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. Sometimes I get so angry about the history and reality of race in this country that I, in turn, get very possessive: “Well, this piece of Black culture belongs to me, and nobody else better embrace, enjoy, or contribute to it.” But Wesley helped remind me of the power that culture has to bring us into a shared identity and co-creation of reality. Just read it! 

What’s your view on both Meta and the metaverse? Will we be spending a lot of our time in the latter, ten years from now? And will the former be the main platform we engage on?

OK, so the metaverse is kind of impossible to define right now. Big tech companies and investors are promoting it as an immersive virtual world slash video game slash 3D video conferencing slash NFT sales bazaar slash crypto blockchain something something. It recalls the equally amorphous term “information superhighway” that we used back in the ‘90s to describe what would become the internet. No one says “information superhighway” anymore, but we do live in a networked world defined heavily by digital experiences and dominated by the exchange of our data for services. 

The metaverse, sometimes called Web3, refers most broadly to a vision of the internet defined by more ubiquitous computing and less centralization of authority. Proponents of this next-generation ecosystem say that we should be able to own our data and move between digital experiences without having to spin up new profiles, logins, etc. The in-app purchases we make on today’s web, for instance, should work across apps in the future web, if that future even has “apps” per se. And our ability to coordinate and organize without a central authority blessing that organization should increase dramatically. All this can affect creativity, commerce, entertainment, politics and more. It’s a lot. This piece from Wired starts to address some of what the metaverse is not and what it might be. And this piece in The Information (paywall) is most excellent in mapping out how our future might evolve. It’s seriously one of the best things I’ve read.

Here’s what excites me. The current version of the web concentrates authority in the hands of a few massive companies. We didn’t intend that for the internet. It was supposed to be a force for distributing power. But as we evolve the networked world to something more decentralized (like blockchain) and interoperable and generally programmable, we increase the odds that power is returned to the hands of the people. Part of that vision centers on DAOs, or decentralized autonomous organizations, that use digital tokens and ledgers to pool financial resources and voting power. For example, I recently took part in an effort among thousands of people to raise tens of millions of dollars to buy an original version of the U.S. Constitution. On my podcast, I interviewed Pia Manchini, who is using these emerging web tools to empower small collectives of people to simplify their fundraising and governance through something called Open Collective. Our effort to buy the Constitution failed, but Pia’s work is succeeding. Overall, it’s gonna be a mess.

If you set aside much of the technical details (which I have to do in the interest of time right now), what’s certain is that we will be spending more time in digital worlds—and that we will eventually make them so attractive and capable that they will compete for our time and attention even more than today’s web. Of course, the ability to enjoy immersive experiences and new economic activity could lead to an even greater divestment from the physical world just when we are about to irreversibly break it. Imagine a near-future in which rich people are still living in gated communities or billionaires are flying off to Mars, but everyone else is able to partake in small ways by logging out of the physical world and into the virtual world, where they have agency and resources unavailable here in meatspace. If we don’t navigate the transition judiciously and find ways to integrate all these realities, we’ll only accelerate the decline of the physical world and leave those with the least resources behind. Familiar story, right?

On the plus side, we have a chance to build for this emerging networked world better than we have with current technology. We could create something more equitable and filled with fewer Nazis and less commodification of the human experience. But that’s not guaranteed. 

And then there’s Meta. I understand that dominating and owning everything is how Facebook became what it is. It’s all they know. But that centralized attitude is directly at odds with the best possible future we could build with Web3/the metaverse. Personally, I want to create worlds based on the communities I value, where we have some self-determination about the rules and rewards of such a space, and where that world interacts productively and peacefully with others. I want thriving, healthy, inclusive democracies. As for the future Zuckerverse, today’s version is alarming enough. 

If you have critiques, additions, or further questions, write me back at baratunde@puck.news and tune in to Puck’s Instagram this Friday where I’ll be running the account and answering more questions in the stories feature.