The metaverse promises to bring us an abundance of realities. There’ll be the recalcitrant old status-quo-ante reality — the hard-edged one that Dr. Johnson encountered when he kicked that rock to refute Bishop Berkeley’s theory of radical solipsism. (Let’s call that one “OG Reality.”) Then there’ll be Virtual Reality, the 3-D dreamscape you’ll enter when you strap on VR goggles or, somewhat further in the future, tap your temple thrice to activate your Oculus Soma brain plug-in. Then there’ll be Augmented Reality, where OG Reality will be overlaid with a transparent, interactive digital-interface layer that will act kind of like the X-Ray Spex you used to be able to order through ads at the back of comic books, but with better optics. And there’ll be something called Mixed Reality, which actually encompasses a spectrum of realities with different blends of OG, Augmented, and Virtual. These will be the four main categories of what might be termed Shared Realities — realities that can be inhabited by many people (or their avatars) simultaneously. Along with the Shared Realities there will be a more or less infinite number of Personal Realities — ones of the Berkeleian type that will be inhabited or otherwise experienced by only a single mind, either embodied or disembodied. (Things get a little tricky here, as a Personal Reality can, and often will, be coterminous with a Shared Reality.) All of these realities will also exist in a plethora of brand-name variations — Apple Augmented, Meta Augmented, Microsoft Augmented, Google Augmented, QAnon Augmented, and so on. I suspect that there will also be a wide array of Deep Fake Realities ginned up by neural-net algorithms for various political or commercial purposes. Maybe Open AI will even come up with an online Deep Fake Reality Generator that will democratize reality creation.
If T.S. Eliot was correct when he wrote, in Four Quartets, that “humankind cannot bear very much reality,” then we’re going to be screwed. I mean, I got a headache just writing that last paragraph. But maybe what Eliot really meant has more to do with quality than quantity. Maybe he was saying that what we can’t bear is too much depth in reality, not too many variations of reality. If that’s the case, then everything should be cool. The reality explosion will suit us just fine. The metaverse will do for reality what the web did for information: give us so many options that we don’t have to experience any of them very deeply at all. We’ll be able to reality surf, zipping out of a reality whenever it becomes too “heavy,” as the hippies used to say. Remember how happy Zuckerberg’s avatar looked when he was flying around the metaverse during that Facebook Connect keynote last fall? That’ll be us. Untethered, aloof, free. The great thing about the metaverse is that when you kick a rock in it, nothing is refuted.
This is the fourth installment in the series “Meanings of the Metaverse,” which began here and continued here and here. The fifth installment will appear in due course.
I like to think of Marc Andreessen as the metaverse’s Statue of Liberty. He stands just outside the virtual world’s golden door, illuminating the surrounding darkness with a holographic torch, welcoming the downtrodden to a new and better life.
You might remember the colorful interview Andreessen gave to Substack trickster Niccolo Soldo last spring. At one point in the exchange, the high-browed venture capitalist sketches out his vision of the metaverse and makes a passionate case for its superiority to what he calls “the quote-unquote real world.” His words have taken on new weight now, in the wake of Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement that Facebook is changing its name to Meta and embarking on the construction of an all-encompassing virtual world. Andreessen, an early Facebook investor and one of its directors since 2008, is a pal of Zuckerberg’s and has long had the entrepreneur’s ear. He is, it’s been said, “something of an Obi-Wan to Zuckerberg’s Luke Skywalker.”
In describing the metaverse, Zuckerberg has stressed the anodyne. There will be virtual surfing, virtual fencing, virtual poker nights. We’ll be able to see and smile at our colleagues even while working alone in our homes. We’ll be able to fly over cities and through buildings. David Attenborough will stop by for the odd chat. Andreessen’s vision is far darker and far more radical, eschatological even. He believes the metaverse is where the vast majority of humanity will end up, and should end up. If the metaverse Zuckerberg presents for public consumption seems like a tricked-out open-world videogame, Andreessen’s metaverse comes off as a cross between an amusement park and a concentration camp.
But I should let him explain it. When Soldo asks, “Are we TOO connected these days?,” Andreessen responds:
Your question is a great example of what I call Reality Privilege. … A small percent of people live in a real-world environment that is rich, even overflowing, with glorious substance, beautiful settings, plentiful stimulation, and many fascinating people to talk to, and to work with, and to date. These are also *all* of the people who get to ask probing questions like yours. Everyone else, the vast majority of humanity, lacks Reality Privilege — their online world is, or will be, immeasurably richer and more fulfilling than most of the physical and social environment around them in the quote-unquote real world.
The Reality Privileged, of course, call this conclusion dystopian, and demand that we prioritize improvements in reality over improvements in virtuality. To which I say: reality has had 5,000 years to get good, and is clearly still woefully lacking for most people; I don’t think we should wait another 5,000 years to see if it eventually closes the gap. We should build — and we are building — online worlds that make life and work and love wonderful for everyone, no matter what level of reality deprivation they find themselves in.
It’s tempting to dismiss all this as just more bad craziness from Big Tech’s fiercely adolescent mind. But that would be a mistake. For one thing, Andreessen is revealing his worldview and his ultimate goals here, and he has the influence and the resources to, if not create the future, at least push the future in the direction he prefers. As Tad Friend pointed out in “Tomorrow’s Advance Man,” a 2015 New Yorkerprofile of Andreessen, power in Silicon Valley accrues to those who can “not just see the future but summon it.” That’s a very small group, and Andreessen is in it. For another thing, Big Tech’s bad craziness has a tendency, as we’ve seen over the past twenty-odd years, to migrate into our everyday lives. We ignore it at our eventual peril.
In Andreessen’s view, society is condemned, by natural law, to radical inequality. In a world where material goods are scarce and human will and talent unequally distributed, society will always be divided into two groups: a small elite who lead rich lives and the masses who live impoverished ones. A few eat cake; the rest get, at best, crumbs. The entire history of civilization — Andreessen’s “5,000 years” — bears this out. Any attempt, political or economic, to overcome society’s natural bias toward extreme inequality is futile. It’s just magical thinking. The only way out, the only solution, is to overturn natural law, to escape the quote-unquote real world. That was never possible — until now. Computers have given us the chance to invent a new world of virtual abundance, where history’s have-nots can experience a simulation of the “glorious substance” that history’s haves have always enjoyed. With the metaverse, civilization is at last liberated from nature and its constraints.
The migration from the real world to the virtual world, some would argue, is already well under way. The masses — at least those who can afford computers and lots of network bandwidth — are voting with their thumbs. Most American teenagers today say they would rather hang out with their friends online than in person. And large numbers of people, particularly boys and young men, are choosing to spend as much time as possible in the hyper-stimulating virtual worlds of videogames rather than in the relative tedium of the physical world. In her influential 2011 book Reality Is Broken, Jane McGonical argues that this choice is entirely rational:
The real world just doesn’t offer up as easily the carefully designed pleasures, the thrilling challenges, and the powerful social bonding afforded by virtual environments. Reality doesn’t motivate us as effectively. Reality isn’t engineered to maximize our potential. Reality wasn’t designed from the bottom up to make us happy. … Reality, compared to games, is broken.
McGonical holds out hope that reality can be “fixed” (by making it more gamelike), but Andreessen would dismiss that as just another example of magical thinking. What you really want to do is speed up the out-of-reality migration — and don’t look back.
Andreessen is not actually suggesting that the metaverse will close the economic gap between haves and have-nots, it’s important to note. At a material level, there’s every reason to believe that the gap will widen as the metaverse grows. It’s the Reality Privileged, or at least its Big Tech wing, who are, as Andreessen emphasizes, building the metaverse. They will also be the ones who own it and profit from it. Andreessen may expect the Reality Deprived to see the metaverse as a gift bestowed upon them by the Reality Privileged, a cosmic act of noblesse oblige, but it’s self-interest that motivates him, Zuckerberg, and the other world-builders.
Not only would the metaverse expand their wealth, it would also get the Reality Deprived out of their hair. With the have-nots spending more and more of their time experiencing a simulation of glorious substance through their VR headsets, the haves would have the actual glorious substance all the more to themselves. The beaches would be emptier, the streets cleaner. Best of all, the haves would be able to shed all responsibility, and guilt, for the problems of the real world. When Andreessen argues that we should no longer bother to “prioritize improvements in reality,” he’s letting himself off the hook. Let them eat virtual cake.
Even within the faux-rich confines of the metaverse, there’s every reason to believe that inequality would continue to reign. The metaverse, as envisioned by Andreessen and Zuckerberg, is fundamentally consumerist — it’s the world remade in the image of the experience economy. As Zuckerberg promised in his Facebook Connect keynote, the Meta metaverse will, within ten years, “host hundreds of billions of dollars of digital commerce.” Money will still exist in the virtual world, and it will be as unequally distributed as ever. That means that we will quickly see a division open up between the Virtuality Privileged and the Virtuality Deprived. While Zuckerberg was giving his keynote, Nike was, as the Wall Street Journalreported, filing trademark applications for “digital versions of its sneakers, clothing and other goods stamped with its swoosh logo.” In the metaverse, the rich kids will still get the cool kicks.
The paradox of Andreessen’s metaverse is that, despite its immateriality, it’s essentially materialist. Andreessen can’t imagine people aspiring to anything more than having the things and the experiences that money can buy. If the peasants are given a simulation of the worldly pleasures of the rich, their lives will suddenly become “wonderful.” They won’t actually own anything, but their existence will be “immeasurably richer and more fulfilling.”
When we take up residence in the metaverse, we’ll all be living the dream. It won’t be our dream, though. It will be the dream of Marc Andreessen and Mark Zuckerberg.
This is the third installment in the series “Meanings of the Metaverse,” which began here and continued here. The fourth installment, “Reality Surfing,” is here.
Q: “Will I be able to bring my body into the metaverse?”
A: “You bring your body into your dreams, don’t you?”
Even today, nearly two years into the pandemic, one holds onto certain expectations about how a Big Tech company’s Big Reveal event will unfold. There will be flashing lights. There will be loud, bass-heavy music. There will be a crowded auditorium. The CEO, dressed in some version of Steve Jobs garb, will stroll onto a large stage. The audience of fanboys will erupt in raucous applause.
So it was disconcerting last week when Facebook Connect opened with a quiet, domestic tableau: Mark Zuckerberg sitting alone on a neutral-toned armchair in a neutral-toned living room. He made a few introductory comments — blandly grandiose, as always — then stood up and started walking slowly around the room. Behind him, propped carefully and conspicuously against a wall, a bicycle came into view. And then, a few seconds later, a surfboard appeared, also placed prominently in the camera’s field of view. Très sportif, I thought. And then it struck me: Those aren’t sporting goods. Those are symbols.
Symbols of what? Symbols of physicality. Symbols of the outdoors, the open road, sea and shore. Symbols of bodies in motion, in friendly combat with nature. Symbols of fitness, healthfulness, ruddiness, sweat. In short: Symbols of embodiment.
“Embodiment” has replaced “community” as Zuckerberg’s go-to word. It’s on a constant loop in his brain. “You can think about the metaverse,” he toldThe Vergein July, “as an embodied internet, where instead of just viewing content — you are in it.” “Since I was in middle school,” he went on, “one of the things that I really wanted to build was basically the sense of an embodied internet.” He hit the same note in his Stratecheryinterview last month: “I think the metaverse is this embodied Internet, where instead of looking at the Internet, you’re in it.” And he hit it again in describing the metaverse in his keynote: “It’s just a fundamentally different experience from staring at a screen, this quality of being physically embodied and able to interact with the world and move around inside it.”
This all comes off as typical Zuckerberg b.s. — lofty rhetoric that makes sense as marketing-speak but is otherwise absurd. I mean, how does one become “physically embodied” in a virtual world? A “virtual body” is an oxymoron. Right?
One of the most interesting things about computers is the way they hold a mirror up to us, a mirror that reflects not nature but our conception of nature. Attempts to create artificial intelligence force us to grapple with questions about our own natural intelligence — what it is, where it comes from, what its limits are. Programs for natural language processing raise hard questions about the origins and character of natural language. And in our attempts to create virtual worlds with virtual inhabitants — the metaverse, for instance — we confront profound questions about our being: What is a world? What does it mean to be in a world? What’s the relationship of mind and body? As Michael Heim wrote in his 1991 essay “The Erotic Ontology of Cyberspace,” collected in the book Cyberspace: First Steps, “cyberspace is a metaphysical laboratory, a tool for examining our very sense of reality.”
A human body, as we experience it from inside, is actually two bodies. It is the physical body (the flesh and the blood), and it is the mind’s representation of that body (which draws on the brain’s complex neuronal map of the body). Normally, we feel no divide between the physical body and its mental representation; the two act as one. But when we dream, they separate. We feel fully embodied in our dream, and yet our actual body lies more or less inert on the bed. Although the mind requires a body to create a representation of the body, once that representation exists, the mind seems able to create a virtual body that can have, so to speak, a life of its own.
It may be that the mind wants a body — that it is by nature a body-maker — and that when given the opportunity, or the necessity, it will happily conjure up a body to be its instrument. Anyone who has spent a long time controlling an avatar in a well-designed first-person videogame knows how the mind will habituate itself to a virtual body and begin to make that body feel real. It’s one of the closest experiences we now have to being in a waking dream. That transference happens with just a two-dimensional screen and a handheld controller. Imagine what the mind will do when set loose in an elaborate three-dimensional simulation and flooded with artificial sensory stimuli.
So maybe the idea of virtual embodiment is not as absurd as it seems. Maybe Zuckerberg is onto something.
Still, it would be an error, a profound ontological error, to think that virtual embodiment is the same as actual embodiment. A mental representation of a physical body is not a physical body, even if it feels like one. Walter J. Ong’s concept of “secondary orality” becomes helpful here. In his 1982 book Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, Ong examined the popular notion that electronic technologies like the telephone and the television were returning society to an “oral culture” — like the one that existed for most of human history, until the invention of reading and writing brought “literate culture” into dominance. Ong showed that while the “secondary orality” engendered by modern electronic media shares certain important characteristics with preliterate “primary orality,” it is nonetheless a fundamentally different phenomenon. Underlying it is a different state of consciousness. Once technologized, neither speech nor consciousness can be de-technologized.
Virtual embodiment may be best understood as secondary embodiment. It may seem like natural, or primary, embodiment, but it is fundamentally different. I don’t think we know what all the differences are yet, but one of the major ones, I would suggest, will manifest itself in our social relations. When embodied as an avatar in virtual space, we may feel as though we have a physical body, but because that feeling of embodiment is purely a projection of our own mind, we will not experience other avatars as physical, full beings. They will remain shadows, cartoon figures — like the characters in videogames. Virtual embodiment, in other words, is essentially and inescapably solipsistic. Present only to ourselves, we will be embodied but estranged.
We are adaptable creatures, mentally and physically. The danger with secondary embodiment is that, indulged in too long, it may come to supplant primary embodiment. It may become our way of being. “The more we mistake the cyberbodies for ourselves,” warned Heim, with considerable prescience, “the more the machine twists ourselves into the prostheses we are wearing.” The metaverse will be the only world we know, and we will be alone in it.
This is the second installment in the series “Meanings of the Metaverse.” The first installment, “Productizing Reality,” is here.
Facebook, it’s now widelyaccepted, has been a calamity for the world. The obvious solution, most people would agree, is to get rid of Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg has a different idea: Get rid of the world.
Cyberutopians have been dreaming about replacing the physical world with a virtual one since Zuckerberg was in Oshkosh B’gosh overalls. The desire is rooted in misanthropy — meatspace, yuck — but it is also deeply idealistic, Platonic even. The world as we know it, the thinking goes, is messy and chaotic, illogical and unpredictable. It is a place of death and decay, where mind — the true essence of the human — is subordinate to the vagaries of the flesh. Cyberspace liberates the mind from its bodily trappings. It is a place of pure form. Everything in it reflects the logic and order inherent to computer programming.
Hints of that old cyberian idealism float through Zuckerberg’s conception of the metaverse — he’s big on teleportation — but despite his habit of reminding us that he took philosophy and classics courses in college, Zuckerberg is no metaphysician. A Mammonist rather than a Platonist, he’s in it for the money. His goal with the metaverse is not just to create a virtual world that is more encompassing, more totalizing, than what we experience today with social media and videogames. It’s to turn reality itself into a product. In the metaverse, nothing happens that is not computable. That also means that, assuming the computers doing the computing are in private hands, nothing happens that is not a market transaction, a moment of monetization, either directly through an exchange of money or indirectly through the capture of data. With the metaverse, capital subsumes reality. It’s money all the way down.
Zuckerberg’s public embrace of the metaverse, culminating in last week’s Meta rebranding, has been widely seen as a cynical ploy to distract the public from the mess Facebook has made for itself and everyone else. There’s truth in that view, but it would be a mistake to think that the metaverse is just a change-the-subject tactic. It’s a coldly calculated, high-stakes, speculative bet on the future. Zuckerberg believes that several trends are coming together now, commercial, technological, and social, that justify big investments in an all-encompassing virtual sphere. He knows that Facebook — er, Meta — needs to act quickly if it’s to become the dominant player in what could be the biggest of all markets. As one of his lieutenants wrote in a recent memo, “The Metaverse is ours to lose.”
For Meta, Facebook and Instagram are cash cows — established, mature businesses that throw off a lot of cash. The company will milk those social media platforms to fund billions of dollars of investment in metaverse technologies ($10 billion this year alone). Much of that money will go into hardware, including virtual-reality headsets, artificial-reality glasses, hologram projectors, and a myriad of digital sensor systems. Facebook’s greatest vulnerability has always been its dependence on competitors — Apple, Google, Microsoft — to provide the hardware and associated operating systems required to access its sites and apps. The extent of that vulnerability was made clear this year when Apple instituted its data blockade, curtailing Facebook’s ability to track people online and hence making its ads less effective.
If Meta can control the hardware and operating systems people use to frolic in the metaverse, it will neutralize the threat posed by Apple and its other rivals. It will disintermediate the intermediaries. Beyond the hardware, though, the very structure of the metaverse, as envisioned by Zuckerberg, would make it hard if not impossible to prevent a company like Meta from collecting personal data. That’s because, as Zuckerberg emphasized in his Facebook Connect keynote Thursday, a universal metaverse requires universal interoperability. Being in the metaverse needs to be as seamless an experience as being in the real world. That can only happen if all data is shared. Gaps in the flow of data become holes in reality.
And what data! Two of the most revealing, and unsettling, moments in Zuckerberg’s keynote came when he was describing work now being done in the company’s “Reality Labs.” (Does Facebook have a Senior Vice President of Dystopian Branding?) He showed a demo of a woman walking through her home while wearing a pair of Meta AR glasses. The glasses mapped, automatically and in precise detail, everything she looked at. Such digital mapping will allow Meta to create, as Reality Labs Chief Scientist Michael Abrash explained, “an index” of “every single object” in a person’s home, “including not only location, but also the texture, geometry, and function.” The maps will become the basis for “contextual AI” that will be able to anticipate a person’s intentions and desires by tracking eye movements. What you look at, after all, is what you’re interested in. “Ultimately,” said Abrash, “her AR glasses will tell her what her available actions are at any time.” The advertising opportunities are endless.
But that’s just the start. Meta has designs on our bodies that go well beyond eye-tracking. Zuckerberg explained that Reality Labs is at work on “neural interfaces” that will tap directly into the nervous system:
We believe that neural interfaces are going to be an important part of how we interact with AR glasses, and more specifically EMG [electromyography] input from the muscles on your wrist combined with contextualized AI. It turns out that we all have unused neuromotor pathways, and with simple and perhaps even imperceptible gestures, sensors will one day be able to translate those neuromotor signals into digital commands that enable you to control your devices. It’s pretty wild.
Wild, indeed. If Facebook’s ability to collect, analyze, and monetize your personal data makes you nervous now, wait till you see what Meta has in store. There are no secrets in the metaverse.
There is, however, private property. One of the obstacles to the computerized productization of reality has always been the difficulty in establishing and enforcing property rights in cyberspace. Fifteen years ago, a company called Linden Lab took a stab at building a proto-metaverse in the form of the much-hyped videogame Second Life. The company promised its users, including many of the world’s biggest businesses, that they would be able to buy, sell, and own virtual goods in Second Life. What it failed to mention was that those goods, being composed purely of data, could be easily and perfectly copied. And that’s exactly what happened. Second Life was invaded by the so-called CopyBot, a software program that could replicate any object in the virtual world, including people’s avatars. An orgy of piracy ensued, dooming Second Life to irrelevance. Today, thanks to blockchains, cryptocurrencies, and non-fungible tokens (NFTs), the copyability problem seems to have been solved. Property rights, including identity rights, will be able to be enforced in the metaverse, which vastly expands its commercial potential.
Just because Zuckerberg wants a universal metaverse to exist doesn’t mean that it will exist. Anyone who’s been on a Zoom call knows that, even at a pretty basic level, we’re a long way from the kind of seamless, perfectly synchronized virtual existence that Meta is promising. As Michael Abrash himself cautioned, “It’s going to take about a dozen major technological breakthroughs to get to the next-generation metaverse.” That’s a lot of breakthroughs, and no breakthrough is foreordained.
But Zuckerberg has one thing on his side: When given the opportunity, people have shown themselves to be willing, even eager, to choose a simulation over the real thing. The metaverse, should it arrive, may feel like home, only better.