Meanings of the metaverse: Secondary embodiment

What’s with the bike?

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 told The Verge in 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 Stratechery interview 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.