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.