Meanings of the metaverse: The people of the metaverse


Through deep-learning algorithms, computers are learning to simulate us — the way we look, the way we speak, the way we move, the words we use. They are becoming experts at pastiche. They collect the traces of ourselves that we leave behind online — the data of beingness — and they weave that data into something new that resembles us. The real is the raw material of the fake.

Our computers, in other words, are learning to do what we have already learned to do. For many years now, we have spent our days consuming the data of beingness — all those digitized images and videos and words, all those facial expressions and microexpressions, those poses and posturings, those intonations of voice, those opinions and beliefs and emotions, those behaviors, those affects. Out of that vast, ever-evolving online databank of human specifications a pattern emerges — a pattern that suits us, that represents the self we desire to present to others. We cobble together a simulation of a person that we present as the person who we are. We become deep fakes that pass, in the media world that has become the world, for real people.

The child is no longer father to the man. The data is father to the man.

Rob Horning, in a new essay in Real Life, describes how he happened upon an online trove of snapshots taken in the 1980s. That was the last pre-internet decade, of course, and the faded, yellowing, flash-saturated shots might as well have been taken on a different planet. The people portrayed in them have a relationship to photography, and to media in general, that is alien to our own. “The subjects usually know that they are being watched,” writes Horning, “but they can’t imagine, even in theory, that it could be everyone watching. … It is as though who they were in general was more fixed and objective, less fluid and discursive. Though they are anonymous, they register more concretely as specific people, unpatterned by the grammar of gestures and looks that posting images to networks seems to impose.”

Horning is entranced, and disoriented, by the pictures because he sees something that no longer exists: a gap between image and being. Before we began to construct ourselves as patterns of data to be consumed through media by a general audience, the image of a person, as, for instance, captured in a snapshot, and the person were still separate. The image and the self had not yet merged. This is what gives old photographs of people their poignancy and their power, as well as their strangeness. We know, as Horning emphasizes, that back then people were self-conscious — they were aware of themselves as objects seen by others, and they composed their looks and behavior with viewers in mind — but the scale of the audience, and hence of the performance, was entirely different. The people in these photographs were not yet digitized. Their existence was not yet mediated in the way ours is.

It’s revealing that, before the arrival of the net, people didn’t talk about “authenticity” as we do today. They didn’t have to. They understood, implicitly, that there was something solid behind whatever show they might put on for public consumption. The show was not everything. The anxiety of the deep fake had not yet taken hold of the subconscious. The reason we talk so much about authenticity now is because authenticity is no longer available to us. At best, we simulate authenticity: we imbue our deep fakeness with the qualities that people associate with the authentic. We assemble a self that fits the pattern of authenticity, and the ever-present audience applauds the pattern as “authentic.” The likes roll in, the views accumulate. Our production is validated. If we’re lucky, we rise to the level of influencer. What is an influencer but the perfection of the deep-fake self?

I know, I know. You disagree. You reject my argument. You rebel against my “reductionist” speculations. You think I’m nuts. I can almost hear you screaming, “I am not a deep fake! I am a human being!” But that’s what you would think, and that’s what you would scream. After all, you have created for yourself a deep fake that believes, above all else, that it is real.

The metaverse may not yet have arrived, but we are prepared for it. We are, already, the people of the metaverse.

This is the fifth installment in the series “Meanings of the Metaverse,” which began here.