The term metaverse, like the term meritocracy, was coined in a scifi dystopia novel written as cautionary tale. Then techies took metaverse, and technocrats took meritocracy, and enthusiastically adopted what was meant to inspire horror.
Originally appearing by name in Neal Stephenson’s classic Snow Crash, the metaverse concept has been rehashed in other hits like Ready Player One or the film series The Matrix. In the Stephenson version, much as in Mark Zuckerberg’s uncanny Metaverse launch video, so-called “gargoyles” are otherwise normal humans who languish their entire lives inside a virtualized reality with headsets bolted to their faces.
If you’re wondering why someone like Zuckerberg with such immense resources (including an estate on paradisiacal Ku’uai) wants to blot out reality with a VR headset, then you need to understand the techie mindset. As more than one Valley character has un-ironically expressed to me in private: anything worth doing can be done better via screen.
Many Silicon Valley investment portfolios and lifestyles reflect that view. In-person dinners are still convened, but those IRL events are now a luxury add-on (and reflection of) digital life rather than vice versa. VCs invest vast sums in founders they’ve never physically met, and those startup founders hire people whose hands they’ve never shaken. The resulting companies have workforces who spend all day looking at each other via endless Zoom calls, but who never or rarely meet (I know, I’ve worked in them). The techies prefer intermediating reality and people via pixels and algorithms, and they’ve created the conditions such that the world meets them on their terms.
Not that we were very hard to convince.
Whether or not Zuckerberg’s Metaverse plan works out, the little ‘m’ metaverse is already here and we’re already living inside of it. It’s the elective, virtualized reality composed of Twitter, Instagram, and even the very Substack you’re reading right now. The tech “backlash” that the media has been trying to engineer (speaking of pleasant illusions) has never really happened, and you’d be hard-pressed to find signs of one in Facebook’s, or any other tech company’s, usage and revenue graphs.
More anecdotally, those who assert that “Twitter isn’t real life”, as Dave Chapelle did in his most recent and controversial Netflix special, are either delusional or disingenuous. Chapelle’s own brain has clearly been eaten by Twitter, as in the rest of his special he touched on every Twitter-mediated woke flashpoint of the past several months, and the blowback (and consequences) to his show were adjudicated on the very platform he claimed didn’t matter.
I used to think that online life constituted the shadows in Plato’s allegory of the cave, and those craning their necks into phones all day were the poor souls chained down and forced to watch the meaningless digital flickers of reality. After having to explain again and again to normies how some new real-world scandal, be it the fight over CRT, the latest Trumpian sound bite, or the lab-leak hypothesis, all had their origins among obscure corners and figures of the Internet, I now realize it’s the reverse: real life is increasingly a reflection of what happens online.
In our society of spectacle, the only hard, non-optional realities left are war, the markets, and elections. War has been outsourced and forgotten: consider how much longer the Chapelle discourse lasted than the debate about the Afghanistan debacle, the humiliating end to our nation’s longest conflict. Markets impact most people indirectly, but are still real enough to eventually cause a glitch in the matrix about inflation being under control (narrator’s voice: it’s not). Elections, however, are real enough to instantly slap us in the face and make entire fantastical worldviews crumble within a day.
Take the recent election results in Virginia, where Democrats have won every statewide election since 2009. In a state that Biden won by 10 points, Republicans swept. As with every surprise election result these days, this sparked a pageant of motivated reasoning and cognitive dissonance from a left-leaning mainstream media that tried to reconcile reality to their online-derived bubbles (rather than the reverse). In our increasingly Schrodinger-esque reality (he of the cat simultaneously alive and dead), the election was either not about CRT at all, or about CRT but only because nefarious forces had made it so.
Politics become strange when reality becomes optional.
Historically, the swirl of culture, media, and moral narratives that frame human life followed the contours of language, religion and tribe, which eventually coalesced into nation-states. That colored shape on the map, labeled ‘France’ or ‘Texas’ or whatever, defined your narrative world given the traffic in books and images still followed the paths of people and commerce. Only those living in the liminal intersection of two cultural worlds—say, someone like me raised in the Anglo/Latin entrepot of Miami—would be forced to constantly navigate entirely different worldviews.
The metaverse decoupled the movement of information from the movement of matter, bits from atoms, which is the real radical change in replacing reality with a virtual version. Now, everyone is a cultural in-betweener, living a somewhat dissociated life between the mental world they’ve constructed with the aid of screens and algorithms, and the physical world that both feeds them and imposes a legal framework. If you look closely, every major debate in the culture war is over which narrative to pluck from the virtual realm and use as a guide for the ‘real’ world that is now downstream of the digital version.
Techies will literally invent an entirely new plane of human existence rather than offering to fix the pressing problems of the ‘meatspace’ world. The problem, once again, is that we’re all willing to follow them there, and make the real world subordinate to the metaverse one.
Take a friend I have who lives in Loudoun County, Virginia. He’s a perfectly reasonable political consultant type with a wife, two kids, a regular church, and a mortgage. He pulled his kids from the public schools, opting for homeschooling, instead of having to care about the school crack-up there that’s drawn so much attention. He was tired of reconciling his narrative (which was not on board with CRT) with that of a real-world collective, no matter the relative homogeneity of an affluent Northern Virginia suburb. If people of good faith can’t forge a shared reality, and therefore political comity, about the things they care about most with similar people who live down the street, what hope is there for California or the United States of America?
Our political factions are even more clueless about what’s going on than average citizens. In the car of society we’re all riding in, the liberals are trying to slam the brakes, the techies are flooring the gas, the conservatives are looking for a reverse gear that doesn’t exist. The most reasonable people inside that metaphorical car might just be the techies stomping on the gas. The only way through is through, and the thought we’re going to maintain physically-defined bubbles of political and moral consensus while also migrating even more into the metaverse is a delusional belief. We might have to start thinking about a world where politics follows the disembodied digital bubbles we construct for ourselves, rather than thinking we’re going to ‘content moderate’ the digital into conforming with the politics of physical counties and states. The latter is the brake-stomping approach of the liberals and, well, how’s that going for them?
Not that the accelerationist approach to the metaverse is without its problems. Take that other scifi fantasy that probably also led to Metaverse ambitions: the ‘Holodeck’ in Star Trek: Next Generation. The Holodeck served as a sort of escapist rumpus room where characters could indulge fantasies impossible in the close confines of a starship. When the hologram featuring vast vistas or heart-pumping adventures was turned off, all that was left was an empty, featureless room. As with the Holodeck, reality in the metaverse is little more than a blank canvas on which to project the simulacrum. Silicon Valley working life under COVID was a taste of this: virtualized everything, in-person face-time with only a narrow set of family and friends, and the occasional tightly-choreographed company offsite trip. So long as the Amazon Prime delivery arrives and the DoorDash still shows up, the metaversians don’t care too much about what the Holodeck looks like when the simulacrum is shut off. Billionaires like Elon and Bezos may fantasize about one day escaping Earth, but for everyone else, the only thing they’ll be escaping into is that Zoom-and-Amazon Holodeck, leaving the physical world as someone else’s problem to deal with.
Until the nerd Rapture of the Singularity happens—the messianic thought that humans will be uploaded to a disembodied realm of pure computation, the Kingdom of God as human cloud server—we’re still stuck with the question of Loudoun County school curricula, or even graver threats like Chinese geopolitical ambitions. At times like these, it’s worth recalling Rudyard Kipling’s musings in his “The Gods of the Copybook Headings,” about the grim realities of life:
They never altered their pace,
Being neither cloud nor wind-borne like the Gods of the Market Place,
But they always caught up with our progress, and presently word would come
That a tribe had been wiped off its icefield, or the lights had gone out in Rome.
The lights have gone out in California numerous times in recent memory, just as wildfires turned the sky into an unbreathable Martian red. More minds of this generation are presently dragging themselves through San Francisco “destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked” than when Alan Ginsburg wrote those words in “Howl” while prowling those same streets himself. China works on hypersonic missiles while our government, incapable of defeating a medieval religious insurgency in Afghanistan, launches a “National Gender Strategy.” Elites are the biggest fans of this new metaverse, where their cultural reveries and social experiments freely play out in a media Holodeck...until the next election that is. Clever technologists might just succeed in whisking us away to a carefree world of pixels and automation, but I fear the hard gods of reality are not done with us yet.
We’ve devoted a lot of ink at Common Sense to all the things that have been lost or broken. This week, happily, we are focusing entirely on what comes next. Yesterday, we announced the founding of a new university in Austin, Texas. Up tomorrow: Andrew Yang on how we can eject from the “doom loop” of politics.