Adrift in the Metaverse

Humans are nothing if not chasers of bright, shiny objects. Our attention is always focused beyond the here and now. That is especially true when here and now is a bit of a dumpster fire.

The ultrarich know that this is part of the human psyche, and they are doubling down their bets on it. Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are betting on space. But others — including Mark Zuckerberg — are betting on something called the metaverse.

Just this past summer, Zuck told his employees about his master plan for Facebook:

“Our overarching goal across all of (our) initiatives is to help bring the metaverse to life.”

So what exactly is the metaverse? According to Wikipedia, it is

“a collective virtual shared space, created by the convergence of virtually enhanced physical reality and physically persistent virtual space, including the sum of all virtual worlds, augmented reality, and the Internet.”

The metaverse is a world of our own making, which exists in the dimensions of a digital reality. There we imagine we can fix what we screwed up in the maddeningly unpredictable real world. It is the ultimate in bright, shiny objects.

Science fiction and the entertainment industry have been toying with the idea of the metaverse for some time now. The term itself comes from Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel “Snow Crash.” It has been given the Hollywood treatment numerous times, notably in “The Matrix” and “Ready Player One.” But Silicon Valley venture capitalists are rushing to make fiction into fact.

You can’t really blame us for throwing in the towel on the world we have systematically wrecked. There are few glimmers of hope out there in the real world. What we have wrought is painful to contemplate. So we are doing what we’ve always done, reach for what we want rather than fix what we have. Take the Reporters Without Borders Uncensored Library, for example.

There are many places in the real world where journalism is censored, like Russia, the Middle East, Vietnam and China. But in the metaverse, there is the option of leapfrogging over all the political hurdles we stumble over in the real world. So Reporters without Borders and two German creative agencies built a meta library in the meta world of Minecraft. Here, censored articles are made into virtual books, accessible to all who want to check them out.

It’s hard to find fault with this. Censorship is a tool of oppression. Here, a virtual world offered an inviting loophole to circumvent it. The metaverse came to the rescue. What is the problem with that?

The biggest risk is this: We weren’t built for the metaverse. We can probably adapt to it, somewhat, but everything that makes us tick has evolved in a flesh and blood world, and — to quote a line from Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi,” “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

It’s fair to say that right now the metaverse is a novelty. Most of your neighbors, friends and family have never heard of it. But odds are it will become our life. In a 2019 article called “Welcome to the Mirror World” in Wired, Kevin Kelley explained, “we are building a 1-to-1 map of almost unimaginable scope. When it’s complete, our physical reality will merge with the digital universe.”

In a Forbes article, futurist Cathy Hackl gives us an example of what this merger might look like:

“Imagine walking down the street. Suddenly, you think of a product you need. Immediately next to you, a vending machine appears, filled with the product and variations you were thinking of. You stop, pick an item from the vending machine, it’s shipped to your house, and then continue on your way.”

That sounds benign — even helpful. But if we’ve learned one thing it’s this: When we try to merge technology with human behavior, there are always unintended consequences that arise. And when we’re talking about the metaverse, those consequences will likely be massive.

It is hubristic in the extreme to imagine we can engineer a world that will be a better match for our evolved humanware mechanics than the world we actually evolved within. It’s sheer arrogance to imagine we can build that world, and also arrogant to imagine that we can thrive within it.

We have a bright, shiny bias built into us that will likely lead us to ignore the crumbling edifice of our reality. German futurist Gerd Leonhard, for one, warns us about an impending collision between technology and humanity:

“Technology is not what we seek but how we seek: the tools should not become the purpose. Yet increasingly, technology is leading us to ‘forget ourselves.’”

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