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What is the Metaverse?

By Roger Weber

Are you a person living in a physical world? Or is your body merely an avatar navigating an artificial digital world designed to maximize the sensory experiences of your character, while your actual brain languishes un-realizingly somewhere off in a distant dimension? In the end, if the experience it the same, does it really matter?

If you’ve never contemplated the question, get ready. Amid all the tech terms that have pushed the boundaries of our thinking, this newest buzzword – the “Metaverse” – has techies more abuzz than any in over a decade. It has also prompted Mark Zuckerberg to rename the parent company of Facebook (it will now go by “Meta”) and to invest billions on a bet that people want to make their lives even more digital. Living in the Matrix, here we come.

So what is the Metaverse? More or less, it refers to the idea of an online world where people exist in immersive, shared virtual spaces. It’s the blending, of sorts, between the physical and digital experiences in which the online universe becomes ever more like the real thing, empowered both by the technologies that are making it possible and by a surging culture, particularly among young people, in which a digital existence is an integral component of how they live their lives.

While the idea of the Metaverse has gained a new fire streak among techies in the last year or so, the ideas that comprise it are hardly new. For well over a century the forward march of technological inventions has transformed life as we know it from one that in the 1850s was nearly entirely a physical one, lived exclusively in the real world, into one in which nearly all of us live some component of our lives today across a smattering of digital platforms.

The 1876 invention of the telephone, the 1871 invention of the computer, the 1927 invention of the television, the 1974 invention of the personal computer, the 1988 invention of the internet, and the 2007 invention of the iPhone, among others, have all encroached technology into the way we live our lives. But it was the invention of social media, which began to flourish in the mid-2000s with online forums, Facebook and Myspace, Youtube, Twitter, Instagram and Reddit, which really started to transform our culture into one in which people have become comfortable living a portion of their social lives online.

But while those platforms were created primarily as extensions of our physical world – offering digital ways for people to interact with their real-world friends, often via fairly clunky rudimentary interfaces – they were just part of the pathway to the new world in which an explosion of interactive apps, of video games, SecondLife, and more recently of Roblox virtual concerts and virtual currencies, are starting to breathe life into the possibility that one could live most of your life, at least the social portion of it, as an online-first experience.

If your real life world of a boring job, strip mall entertainment, a dearth of friends, and a boss you don’t really like isn’t getting it done for you, the idea of creating your own new alternative reality in cyberspace might portend some excitement, particularly if it can titillate your senses in ways the real world can't. Humans are no strangers to seeking hyper-sensory escapes from the realities of their physical lives. It was a famous component of the story of the death of John Lennon that his killer, Mark David Chapman, sough inspiration from his yearning for power over an imaginary cadre of “little people”, an imagined fictional universe that lived within his head, as a means to gain satisfaction from a life in which the real people around him were causing him pain. The momentary escapes afforded people by reading fiction, of playing a video game, or of taking a hallucinogenic drug are similar examples.

To quote Mark Zuckerberg, a notorious social introvert who famously created Facebook as a digital way to supplant normal physical interactivity between his classmates at Harvard, the technologies behind the Metaverse offer the potential to “unlock the kinds of experiences I’ve wanted to build since before I even started Facebook”. For those like Zuckerberg, appeal abounds of intercepting the real world, in which they languish, to instead establish a new and more them-friendly universe of their own making online. After all, if you’re more comfortable using technology to navigate the world than the tools of physical human interaction, why wouldn’t you dream big of a world that allowed you to do just that?

Zuckerberg’s vision of the Metaverse from Facebook’s perspective is one in which the digital interfaces afforded by the platform take on ever greater complexity. Imagine, for instance, a dating app that rather than an interface like Tinder instead resembles being at an actual party. Perhaps your senses couldn't even discern between being at a real party and being at the digital one. Surely you’d be happy to expend money for the coolest digital clothes, and fork over your digital cover charge using a digital currency to a digital bouncer who guards entry to your digital party. You might meet a digital girlfriend there. And somewhere, deep behind her digital face, an actual human may lurk yearning for the same kind of connection you seek. More alive than ever in your digital world together, however, the physical two of you need never meet.

We don’t often think about the differences between the experience of physical dating and the experience of using Tinder, but that’s because right now they’re nothing like each other. Closing the divide between them, and allowing a seamless transfer of knowledge and experience between them via more realistic interactive interfaces within a Matrix-like avatar reality is part of the world Elon Musk is seeking to create through one of his lesser-known companies, Neuralink. Frustrated by the clunkiness of having to type with his thumbs to weave his real-world knowledge into the brain of his smartphone, Musk’s army of professional Frankensteins are working to develop implantable brain-machine interfaces, apparently weaving cords into the brain so that knowledge transfer becomes immediate and universal.

For the most part, tech leaders like Zuckerberg seem focused on making the digital world more like the physical one, rather than the reverse. Frankly, it’s easier to achieve it going that direction. But one shouldn’t overlook those materializing the Metaverse from the other end as well: folks like Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, whose $2 trillion investment into the new city of NEOM envisions a world of hologram teachers, robots, and artificial moons with the goal of making its physical spaces ever more immersed with digital ones. Put bin Salman and Zuckerberg in a room together and try to decide if we even need the physical city in the future.

Living life as a digital avatar in a seamlessly connected world, you’ll have the potential to lead the life you want in the body you want. For those unhappy with their physical state, perhaps that’s an appealing notion. And it’s easier to achieve it that way than through bin Salman’s efforts to pioneer physical genetic engineering in Saudi Arabia. There, the dream exists that people may one day be able to create the perfect baby, perfectly attractive, brilliant, and immune from disease. Forget looking past skin color to the content of one's character when everybody is perfect in all dimensions.

It's all a bit of a pipe dream, for sure, but imagine a world in which logging into your Facebook is so sensorily realistic that it is literally indistinguishable from wandering into the most exciting nightclub on the planet. Or, conversely, in which stepping outside your front door is so digitally intertwined that it’s like logging into the most interactive version of Facebook yet conceived, with all the knowledge of the world already pulsing in your head.

The Metaverse is exciting, but in an era of inflation, labor shortages, and supply chain breakdowns, it’s not surprising a lot of people see this kind of talk as disconnected techno-babble rather than something that could realistically improve their lives. The greatest challenges of the metaverse will come from its natural limitations to be part of the complex ecosystem of activities that nourish and propagate us as actual physical animals – the actual productive economy within which our lives and luxuries hang in the balance. Fail to feed us, and no digital alternative reality will suffice. Humans, after all, aren’t just the fantasies within our brains. Rather, we are living organisms that have survived the brutal heartlessness of natural selection that has trained us over millions of years with the attributes, instincts, emotions and thought patterns to thrive in a world that used to be only physical. To date the Metaverse has not sniffed a digital solution for farming, feeding us, creating things, allowing us to reproduce, or anything of that nature. But it’s closer now than it used to be. Farming and factory work are now much less people-intensive than they used to be thanks to automation, Doordash now delivers food via robot, and many people meet their mates through online dating apps.

But the raw activities that underlie the possibilities of these technologies still exist in the “real” world. Farming happens in actual physical fields, not in Farmville. Digital food doesn’t nourish our bodies, and without physical food we’ll invariably die. And the increasing breadth of the online universe of pornography is only leading to lower birthrates – it’s not a substitute for connecting intimately with another human, trading genetic material and having actual human children.

Perhaps most importantly, discussions around the Metaverse have to date failed remotely to address the hulking and not-fully understood dangers wrought by technology as it seeds our seething cultural angst. While technology yields the same spirit of optimism and opportunism it always has, we’re quickly unearthing a dark litany of ways in which it is terrorizing the first generation raised with social media at their fingertips from birth: unprecedented depression, anxiety, bullying, suicide, gender dysphoria, and disillusionment from society. It’s no secret that the more people are living within the screen, the more we've been playing a dangerous game of chicken with the sanity and mental health of our teenage children.

Perhaps some of this is because the current screen limitations of our present social medias are preventing people from interacting as immersively with each other as we’re evolved to crave in order to realize happiness as physical social animals. And perhaps a more comprehensively sensory experience with the screen can alleviate that. But we’d best take caution: are we sure doubling down on a digital-centric existence is really going to make us happier? Is living in the Matrix is really what we’re evolved to want?

Whatever the answer to that, the Metaverse is coming. Listen faintly. The billionaires are circling overhead. Grab onto your screen, step inside it, and welcome to your new home.

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