Is the Metaverse the Hero We Need to Rescue Us From Suffering and Enchant the World?sagittarius love horoscope next week
Is the Metaverse the Hero We Need to Rescue Us From Suffering and Enchant the World?sagittarius love horoscope next week FacebookTweet
After a few years hiding in the basements of techno-enthusiasts, virtual reality is back in the limelight. Just in time for a new Matrix movie, Facebook rebranded itself as Meta and tried to take ownership of the entire concept of the metaverse. I leave readers to speculate on the coincidence (synchronicity?) of this timing, and the necessity of either move. Instead, I look to the “hero’s journey” of the metaverse…has it come back from the dead for good this time to rescue us from our suffering and to enchant the world?
I’m afraid the metaverse, shackled by authoritarianism—both political and corporate—still isn’t the hero we need. We need a new myth of virtual reality first, one that encourages our imagination even as it demands mathematical rigor; one that pursues collective good along with individual flourishing.
In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell famously argued that there’s a “monomyth,” a single journey for all the heroes of folklore, mythology, and religion. Roughly speaking, the hero sets out into the wilderness, overcomes challenges, dies (figuratively or literally), is reborn, and returns with the power to renew or recreate the world. We need not adopt Campbell’s homogenizing view of human culture to recognize that there’s some truth here, something essential to the human condition and common to many of our stories.
So far, however, the metaverse is trapped in a cycle of reincarnation more akin to Hinduism’s samsara—the cycle of death and rebirth—than the hero’s journey. Remember the datagloves and headsets circa 1990? The metaverse’s death in one hype wave simply promotes its rebirth into a world of suffering a few years later. I suppose that’s why our stories that include virtual reality—WALL-E, for example—so overwhelmingly point toward dehumanization and domination. At best, we find morally bankrupt escapism. But we keep trying! And now Meta tells us that the future is now, the dream (once again) is nearly realized.
Academics aren’t immune, of course. Philosopher David Chalmers has decided (a decade or two after those of us began discussing it in the context of video games) that VR experiences are real. So it’s not just the metaverse, but ideas about it, that reincarnate.
At the birth of the metaverse, we find the usual literary suspects: science fiction authors Vernor Vinge, William Gibson, and Neal Stephenson. Other authors contributed to the emerging sense of virtual reality, but probably none with so weighty an influence as these. Each proposes some sort of brain-computer interface that will take us out of the dystopian future world into, as Gibson puts it, a “consensual hallucination” where we can experience “bodiless exultation.”
In Vinge’s “Other Plane” and Gibson’s far catchier “cyberspace,” virtual reality is geometric, much like the wireframe arcade games that offered a quasi-3D perspective in the early 80s. This Tron-like aesthetic relented before Stephenson’s vastly more human “Metaverse,” which was like the conventional world, only more so.
Scholars have noted that these science-fiction dreams helped transition online worlds from text-based chat rooms to 3D environments like Second Life (shameless self-promotion: you can find an investigation of this in my book, Virtually Sacred: Myth and Meaning in World of Warcraft and Second Life).
The most popular destination in Stephenson’s Metaverse is The Street, a high tech, chic mixture of nightclubs, shopping, and occasional housing for the early innovating glitterati. Seeking relief from the corporate dystopia surrounding them, people jacked into the Metaverse where they could upgrade their lives—to some extent for the right price, but really it was those devoted to the art of programming who rose above the crowd. The accumulated merit of programming expertise (and early involvement) meant that “when you live in a shithole, there’s always the Metaverse, and in the Metaverse, Hiro Protagonist is a warrior prince.”
This is the vision that opened the door for later authors like Earnest Cline, whose immersive and infinitely expanding Oasis is the current gold standard. But while the literary reincarnation of the metaverse keeps leading to newer and better worlds, the real-world technology has a more fraught history.
Those of us who were attending to virtual worlds in the first decade or so of the 21st century watched the hype wave over Second Life (SL) and similar environments crest and then crash, largely because multinational corporations couldn’t find a good way to hawk their traditional wares and so pulled their support. Shockingly, no one in SL wanted a can of Coca-Cola or felt the need to drive a Ford.
But that’s not to say people didn’t want a metaverse experience. They did…though they also wanted it to work better (the learning curve was steep). Perhaps the return of Linden Lab’s founder to the company will smooth the way. After all, Campbell rightly acknowledged that every hero gets help from faeries, angels, or other mythical agents.
Video games offer an immense variety of virtual reality opportunities, from solo exploration to massively multiplayer universes. Second Life remains the leader in providing metaverse-like experiences and plenty of other companies hope to find success with VR offerings—and yet somehow Mark Zuckerberg has managed to exhaust all the oxygen in the chamber. The company with the largest stock valuation is the favored of the gods, and is the voice of authority. But vultures have already begun to circle—we may still be a ways from good VR—assuming it’s even possible.
Elon Musk has done something similar in the world of neuroprostheses, but perhaps his Neuralink project will actually succeed in connecting our brains to computers. If Neuralink or another brain-computer interface becomes widely available, we’ll be one step closer to the fully immersive experiences that allowed Gibson’s protagonist in Neuromancer to escape the “prison of his own flesh.”
Everyone wants a new, enchanted life in the metaverse…that’s critical to why we can’t let it go. Drawing on religious cultures, technology has long been a source of meaning-making and magic, a way to see the world as purposeful and to give fulfillment to our desires for transcendence. Even the most casual residents of video games and virtual worlds transcend the ordinary by exploring fascinating landscapes, acquiring magical powers, and enjoying how meaningful their choices and actions become. For these reasons and others, virtual worlds are religious in the sense of David Chidester’s “authentic fakes” (doing sacred work in a secular form).
Facebook became Meta, while its Oculus VR headset became the Meta Quest headset. Keep up.
Even “actual” religion gets enchanted in the metaverse. For example, the artist Michael Takeo Magruder offers an experience of the new Jerusalem (Revelation 21) in one of his VR projects, aptly named “A New Jerusalem.” Representing transcendent states—whether in places like heaven or conditions like bliss—has challenged artists for centuries. In the 21st century, look for an expanding array of attempts to use the metaverse to provide a glimpse of transcendent realities (through an Oculus darkly?).
While the Oculus (Facebook’s… err… Meta’s premier VR headset, now itself reborn as Meta Quest) may be heading toward the typical fate of a metaverse incarnation, for the time being it poses intriguing possibilities. For religious people, headset devices offer creators and users an opportunity to be present at a religious site or with fellow parishioners (as long as the user isn’t one of the many folks who experience motion sickness while using a VR headset).
The virtual worlds of the last decade, including games like World of Warcraft and platforms like SL, seemed to die ignominiously. Yes, they’re still on the market; but commentators prefer to cast shade upon them, heaping insult upon the injury of reduced subscriber numbers as mobile gaming became all the rage. All the money was micro transactions. But now the metaverse is back with us. The old incarnations linger as the new iterations arrive and take center stage.
Once we started imagining the possibility of virtual worlds, our relentless pursuit was predictable. The world we live in is rich and wonderful, but far from perfect. We’ve been imagining perfect worlds for a long time (“since the dawn of humankind” as so many undergraduate papers would have it), and technological solutions have an inherent believability to them. So each time our metaverse dies, we wait for an opportunity to resurrect it. The “angels” of venture capitalism and Corporate America have every reason to encourage this cycle—and maybe someday the resurrection of the metaverse will yield more than virtual profits.
Stephenson’s hero must defend the metaverse from a corporate-religious takeover that would subvert this dream and turn individuals into mindless drones. Alas, that so many of those influenced to bring about the metaverse have forsaken this science-fiction optimism. They prefer to take the role of villains: drawing on the latest in big data analysis and social media influence, they look less like the “good religion” that Philip Rosedale wanted for Second Life and more like a brave new world (Absolutely shameless, but again, see my book for more! You could also look to Wagner James Au’s and Tim Guest’s books for their analyses).
Data-driven surveillance can influence both consumer and political action. This strategy, which has driven massive profit margins for search and social media companies, looms over the future of our virtual transcendence.
In this sense, the very things most feared by the early advocates of the metaverse have become the guiding principles of its masters. Simultaneously, the salvific dreams of those early advocates like Jaron Lanier linger only in the dreams of users. Information supposedly wants to be free; but instead of being free to the users, it’s information about the users that’s given freely unto corporate and political rulers.
Is it any wonder that Hollywood is far more likely to envision advanced VR in dystopian rather than utopian terms? But our commitment to the cause reflects the very human experience of trying to enchant the world and make it meaningful. Virtual worlds offer that opportunity…provided that Silicon Valley isn’t allowed to copyright it. If the metaverse aspires to be the virtual world we want (far superior to the one we probably deserve), it will need to do more than leverage our eagerness to transcend earthly life in order to drive shareholder value.
The rigor of the metaverse, the mathematical potential of its organization.
The creativity of the metaverse, the opportunity to imagine new possibilities.
Can these not suffice to provide some corporate value? Why must the metaverse be chained to surveillance capitalism and wars of misinformation? Why must human needs be subservient to stock value? Early users saw an angelic life on the other side of their datagloves. While they may have been naive, we can still turn our gaze to how the metaverse can connect people and give us a chance to see ourselves (and change ourselves) in new ways. But it will take some folks who believe that the metaverse is there for all humanity, that enormous gains to the human community justify modest gains to their stock price.
Eventually, a virtual prophet could lead us to the promised land beyond profit, and the hero’s journey will be complete. But that won’t happen until we focus our technological design on how virtual worlds can serve all humanity.
sagittarius love horoscope next weekIs the Metaverse the Hero We Need to Rescue Us From Suffering and Enchant the World?