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You are already in the metaverse Alternative realities have conquered the public sphere

(Guillermo Gutierrez Carrascal/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

(Guillermo Gutierrez Carrascal/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)


September 1, 2022   5 mins

The metaverse is going to change everything. And it’s already here. But what the hell is it?

In 2021, it seemed that every major technology executive took a stance on the metaverse, a new concept for the internet. Mark Zuckerberg went so far as to change his company’s name from “Facebook” to “Meta” and massively reorient its research spending towards a 3D virtual reality future. And yet, the concept of the metaverse remained notoriously inchoate.

Matthew Ball’s new book, The Metaverse: And How it Will Revolutionize Everything, is an admirably clear and thorough introduction to what the metaverse is, what technologies will build it, and why we are heading there. What it isn’t, especially, is persuasive. If you came in sceptical that the metaverse is the future, you’ll find little to change your mind. Ball’s description of the kinds of thing you will do in the metaverse sounds very similar to what you would expect a virtual reality booster to say: entertainment! games! interactive education! socialising!

What this fails to convey is what the future will feel like. The engineers and entrepreneurs building the metaverse are understandably excited. They know we are on the cusp of something profound. But by putting the focus on the technology and on the obvious, but trivial, use-cases, they sell themselves short.

You can’t derive the meaning of the internet by explaining how “the TCP/IP protocol” works. Similarly, while hardware challenges will greatly shape the metaverse, understanding them better does not convey how it will reshape society.

For that, we can turn to science fiction. Early in Ball’s book, he provides a gloss on Neil Stephenson’s vision of the metaverse in his 1992 classic, Snow Crash: “A persistent virtual world that reached, interacted with, and affected nearly every part of human existence
 a place for labor and leisure, for self-actualisation as well as physical exhaustion, for art alongside commerce.”

If you just encountered this definition in the wild, out of context, you would be forgiven for thinking that it was just talking about the internet. Because the metaverse is actually just the next stage of the internet we have today, made possible by some important breakthroughs. In simple terms, it’s an internet you can make a life in.

To understand what this means, think about the evolution of the internet so far, helpfully summed up in the transition from the world wide web (Web 1) to the social internet (Web 2) to the metaverse (Web 3). To get on the world wide web, you used a modem to dial up on a computer with a hefty cathode-ray-tube monitor (mine was in our family’s humid basement). You conversed and played games with people whose “real” identities were a mystery, and whose virtual identities were often ephemeral, tied to specific message boards or multiplayer games. Everything was free because information on the internet wanted to be: pictures, music, video clips, pirated movies, all shared with peer-to-peer networks like Napster or BitTorrent.

The world wide web, in other words, was a series of exciting destinations, which you surfed, one site after another, by memory, hyperlink, or bookmark. The internet was a place — a place to goof off, explore new ideas, chat with friends, and otherwise escape the monotony of everyday life. And when you were done, you left. You “went offline”, which was the default condition because being “online” meant sitting on the family computer in the basement hogging the phone line.

At least, that was true for most of us. But from the beginning, there were those who found that they could be themselves online, that their online life was more real and true than the one they had offline. Intellectually curious teens in rural communities, would-be artists working dead-end jobs, gay kids in the Deep South — all of them preferred the “social virtual reality” of multiplayer roleplaying games, chatrooms, and internet communities to what awaited them in “the real world”. They weren’t outliers or nerds. They were pioneers.

Fast forward to Web 2. You logged on from a computer, as likely now to be a laptop with wifi as a desktop, and then from your smartphone. By this point, the internet went everywhere you did. And the internet mattered, because it wasn’t a destination you visited like a tourist. The internet became something you were on. Your life was somehow entangled across a small number of platforms that were increasingly personalised, and where you shared your real identity because you wanted to connect with real people.

The important thing social media did was create a “killer app” for the internet, for everyone. Not everybody played video games or had niche hobbies or craved the convenience of online shopping. But everyone cared about their friends and family and experienced Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) on their social scene.

So whereas in Web 1 users had their offline and online worlds, in the Web 2 era, the two dimensions increasingly merged. Instagram might be fake, but the plastic surgery women get to improve their pictures is very real.

But even as the internet today shapes and channels how we socialise, communicate, learn, work, and entertain ourselves, there’s still, for most of us, something unreal about the goods it can deliver. The internet is where we spend much of our time, but with a logic and a rhythm determined by which platform we are on. We code-switch depending on whether we’re using Twitter or LinkedIn or a video game or email. For anything that really matters, where power or property is concerned, the internet still seems like a dream.

And now, we’re on the cusp of Web 3. The metaverse is just our name for the final evolution of the internet, where the borders between “the real world” and the digital dissolve. The real world will still be out there, but now it will have to compete with other appealing realities. And it’s not clear that those lacking “reality privilege” — who wake up not to a spacious, light-filled apartment but to trailer homes or cramped high-rises — will prefer “meatspace” anymore. In fact, if you know where to look, it’s already clear that they don’t.

As I’ve been attempting to chronicle in an essay series at The New Atlantis entitled “Reality: A Post-Mortem”, the many worlds of the metaverse are not first and foremost alluring VR environments, but bespoke alternate realities made possible by a sheer abundance of information, stories, and people willing to play along. An internet is coming where every community will have the tools to build compelling narrative worlds of their own, big enough to live inside.

The ability to dwell in a virtual world isn’t the product of sophisticated computer renderings but of the human mind. Whether you’re absorbed with massive multiplayer games like Minecraft or Fortnite or prefer discourse-themed video games like Twitter or The New York Times, there will be a compelling reality for you. Want to live in a world where Donald Trump is secretly plotting with the military to arrest a ring of Democrat pedophile lizard people? You can go there today. Believe wokeism is destroying common sense and liberal institutions? Welcome to the Intellectual Dark Web! Fantasising about what how freakin’ awesome it would have been if Ruth Bader Ginsburg had had superpowers? She-Hulk is streaming now on Disney+.

But while the proliferation of alternate realities is plain to see, in what sense is this a metaverse, characterised by the clashing and commingling of these realities? On the one hand, both online and off, our public life is increasingly defined by where and when alternative realities meet. On January 6, you had a mix of MAGA protestors, Alt-Right trolls, and die-hard QAnon believers live-streaming on Twitch as they stormed the Capitol. These streams were then turned into raw data for liberal online volunteer groups with names like “Deep State Dogs” to trawl through and identify insurrectionists to the FBI.

But the existing methods will pale in comparison to what emerges when payment rails, world-building, crypto-property, and other metaversal infrastructure are up-and-running, as Ball shows. For whatever reality appeals to you most, you will have the tools to invest your time and money, build a community and institutions, produce or purchase valuable property, and otherwise live a life that seems meaningful to you. Whether or not this life is in 3D virtual reality, the meaning and the value of it will be irreducibly entangled with the metaverse.

And that’s why Ball’s book is so important. Beneath the hype and the gizmos lies a revolution in human consciousness. “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” — in the metaverse.


Jon Askonas is assistant professor of politics at the Catholic University of America and a non-resident senior fellow at the Lincoln Network.

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Jim Jam
Jim Jam
1 year ago

It frankly sounds like the stuff of nightmares, and a wet dream for the elites who would like nothing more than a population pinned down and plugged into a virtual landscape. A new world were people’s troublesome personal agency can be entirely nullified by having it play out in a land of make believe which bends to their wims and keeps them placated – slaves to their own superficial desires while their bodies grow flabbly and weak.

Forget the ‘climate catastrophe’ – its this reality waiting in the wings that scares me a great deal more.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 year ago
Reply to  Jim Jam

Agreed. The thing I worry about most is the total and complete manipulation of information. Reality will become extinct. Heck, we are almost there even without Web 3.

Last edited 1 year ago by Warren Trees
Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
1 year ago
Reply to  Warren Trees

Reality snd truth in general are now commodities and owned as such. Hence there is your truth and my truth and his truth. And my reality and yours etc.. Then there is corporate truth, political truth and MSM truth. Amd whatever yer havin’ yerself!
So the distortion is already here and has been for some time.

Matt McCoy
Matt McCoy
1 year ago
Reply to  Jim Jam

I think metaverse is a great invention, that will bring a lot of opportunities. However, it seems that some people in the comment section are not as fond of it. You can read an article on how to benefit from metaverse (especially useful if you are a business owner).

Richard Parker
Richard Parker
1 year ago

Reminds me of the second Red Dwarf book, “Better Than Life”, whose eponymous “total immersion video game” spawned legions of “game heads”, submerging themselves in an alternative existence with no problems or stressors. Of course, they neglected their hygiene, neglected to eat, frequently died horribly
 but they were happy.

Didn’t think I’d live to see anything remotely like Grant-Naylor’s imaginings becoming reality but now I’m starting to wonder. The rise of the hikikomori in Japan should have been a warning already, I suppose. Think I’ll go out for a walk


Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 year ago
Reply to  Richard Parker

And I thought Orwell’s “1984” was amusing when I first read it.

Aaron James
Aaron James
1 year ago
Reply to  Richard Parker

There is also the fact it will literally be Satan’s Playground.

Mark Duffett
Mark Duffett
1 year ago
Reply to  Richard Parker

I’m also reminded strongly of E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops, looking more incredibly prescient with every passing year, yet written in 1909!

Andrew Horsman
Andrew Horsman
1 year ago

What better, kinder, way to deal with the “problem of over-population” could there be than to persuade the masses to give up on “unsafe” real life, with all of its potential for messy, uncontrolled procreation, and to “live” in a virtual world, in a virtual “community”, with virtual boy/girl/whateverfriends, in which there is no unchosen obligation to be who you actually are?

This is demonic. Perhaps some people will be gulled into it for some time, but the human spirit is way too strong for it to take over permanently. And, after all, someone’s still got to clean the toilets. The sooner the elites pushing this stuff realise that they, nor anyone, can control everything the better it will be for everyone.

Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew Horsman

Im glad you used the word “demonic”. As a scientist /tech guy Im reluctant to admit this, but over the last two decades ive been increasingly coming to the view there may be spiritual influence on the digital realm. Hence mention of prayer in my original comment.  There’s lore going back a thousand years and more that certain spirtual entities especially hate matter, suggesting they’d be happier interacting digitally. Unherd writer Paul Kingsworth has wrote about this years back.

That said, due to the vicotory gained on a Roman cross 2,000 years back, if there are any malign eneties at work in digital, there’s almost certainly benevolence too. Hence each one of us can help with prayer. I’d dissent a bit from your first para in that I consider its partly literally true. If one takes a few days to review worldwide anti Loneliness intiatives this last 50 years, one would find that litterally millions of people have tried to help. Much work has been non accademic, but there have been tens of thousands of studies, hundreds of systematic reviews, and even several umbrealla “review of systematic reviews”. All finding that despite all that effort, theres no good cost effective & repeatable real world way to intervene against loneliness. (Though some lonely people do very much benefit on an individual level.)  And if anything, the problem of Loneliness is getting worse, with new and arguably more intense forms becoming a common experience (the incel phenomena.)  I’m not saying theres proven digital solutions either,and it would be madness to rely on digital solutions alone. But digital is arguably looking more promising. To bring this back to the sprititual, the main reason *some* males get years of deep contemenent from relationships with sexdolls and even fully digital AI girlfriends is maybe projection of their own anima. But there may be some connection with the divine femine too. (Focussing on men as annoyingly Ive seen much less evidence that lonely women benefit as much from this sort of digital solution.)

Andrew Horsman
Andrew Horsman
1 year ago
Reply to  Adam Bartlett

Maybe the hatred of the material is associated with those malignant entities’ obsession with fire? After all, when things are burnt they cease to possess their own identities; there is a solidarity and a oneness in their ashes. The inferno is all consuming and it knows no rich, no poor, no black, no white, no living, no dead. In that sense, it unites.

What I find fascinating is that the people most committed, knowingly or not, to a materialist worldview seem not to want to live in a material world at all. They seem quite happy to disappear into a gnostic metaverse. Mary Harrington has written about this on these pages with far more acuity than I could ever hope to achieve.

My sense is that loneliness and alienation are not aberrations that a well executed intervention (pharmaceutical, social, or otherwise) could ever hope to fix. Rather they are the inevitable byproduct of industrial societies that believe in progress of one form or another, in which people are valued not for who they are but what they can produce, or at least what image they can project.

As to the men who find satisfaction and emotional sustenance in AI “girlfriends” – good luck to them, I am not in a place judge. But has their ability to relate to other people has been so damaged by the toxic dehumanised environment in which they have grown up, and in which they are now living their biologically adult lives, that they can’t position themselves in relation to their peers. That is, that they haven’t actually left psychological childhood at all and living with lines so blurred they can’t make them out anymore? Is this the way in which the metaverse “wants” to drag us, so that we never actually leave the childish things behind and grow up to be fully functioning, sovereign, and independent men and women – with all of our glorious flaws, imperfections, and capacity to do new things?

Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew Horsman

Thanks so much for the excellent reply. I’ll respond in turn to your 4 paras. #1 Maybe. I dont know much esoteric lore regarding malign entities. I know a bit more about the light side, and generally fire is regarded as the top of the 4 lower elements (i.e. above air, earth & water, though below spirit.) This is why gold is such a prominent colour in royal ceremonies and the like as it symbolises fire and the heavens. If you’re suggesting there may be an ancient & malign spirit behind Woke, I’d agree that’s possible, one of my teachers (Scott Mannion on his Youtube) certainly thinks so. As with near everything on this earth though, the good and bad are mixed together, identity politics are surely in part divinely inspired too. “No Greek nor Jew, no male nor female, no slave nor free” and dozens of other passages…
 
#2 Yes I also love MH. Just the sort of insight & eloquence the times call for.
#3 Agreed, though Loneliness was with us right from the start. The very first specific -ve mentioned in the Holy Bible. Possibly intended to motivate us to fill that God shaped hole by reaching out to Him. Though not something most could do easily, hence the gift of that love (Eros) most similar to divine love. (Gen 2:18) But yes, the problem has intensified for the reasons you say.
#4 I’m not sure, but sadly cant disagree. Maybe a consequence of Meta is people will be less able to progress as the Apostle advised, and (in as much as 1 Cor 3:13 applies to the earthly realm) it will become less easy for “fire to try every man’s work”. Definitely interesting times we live in..

R Wright
R Wright
1 year ago

I still am not quite sure what the difference is between this imagined immersive future and what has already been available to us for decades. People have built entire separate lives on platforms like VRChat, Second Life, IMVU and Habbo Hotel, heck even basic sites like old style internet forums and 4chan which have their own cultural mores and quasi-languages. To me it just sounds like marketing hype. Human beings have been creating their own fake worlds and inhabiting them using the internet for three decades.

Aaron James
Aaron James
1 year ago
Reply to  R Wright

those are as different to the Metaverse as Tom Hank’s basketball ‘Wilson’ was to a real human friend.

1970’s cheap weed and a couple hits of LSD

This stuff coming will destroy who ever joins it.

Jon Walmsley
Jon Walmsley
1 year ago

‘A revolution in human consciousness’? I think someone’s consciousness has taken a downwards turn, not an upwards one if their assessment of where Web 3, as they call it, is going to lead us. There will undoubtedly be good and bad mixed in, but I have little confidence that the metaverse as a concept is going to better human life in general when it – like most new-fangled technological innovations – fails to address the root psychological and spiritual deficits most of us continue to suffer from.

Jason Highley
Jason Highley
1 year ago

A world where oligarchs who already own everything in real life get to control the scarcity of fake stuff that they drip to the masses to exploit and commoditize every last ounce of living out of them?
No thanks. I’ll take nature made in God’s image over nature made in man’s image any day.

Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
1 year ago

Great article on a fascinating subject. Though challenging to know what to think unless you have hundreds of hours to research. Many of the engineers who have put tens of thousands of hours into this are extremely optimistic. They expect Web 3 to be benefit everyone, but if anything the common people more than the elite. They see tech like blockchain & tokenisation as being at the heart of web 3 and as being designed from basic principles to resist centralised control. So in that view web 3 gives folk more economic agency and options, in addition to the cultural / aesthetic & choice elements discussed in the article. Certainly I think it will be very life enhancing for some.

I’m worried there will be a risk of economic benefits being excessively captured by the tech savvy. And despite the engineers vision, possibly by private sector elites, at the expense of government & hence public power. Even more so I’m concerned web 3 might accentuate anti real world trends, as detailed in the excellent recent unheard Mary Gaitskell article  “When did physical approach become scary?”. Still, may turn out to be a big net benefit for the world. I’ll be praying that turns out to be the case!

Martin Johnson
Martin Johnson
1 year ago

So, Web3 = The Matrix, even down to the monsters who run it behind the curtain.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 year ago

There is a great example of the money motive here in this very article. When you click on one of the links, it takes you to an article published by the Wall Street Journal, which only gives you a peek at the first paragraph before requiring one to subscribe before being able to read the entire article. I never do so, by the way. If zapping me with ads is not enough revenue generation for the site, then I’m not interested.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
1 year ago

I’m kinda addicted to Unherd: does that mean thet got me too?

Last edited 1 year ago by Liam O'Mahony
Michael Coleman
Michael Coleman
1 year ago

I’m left wondering if Askonis has tried a recent VR headset like Oculus Quest 2 or similar? You can call the fully immersive experience of VR “Web 3.0” as if it were just another increment in the evolution of the internet but this significantly downplays the significance of the transition. The key difference is that with sufficiently powered VR most normal people lose awareness of their place/status in the “real world” .
The currently technology allows for this in a limited way – the technology is a critical piece of the experience so Ball’s need to explain the tech is essential (Askonis’ tcp/ip analogy fails massively).
Lastly, Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (book first then movie) are must read/sees for where we possibly are headed.

Oliver Gover
Oliver Gover
1 year ago

Wasn’t there a film about this with that guy from Bill and Ted?

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
1 year ago

What I notice is how the 30 year transition from Web0 (real life) to Web1 (text) to Web2 (video & pictures) has resulting in a gradual increase in loneliness, anxiety, depression, addiction, and a decline in meaningful human contact, while enriching the educated, technophilic, managerial class.
This makes me suspect what will happen as we transition to Web3 (immersive virtual reality) as well: the baby of a ménage-a-trois between Gattaca, Brave New World, and the Matrix.

Last edited 1 year ago by Brian Villanueva
frigus amarum
frigus amarum
1 year ago

Old hat; article, behind the times.

ron kean
ron kean
1 year ago

In Jerusalem in Israel there’s a touristy place that offers those masks where the screen is 4 inches away from your face. Put on the mask and it’s like walking around inside the Temple that existed 2,000 years ago. You can look in one direction and see the Levites singing. The Priests were with animals. The doors were huge. You can go to the top of the walls for a birds eye view. Very immersive.

polidori redux
polidori redux
1 year ago

“And that’s why Ball’s book is so important. Beneath the hype and the gizmos lies a revolution in human consciousness. “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” — in the metaverse.”
I call it out as bullsh!t. You are not surfing the web, you are not inhabiting an alternative reality in the metaverse -.You are sitting in you mother’s spare room typing.