The "metaverse" harkens back to the ancient heresies that saw the physical world as a hateful place of sin and death that must be rejected.
Jaron Lanier was born in New York and raised in New Mexico, the son of Jewish parents who suffered under the European totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. His mother survived the concentration camps, and his father’s family fled from Ukraine to escape the pogroms.
Considered the founder of virtual reality, Lanier is truly a Renaissance man. He is a computer scientist, a visual artist, a computer philosophy writer, a technologist, and a contemporary classical music composer. In 2005, Foreign Policy listed him as one of the top 100 Public Intellectuals. TIME magazine included him in their most influential people list a few years later. Prospect followed suit, calling Lanier one of the top 50 World Thinkers. Finally, Wired magazine named him one of the top 25 most influential people in the last 25 years of technological history.
One thing you can bet on is Lanier knows both technology and totalitarianism.
In his book You Are Not a Gadget (a manifesto against the “lifeless world of pure information”) Lanier compares the hypertrophic growth of the internet to a “mush-making process,” in which individuality (that is, the singular uniqueness of the person) is easily traded for anonymous blog comments, impersonal avatars, and fragmentary communication that eventually demeaned interpersonal interaction as a whole:
“Individual web pages as they first appeared in the early 1990s had the flavor of personhood. MySpace preserved some of that flavor, though a process of regularized formatting had begun. Facebook went further, organizing people into multiple-choice identities, while Wikipedia seeks to erase point of view entirely. If a church or government were doing these things, it would feel authoritarian, but when technologists are the culprits, we seem hip, fresh, and inventive. People will accept ideas presented in technological form that would be abhorrent in any other.”
“It’ll destroy humanity”
It comes as no surprise, then, that Lanier has something to say specifically about Zuckerberg’s (allegedly) coming metaverse. And it is not pretty.
In Abram Brown’s article for Forbes, we read Lanier’s dark words on the matter: “If you run [the metaverse] on a business model that’s similar to the one that Facebook runs on, it’ll destroy humanity. I’m not saying that rhetorically. That is a literal and specific prediction that humanity could not survive that.”
Why is Lanier turning Zuckerberg’s promise of a “well-lit virtual world” into a fire and brimstone sermon?
False promises of “love and care”
As the Spanish author Alberto Olmos ironically put it, every effort made to promote the metaverse comes with the same seemingly harmless, infantilizing promise: “Facebook wants you to believe that around $10 billion have been spent so that you can congratulate your grandfather, who lives in a small town in the middle of nowhere, on his birthday. How could you not embrace this unprecedented investment in love and care?”
“Every single civilized country,” Olmos wrote, “has prohibited human cloning. But it seems like nobody has ever said anything about cloning absolutely everything.” That is, at least according to Olmos, what Meta (the company formerly known as Facebook) intends to do: “a project to copy reality, including you, your dog, and your father, in a very convincing immaterial dimension.”
As Jim McDermott explained in America Magazine, this is a classic Zuckerberg move. Rather than take responsibility for the many scandals provoked by his management of users’ personal information, Zuckerberg doubles down on his innovative features: “Oh, you have trouble with the way Facebook uses your data, boosts hate speech and manipulates everyone toward hostility and division? Cool—now we’re going to infiltrate every other aspect of your reality as well.”
This replication is clearly unnecessary. “Zuckerberg tries to convince us,” Olmos says, “that there is something fascinating in being able to meet with your co-workers without leaving your house and having the impression you are actually really meeting, just because your avatar and those of your boss and your colleagues move oh-so-life-like-ish […] Is someone really going to sign up for the metaverse to meet with their boss?”
But the problem is that it is not only unnecessary —again, $10 billion have already been spent on a project that might still take ten more years to come to “life,” whatever life means in the metaverse. The metaverse, experts explain, is dangerous.
Sure, you can use it to “visit” your grandfather, “attend” a concert, or “go to the office.” But the metaverse can obviously be used for less innocent purposes. Why shouldn’t that be the case, considering what has already happened with Facebook?
“There’s no fixed process for predicting the results and controlling what happens,” said Neal Stephenson, the author of the 1992 best-selling sci-fi novel Snow Crash. “At some level, it boils down to people’s capacity to act as socially responsible, ethical individuals.”
Sadly, there are plenty of examples showing that might be a bit too much to ask.
“The only thing that gives any meaning to the metaverse is that it promises people they can finally fulfill their dreams, most of which consist precisely of no longer being oneself,” Olmos doubles down. “It offers the possibility of doing everything we abstain from doing because of either legal or moral reasons, or simply because you are not strong enough to pick a car up and hurl it against your local city council.” In the metaverse, everything goes.
But also, the costs of accessing the metaverse (think of the gadgets users will need to log in, plus the minimum conditions of access to technology needed to do so) will only worsen already existing social and economic gaps. As William Gibson once put it, “the future is already here; it’s just unevenly distributed.”
In any case, what the promoters of the metaverse keep on turning a blind eye to is the fact that virtually no one will want to log in just to replicate his or her own already existing imperfect state. “The metaverse will either be the most successful aesthetic surgery procedure of all times or it won’t be anything at all,” Olmos claims. It might eventually lead to an ideal “Aryan world” —Aryan here meaning, according to Olmos, “whatever is fashionable at the moment.”
The really good thing about the metaverse
The really positive thing about the metaverse (so far) is the conversation it has accidentally started. Most of its critics clearly point out that Zuckerberg’s dream project has forced us to thoroughly reconsider our relationship with the world, with nature, with our bodies, our own selves, and others. Some of the most compelling criticism comes from religious standpoints. In his article for America Magazine, Jim Mc. Dermott wrote:
If you were going to catalog heresies of the Catholic Church, the one that has dogged it both the longest and right from the start is the idea that the physical world is a hateful place of sin and death that must be rejected. In this version of Christianity, Jesus was not a human being —not really— because, as God, he would never have allowed himself to be sullied by stinking, sinful flesh. […]
In fact, the doctrine of the Incarnation teaches that God entered into our world not as some kind of observer or God in a human Halloween costume, but as an actual human being, with all the vulnerabilities and fears that we all know and experience. Some might present that as Christ “lowering himself” to our level, but theologically we also believe it means that God sees our humanity and our world as fundamentally good, as loci of grace and revelation. “He comes not from above, but from within,” Pope Francis writes in “ Laudato Si’.” “He comes that we might find him in this world of ours.”
In that sense, the metaverse is as old as Docetism (2nd century), Arianism (3rd and 4th centuries), Sabellianism (4th century), and Nestorianism (5th century). In the words of the tech journalist Hussein Kesvani, Zuckerberg’s project is largely based in the idea “that bodies are by and large disposable.” Nothing new under the (real) sun.