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Surviving the Metaverse

By Mary Harrington at First Things

Photo by Javier Peñas / Unsplash
A Review-Essay of The Metaverse: And How It Will Revolutionize Everything by Matthew Ball

In his 2016 essay, George characterized the neo-­Gnostic outlook as an anthropology in which what makes me me is my consciousness, conceived of as radically separable from my body. The clearest and most extreme expression of this anthropology in contemporary culture is, as George observed, among the young people for whom transgender identities serve as a proxy for profound discontent with embodiment itself—a discontent frequently expressed by those within this subculture. One such writes on Twitter: “My own body is a whole existence that I can’t even *BEGIN* to try and feel connected to past carnal wants and desires because it’s so foreign and reprehensible to me.” Body dissociation has come a long way since Descartes’s “I think, therefore I am.”

Small wonder, then, that we find technologists working to synthesize an experience of mystery, enchantment, heroism, or transcendence, to appease the same hunger for enchantment the technological worldview has helped to create. As Ball shows, a key driver in taking us toward the Metaverse has been the tremendous and growing demand for multiplayer online games such as World of Warcraft. If Ball is to be believed, the soon-to-be-even-more-profitable realm of the Metaverse will take us even closer to sating our hunger for enchantment.

This trope has even found its way into the entertainment genre video gaming displaced: the highest-­grossing movie of all time is James Cameron’s Avatar, which came out the year video gaming overtook ­Hollywood in revenue. Avatar depicts a disabled former soldier whose consciousness is projected, by means of a futuristic technology, from his own gray, militarized environment into an able-bodied humanoid “avatar” on a planet of otherworldly beauty where all creatures live in harmony. It is an entrancing depiction of the Gnostic sense of a flawed, ugly embodiment, and the yearning to depart for somewhere more moral, more beautiful, more whole.

But there is a critical difference between the Gnosticism of old and its return today in these tech-enabled parallel dimensions. For the ancient Gnostics, the problem with the world of flesh was how poorly it compared with the true, original world of spirit. Gnosticism took for granted that this world of spirit existed, and that it was in a sense truer and more objective than that of matter. Neo-Gnostics, though, evince no such underlying belief in a transcendent spiritual dimension.

The Metaverse affords no higher Platonic world of objectively existing Forms. On the contrary, it suggests that we can escape from our prison of flesh into an infinitude of infinitely customizable worlds of Forms, tailored to suit each individual. If the root of the Gnostic heresy is a longing for transcendent spiritual experience unburdened by the taint of embodiment, the Metaverse takes this longing a step further. Here, the relief proffered to those longing for bodiless transcendence takes the form of an individualism so radical it affords no space at all for shared meaning, save on an opt-in basis. And it does so with the aim of making money.

Here, the plot of Avatar is unexpectedly prophetic. In the movie, the protagonist escapes his paralyzed body and is made (technologically) “whole” in another realm. But he’s sent to this realm by a resource extraction company, in ­order to befriend the natives of the land his employer wishes to strip-mine. It is a vivid metaphor for the role of commercial exploitation—a strip-mining of the soul—in the creation of these tech-facilitated simulacra of transcendent experience. This role is made clear in Ball’s book: The infrastructure of the Metaverse is already being influenced by corporations eager to maximize the possibility of value capture, from IP regulation to payment systems.

And unlike the vision of the ancient Gnostics, this picture of radical atomization as spiritual transcendence is structurally ­reliant on the very world from which it promises escape. This irony is reflected, obliquely, in Ball’s focus on the material practicalities involved in creating this simulacrum. For the neo-Gnostic dream of lightness and infinite possibility is, as Ball acknowledges, ultimately a prosaic material reality of circuitry, processors, and giant undersea data cables. “The Metaverse may be ‘a massively scaled and interoperable network of real-time rendered 3D virtual worlds,’ but . . . it will be realized through physical hardware, computer processors, and networks.”

So this neo-Gnostic vision departs even from the original heresy. It points not to a unitary spiritual dimension, but to infinite imitations of such dimensions, infinitely customizable to each lonely inhabitant. And it departs, again, in remaining dependent on the material world from which it promises escape. In other words, this creation is precisely what the ancient Gnostic heretics believed themselves tasked with escaping: an envious imitation of Creation, which tempts human souls into captivity within itself.

For Ball, though, being a Demiurge is all good: good, at least, for business. “The very idea of the Metaverse means that more of our lives, labor, leisure, time, spending, wealth, happiness, and relationships will go online. Actually, they will exist online,” he declares. The question of why this might be better is, once again, left for others to explore; as, indeed, is the question of how it might be significantly worse. Ball blithely predicts social consequences including a rise in digital surveillance, misinformation, election tampering, political agitation, harassment, “revenge porn,” and deepfakes. He further envisages new and strange cultural crises and conflicts, and a proliferating and radically ­de-­materialized gig economy, along with ever-growing disparities of wealth, in which the rich can play in a world of infinite possibility, “powered by toiling ‘third-world’ laborers for the sake of ‘first-world’ joys.” No matter. Social issues are not his real concern, at least not compared to the challenges more immediately pertinent to his ­priorities, such as real-time rendering capacity or improved regulation of digital IP.

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