Definitely Not About The M***verse
Realms of familiar and unfamiliar
I could talk about the m***verse, its benefits, problems, and implications. I could talk about Zuckerverse, the diabolical adtech abomination, another consumption layer with infinite possibilities of creating artificial scarcity, where everyone, including its very visionary much wow CEO, are all deadeyed robots driven by consumerism impulses. But this is not the topic I'm willing neither to ponder nor to write. I do not want to seem pessimistic or cynical about this whole thing. I share the excitement. I am not afraid of it. There is some other idea that itches inside my skull. It was born a few months ago and now slowly shaping itself into a short fiction piece but before I write it I want to go over some thoughts behind it in a more chaotic and freeform manner.
I want to start with an example. It's not a real-world example, not an anecdote, not a fun fact, or anything like that. It is a fictional story from one of my favourite books, A History Of The World In 10 1/2 Chapters by Julian Barnes.
It is a novel composed of short stories exploring the nature of humanity, history, and time. They are vaguely connected but often share a common theme weaving throughout the whole book. It’s all great but there's a chapter I want to highlight, a story about a man who gets into Heaven, the realm with infinite possibilities. No Earth. No boundaries. No unfulfilled desires. The eternal cycle of indulgence. The protagonist can do anything he could imagine. Food, travelling, sex, meeting Hitler (kind of) so on and so forth, every day for the rest of his life that never ends. But "after a while, getting what you want all the time is very close to not getting what you want all the time." A weird dichotomy. A great irony. A puzzle, unsolvable. An end of endless oscillation. The protagonist feels this. Heaven is not fun anymore. It is normal. A prospect of immortality is not beaconing. Something important is gone. No obstacle. No challenge. Novelty must not be abundant otherwise we start looking for a different orthogonal or reversed kind of it. Excessive novelty is prone to inflation. The protagonist feels this, too, and chooses to die permanently. "I dreamt that I woke up. It’s the oldest dream of all, and I’ve just had it," he says in the last sentence.
This is I think a brilliant illustration of a crucial part of human nature. We crave novelty. We need to escape. A neverending need. Familiar equals mundane. Mundane equals boredom. Boredom equals thirst for unfamiliarity. Unfamiliar equals adventure. We crave adventure, either it happens to us or we happen to it, doesn't matter. Adventure equals novelty. Excitement. Risk. Minimisation of risk. Escape. Boredom again. So forth the cycle of life spins. The snake tries to eat its tail but never gets it. Its tail itches and so for eternity.
One world is never enough. Whether it is dystopian or utopian, whether is in a comfort zone or a zone of discomfort, it must provide us with the necessary escapism means. We need an escape plan, an extra path that leads somewhere, where exactly – doesn't matter, what is important is not being wherever you already are.
A few minutes of scrolling, hours with a great piece of literature or cinema, a week in warm climate country, an endless dwelling on nostalgia, downshifting, half of the life in the virtual realm. That realm, unlike any physical one, can be engineered to become a utopian retreat from a dystopian world. Physically, you can spend all your day in a room with dim light and flickering screens but mentally be a greek god or goddess of something in the virtual reality where nothing stops you, where all the desires are fulfilled, where problems cease to exist, where life is finally what you always wanted it to be, where everything is perfect, uncanny perhaps, but seemingly perfect, designed to be so, at least, designed for you, personally for you. But what at the end? How long you can bear existence in an environment where's no adventure, no danger, no risk, no suffering, no apathy, no agony, no pain? Or in a less exaggerated case, at what moment do you get bored of the perfection and abundance of novelty, after what moment the new world becomes old again, old and boring enough to plant a seed of an urge to escape it to somewhere else?
You can see this now, less vividly perhaps, and from a bit different angle, but you don't have to spend much time to find an example. The internet used to be an escape from the mundane. It used to be a land of exploration, freedom, a place, in a way sacred, you can jump into and feel yourself somewhere else, a place where everything is new, where everything is a part of a new exciting journey, a small step of an unknown quest, means of escapism, the echoing future we saw in Sci-Fi novels and films. Now it's merely a new normal. It is familiar. Everything is there. Everyone is there. Work, shopping, media, art, everything. Friends, family, everyone. Escape routes had become intricate. You are chased by emails, notifications, and ads. Have you heard of a digital detox? The sacred place that used to be the other world, the virtual realm, has become a mirror. The mirror of our world, the mirror of who we are. Another layer of consumption. It is embedded into our lives and we spend most of our time there hence it has stopped sufficing us as a hideout. However, now we are seeing the emergence of the new internet and early signs of the virtual realm, at least plans of companies, groups, and individuals for building it. Once again it is unfamiliar and exciting to participate. The next big thing we can explore. The next escape route with new possibilities. A hideout from the mundane.
I don't want to speculate about what the world will look like. Futurists have theorized about technological wonders yet to come as long as the Sci-Fi genre has existed but seldom has reality matched their visions. The all-embracing virtual realm will be different from what we imagine it at the moment. It is an aspirational fantasy. In many aspects, it is still merely a dream. Sometimes, it is just a word buzzing all around, which makes me think that no one, including me, understands what it means. Perhaps it has no meaning at all and it is yet to acquire it.
I do not think a further transition from physical to virtual and its profound integration into our lives will ruin our society or us as species. The thing is, whatever world we invent for ourselves, whatever technological miracle or an utter dystopian pandemonium it can be, wherever it will take place – in the virtual or in the physical reality, in Heaven, this all doesn't matter. Wherever we go we bring ourselves. There's no escape route from one's head. This fucker will always be here and there. Any new world will become us. We will get bored of its image, frightened or fascinated. The thirst for the unfamiliar will be born again. It will be fulfilled. It must be. The new adventure will commence and the new world, mundane and not strange anymore, will turn from a destination to a place of departure. The cycle will spin once more and life will flip. The physical world will become an escape route, a place where perhaps not everything is possible, not every desire is fulfilled, where adventure, danger, risk, suffering, apathy, agony, pain exist, but where everything is worth exploring and strange again.
It's difficult to think about the concept of the Metaverse without also pondering the concept of Heaven and our own image of eternity. While I don't think it is possible to fully embrace the idea, I do think that we have glimpses of it here on this planet. It's those moments when we become so engulfed in a pursuit, that space and time cease to exist. Your senses dull, and you forget that you are mortal for a brief period of time. It could be something as simple as being totally encapsulated by a piece of literature, or something as dangerous as climbing a 20,000 mountain. And while that moment is not forever, it certainly feels like eternity.
For those who are interested in exploring the idea of the Metaverse in media, I would recommend watching the Black Mirror episode titled 'San Junipero', which explores the idea of Heaven as a technology. Without revealing too much, it is one of the few Black Mirror episodes that is not horridly pessimistic, and worth pondering beyond the hour or so of run time.