Reality is frequently inaccurate. – Douglas Adams
Back in the 1990s, I was an alpha tester for an online education project being developed at NCSA (The National Center for Supercomputing Applications. The previous sentence was my payment – the right to say I had briefly worked with NCSA at UIUC. Because of that connection, I also got to visit an early CAVE (Cave Automatic Virtual Environments) projection based technology room. As an educator and webmaster, over the years, I worked with various forms of interactive virtual reality interfaces. I could go on stating my nerd/geek credentials, but as they say “references available upon request”.
Here in the third decade of the 21st Century, there is tremendous hype around the metaverse. The metaverse is the newest iteration of simulated reality. Googling “metaverse” returns nearly two billion references. There are actually numerous metaverses being created – so in a sense parallel metaverses. A metaverse is an interactive computer-generated virtual environment. But the metaverse is simply billions of lines of code without human interaction. The reality in virtual reality is created by the human brain. Once you cross into these virtual dimensions, in a very real sense, you are the free meat in the metaverse environment. And so, we have to ask why would people be willing to step through the digital looking glass into a corporate alternate reality?
Let’s start with a little background. The concept of simulated reality is thousands of years old. Plato (428 BC – 348 BC) wrote about the Allegory of the Cave. The allegory describes a group of prisoners who are chained to a wall. They watch and name shadows projected on the wall from a fire behind them This shadow reality is not true reality, but it is simply small bits of actual perceived reality. In the updated version, the digital constructs of the metaverse are the shadows on the cave wall.
The metaverses’ dreamlike transformative promise was first written about by the great sage Zhuangzi (369 BC – 286 BC). Here is my translation of Zhuangzi’s Butterfly Dream:
Once upon a time Zhuangzi dreamed he was a joyful butterfly fluttering about. When he awoke Zhuangzi did not know if he had been a man dreaming he was a butterfly or was he now a butterfly dreaming he was a man. The essential distinction between the two states is called the transformation of material things.
Over the centuries, billions of imaginations have been inspired by countless stories about virtual and alternative realities. In the modern era, many writers have woven fantastic narratives around simulated realities. Some examples from science fiction would be: They by Robert Heinlein, 1941; The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke, 1956; numerous Phillip K. Dick stories, such as the Cosmic Puppets, Eye in the Sky, etc.; Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut Jr., 1973; and so many more.
The word metaverse is originally from Neal Stephenson’s great novel, published thirty years ago, Snow Crash.
“So Hiro’s not actually here at all. He’s in a computer-generated universe that his computer is drawing onto his goggles and pumping into his earphones. In the lingo, this imaginary place is known as the Metaverse. Hiro spends a lot of time in the Metaverse”.
The most recent media hype about the metaverse has focused on metaverse avatars. In Hinduism an avatar is the manifestation or incarnation of a deity in human form sent to Earth to help others. Digital avatars are computer-generated representations of users/characters/personas in virtual worlds. In the future, one would interact with the metaverse via a sophisticated avatar connected through something called a haptic device.
A keyboard, mouse, smartphone are simple haptic interfaces. Today’s VR glasses/helmets and glasses are more sophisticated haptic devices. Ultimately the goal of metaverse-based corporations would be to install wetware interfaces into users’ bodies. Wetware links the brain to the artificial system. Sound too much like The Matrix? Check out Elon Musk’s Neuralink which states it is creating an “ultra high bandwidth brain-machine interface to connect humans and computers”. However sophisticated the biomechanical interface may become, the virtual stimulation of an avatar-based sense will always remain a simulated sensation.
As you can see from the above, interfacing with your living flesh is the ultimate goal of the metaverse. And once this is done, reality itself is then open to manipulation on a frightening scale. Users will believe what the interface says is real.
Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past. – George Orwell, 1984.
How to protect your mind-meat. People in restaurant kitchens are supposed to wear a chain mail glove when using a meat slicer. The whirring blade spins so fast it is difficult to see the edge. In the future, when you do enter the metaverse, in whatever form, wear your cyber chain mail. Protect yourself from the myriad of hidden meanings embedded in the lengthy End User License Agreements (EULA) you must agree to before crossing over the threshold from the tangible world into virtual worlds. Remember the adage, If you aren’t paying for it, you are the product. Collecting and profiting from your attention and your data are the reasons so many Mega-corporations are investing in the construction of the Metaverse.
Recently I was reminded of the scale of personal data collection by corporations and governments while watching the hit Netflix movie Don’t Look Up. In the movie, the eccentric billionaire Peter Isherwell tells the scientist Dr. Mindy, “This is evolution of the human species…You know that BASH has over forty million data points on you, on every decision you have made since 1994, Doctor?… You run towards pleasure and away from pain…” In the real world, that number of data points collected over decades would probably be a low estimate.
Watching that scene I thought, why 1994? In 1993 NCSA released Mosaic the first web browser. In 1994 the World Wide Web became widely available. And relevant to this discussion, so-called internet cookies were invented in 1994. Cookies are small blocks of unique identifying data placed on each user’s device by a visited website. The Netscape engineer who invented the tracking cookies did so in order to prevent third-parties from tracking users. Lo and behold, less than two years later, advertisers had hacked the tracking system and began tracking people and have been doing so for decades. A much more dynamic and robust detailed targeting is an indivisible element of metaverse DNA.
During the twelve years I lectured in China, the years after the huge growth of smartphone apps were the most challenging. I tried to guide my students towards healthier pursuits, but the allure of the attention grabbing algorithms grew more and more irresistible. Every week, I would remind students that the apps and website companies were getting rich from the time they interfaced with them. I tried to offered inspirational words such as these from the great poet Carl Sandburg: “Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful
lest you let other people spend it for you. And when you spend it, spend it wisely so that you get the most for your expenditure.” Expend your time wisely in the metaverse or maybe just take a walk in ultra-super-duper high-definition fully immersive reality.