I woke up this morning thinking about the metaverse. That’s a fairly standard occurrence for me, as someone who has worked on “metaverse” technologies for the past eight years, and I’m working on another conference talk about it at the moment. There’s a lot of discussion about the metaverse right now - rebranding efforts, significantly increased investment, the “promise” of decentralized non-fungible tokens in maintaining economic inequalities through artificial scarcity… the concept of “metaverse” is a mirror to our own sense of security within our physical world. No wonder we’re so enthralled by it at this moment in our history.
Never mind the fact that these technologies have been around for decades - in various forms - as long as we’ve been working on the internet, as long as we’ve been building cameras and capturing the world and telling stories. We as humans have an innate desire to understand, connect to, and influence the world around us, and when we find ourselves increasingly challenged by that offline, we turn to the tools that we have available to us that give us the reach and agency that we crave.
I’m drawn to 3D simulation technologies to understand the world around me and learn how to create a better version of myself as a human consciousness. The metaverse - a promise of technologies that allow us to be our truest selves, and full freedom to build our own world to inhabit - is an intoxicating vision for someone who feels consistently isolated from the world. For someone who sees so many problems with the way that our social and political systems are built, but who lacks the resources to influence their change. The ability to intentionally craft identity - a personality and consciousness that exists outside of the limits and expectations that are put on our physical bodies - is similarly addictive.
But working “in the metaverse” is not without repercussions. The metaverse is already here - it’s just unequally distributed - and why wouldn’t it be? The people building it are the ones in power, who want to maintain the god-like control over their platforms that they’ve experienced as a mirror to their lives in their actual bodies. Playing a god can be fun. Building a version of reality where you are idolized, respected, and adored while being able to exercise an authentic ability to make people’s lives better and control the physical space around you - it’s all anyone could ask for.
Except that the metaverse is externally focused, and it’s trying to address an innate internal need. The people I know who are most invested in prototopic visions of digital futures are the ones who are also the most in tune with the interlacing demands to know one’s self. After all, if you are creating identities and worlds and economies, it is irresponsible to do so without fully questioning where your ideals manifested and what inequalities you are replicating in your metaverse.
The interplay between identity, environment, community, and the very concept of the self is not yet understood - which means that we will always fall short of building the connected metaverse that so many are dreaming of these days. You cannot have a true metaverse when we do not yet fully understand the human condition of Being. We can turn to the existentialist philosophers for reassurance here - Martin Heidegger’s ‘Mitsein’ and ‘Mitweld’ conceptualizations can give us a confidence that we are still far from understanding the inner workings of our consciousness and how we relate to others, no matter how committed the technology industry is to selling us a particular narrative to the contrary. And for each of us individually, that consciousness is such a richly unique Being that it would take an entire lifetime for each of us to even understand what kind of reality it was that we wanted to build.
That mindset - the desire to constantly be exploring, creating, influencing, and connecting with our self, other people, and our environment - that is the mindset of the metaverse. And it exists outside of any platform or company or specific technology stack.