View the Project on GitHub misslivirose/unsound-mind

The Metaverse as a Metaphor for Existentialism

I started reading Sarah Bakewell’s “At the Existentialist Cafe” last month. I usually have anywhere between 3-6 books that I’m actively reading, on various topics, so that no matter what mood I find myself in, one of them generally appeals. Having recently finished “Good Morning, Destroyer of Men’s Souls” by Nina Renata Aron and “Mismatch” by Kat Holmes, I returned to the existentialist cafe this morning and found myself back in the throes of Heidegger and Husserl’s disagreeable dynamic (Husserl, who was Heidegger’s teacher, believed himself to be more phenomonological and disruptive than his protegee). It is ia fascinating and familiar story. What makes it so interesting to me is that it is a tale of two people who appear to largely agree, but see the small places that they don’t, and their inability to communicate the differences in their beliefs, as the fundamental differentiator that leads to an antagonistic, albeit professionally maintained, relationship.

I find Existentialism, as a philosophy,to be misunderstood - primarily because when I bring it up with others who are familiar with philosophy, I almost always get the response “Have you read about stoicism?”. We use the term ‘existential crisis’ to define our most agonizing moments; the ones where we question everyhting about our existence and our place within the world. So, I think it gets a bad rap - being an existentialist implies a perpetual state of crisis. And perhaps that’s true, for some - it certainly was for me, when I first started reading about it. While in crisis, I turned to the existentialist philosophers to understand my experience. Existentialism is many things, but at the core, it is about being present in existing. Phenomonology, which is a closely related practice to existentialist thinking, is the act of documenting the world you experience as unique phenomenon; discussing even the most mundane object as a prompt for critical self-reflection and purpose. Frankly, despite the reputation it has, I can’t think of a more rewarding and optimistic way to view the world.

I’ve written about how I am drawn to metaverse technologies as a way of understanding the world that I live in. Rather than relying on paintings and writings to capture and document the experience of existing, 3D simulation technology enables us to take our human skills of narrative and art and bring the worlds we experience - or want to experience - to life in immersive ways. The idealist vision of the metaverse - a protopic one, mind you, not the version we’ve become familiar with thanks to Facebook and Ready Player One - is a tool that enables us to understand what living and purpose means. But in practice, the world we live in is imperfect, and those imperfection will, inevitably, be present in the technology we build. We may as well start to piece together what that looks like now.

At the core of their disagreement, Husserl and Heidegger failed to see eye to eye on which precise moments throughout our existence are the ones that are worth observing and considering phenomenon. Husserl considered himself the more radical of the two, and expressed disappointment in his student for not taking a more progressive stance on existentialist phenomenology. Heidegger, on the other hand, liked to point out that the moments most likely to cause us to think more critically about our existence in the world were the ones where the world did not conform to our expectations. Bakewell writes an example: if we are typing on the computer, when things go as expected, our mind is present on the content of what we are writing. It is not until the computer freezes that we are jerked back into a reality that isn’t matching our expectations, and these moments are the ones that can lead us down the path of questioning what it means to exist at all.

“When such things happen, they reveal ‘the obstinancy of that with which we must concern ourselves.’ No longer is the world a smoothly humming machine. It is a mass of stubborn things refusing to cooperate, and here I am in the middle of it, flummoxed and disoriented.” - At the Existentialist Cafe, page 89

I’ve recently started treatment for suspected cyclothymia, a bipolar disorder spectrum condition that involves rapid, oscillating, and intense mood swings. The three months preceding this treatement, where my symptoms were arguably worse than they ever have been, were some of the most anguishing, punishing, and confusing of my life. For a mind trained to think about itself and the world it inhabits, having no baseline upon which to ground one’s self is an existential crisis, indeed. Flipping through versions of reality multiple times per day - is it any wonder that I found myself seeking out the company of existentialist philosophy? The messages of these thinkers enabled me to document what I was experiencing, and thus this blog project was born.

So with this disoriented, obstinate world that we live in - these moments that interrupt our days and cause us to most closely examine our place in the world - what does that mean for the ‘verses we’re trying to build?

Of course, we see this chaos in our attempts at buildling metaverses. There is argumentative discourse about what the term itself means. We have a momumental task at hand - to get computers to work together in ways that they simply haven’t been able to in the past, and to put humans into that loop more deeply than we ever have. We want to enable citizens of these metaverses to build and own content, but right now, the “most promising” way that we talk about enabling ownership is deeply damaging to our world. We aim for the most realistic we can get, without stopping to consider how inequitable our experienced physical reality can be for different groups of people.

I started out by calling this post “The Metaverse as a Metaphor for Existentialism”, but I would be remiss to not explicitly observe that it could be reversed: “Existentialism as a Metaphor for the Metaverse”. Indeed, when it comes down to it, both are ways of considering, thinking upon, and acting in the service of understanding and creating purpose for ourselves, our community, and our environment. Rather than get hung up on worlds, let’s focus on the task at hand: which is making it all come together.

That means changing the way we approach our world and the other people within it. It’s being more careful and thoughtful about the systems we’re putting into place, and whose visions we’re following along with and using as a guide. In the absense of safe places to be and build, communities will find and create their alternatives. How can we build metaverses without considering the magnitude of what it means to play god?

To build a reality - the metaverse - we must first understand what it means to be real. And as the existentialist philosophers recognized a century ago: we’re still a long way from that.