By Alasdair Crosby
I have been amusing myself recently by rereading the highly entertaining short stories of W Somerset Maugham. The title of one of these, Appearance and Reality, is derived from that of a notable philosophical/metaphysical work, very ‘densely written’ (coded language for ‘pretty boring’) by a late-19th-century English philosopher, Francis Herbert Bradley. As ‘The Master’ wrote: ‘There is no excuse for my making use of the title of so celebrated a book, except that it so admirably suits my story.’
The difference between ‘appearance’ and ‘reality’ has never been more tangled than it has become nowadays. It might be thought that the two concepts have always been just a bit tangled for writers and journalists, but whatever the conceptual confusion, at least the end product was undeniably ‘real’: a newspaper or magazine article, a book – something to handle that existed in ‘the real world’.
Then along came virtual reality. I heard the first mention of this as a youth… it was contained in some prognostication of what the future might hold and at the time it was just as believable or unbelievable as any other contemporary science-fiction prophecy. Half a century was to go by before the words ‘virtual reality’ became a commonplace encounter and, at the moment, ‘virtual’ things are mentioned every two minutes.
During the pandemic we had a virtual celebration of the Liberation anniversary; the States met virtually; we did (and still do) virtual shopping. We met for virtual parties and virtual meetings and virtual church services and went to work in a virtual office. It was all appearance; reality was kicked by Covid into the outer darkness.
It was not all bad; far more illustrious heads than I have talked about the advantages brought by technology and the beneficial application of virtual reality to our lives. Thank goodness for the internet and its undeniable positive effect. Without it, how could we have coped over the pandemic period?
But before being carried away by enthusiasm for the internet and virtual reality, may I quote Aristotle? He said: ‘He who is unable to live in society, or has no need because he is sufficient unto himself, must be either a beast or a god.’ Unfortunately, in the new normality of virtual reality, the first of the two alternatives is more likely to be expected.
Now, we may or may not be on the road to hell, but hell is on the road for us. It’s called ‘The Metaverse’.
It is unhuman, it is dystopian. It is Facebook meets ‘That Hideous Strength’ of which C S Lewis so famously wrote. And it is coming.
For those unaware of this impending metaverse, this is about Facebook changing its name to ‘Meta’ and rebranding itself as a metaverse company rather than a social-media company. It has announced that it is hiring 10,000 people in Europe alone to advance this project. And an American video game and software developer and publisher called Epic Games has announced they are putting $1 billion toward building the metaverse.
It will be the new version of the internet. Virtual reality and augmented reality will fully integrate with the world around us. If a friend wants to speak with us, we won’t have to read a text or an email or speak on the phone; a digital version of them will emerge and simply tell us the message they want to deliver.
To navigate this world, each person will apparently need an ‘avatar’, a kind of digital representation of themself. It is a transgender paradise: think whom you want to be: click a button and you will be that person, that sex. And change it as often as you want. No painful operations necessary: you can be truly non-binary.
OK, I am not known for my interest in or use of social media. I prefer friends to friends on Facebook. I admit that in another place I use social media in my work… (or rather, somebody else kindly uses it on my behalf as I have no idea how to do it). It is a good way of imparting information – to some people – and as it is there, it cannot very well be dis-invented.
For me, the mobile phone and the email still represent the furthest frontier of Info Tec, so I suppose I must declare an interest in my antipathy to social media in general and the metaverse in particular: an antipathy towards the idea of receiving images and sounds that at least initially we will access by means of headsets and special glasses.
The glasses will be able to do many of the things a smartphone allows one to do, such as take videos, talk on the phone, listen to music, or post things to social media. There is also a programme for holding virtual business meetings called ‘Horizon Workrooms’ which is described as ‘Zoom meets virtual reality’. I can’t wait.
A commentator says: ‘The metaverse won’t be a game world. It’ll never “reset” or “pause” or “end”, it will go on indefinitely like the real world. It’ll be synchronised with our real world and there will be no limit to the “users” of this digital world.’
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has been quoted: ‘You don’t have to choose between being on your device or being fully present. We believe that this is an important step on the road to developing the ultimate augmented-reality glasses.’
At least on the ‘old’ internet you can decide whether you want to be online or offline. You can walk away from it and re-join the real world. There is a choice and a separation. With the metaverse, there is no separation. It will be, as they say, ‘fully immersive’ and it will never pause, never end.
Who will edit this immersive experience? Who will guide us in what should be believed, approved, disapproved, or despised? What kind of values would be enjoined on us to follow?
Margaret Thatcher was entirely right (in one respect) when she said, allegedly: ‘There is no such thing as society.’ These days there is indeed no society. Why should there be, when an individual has the internet, Netflix, Amazon Prime – and will have the metaverse? What use is society to that individual?
That alienation from society and from the real world would only be increased in the metaverse when we can choose our avatars – in short, we would not be fully human in the way that humanity has always identified itself.
The ‘old’ internet has been able to create multiple near-irresistible forces (social media, streaming pornography, video games, etc). An enhanced, immersive super-internet would undoubtedly have the power to absorb entire lives into a world of distractions from which people will not be strong enough to pull away.
Think of what the updated version of pornography would be like (or probably better not to think) if the consumer is fully immersed in an experience indistinguishable from reality.
What to do? The more I read about it, the less I want to experience this brave new world. We must consider the risks involved in handing over the reins of our daily experiences to these forces and then we must resist this diabolical tyranny before we, along with our family and friends, are pulled into a virtual life far from the one that is naturally and intrinsically human.