The term “Metaverse” comes from a 1992 sci-fi novel called Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. In Snow Crash, The Metaverse is a singular, adjacent reality; an immersive successor to the Internet where players escape a real world gone to the dogs (read: private corporations).
Sounds like fun, right? Well, Zuckerberg and the team are working on it, which wouldn’t be my choice but I haven’t been consulted.
While we wait for a capital ‘M’-Metaverse, the term metaverse has become popular in describing the many shared and adjacent worlds we can already inhabit online. We could use it to describe a virtual conference we’ve attended or a game we play with others, a forum, an online learning platform or even social media. These digital worlds are constructed by designers and developers with certain functions and parameters. Rules are put in place and conventions emerge just like in our real-world communities. When we decide to exist in one of these metaverses, we’re often forced to create a digital representation of ourselves, sometimes called an “avatar”. We don’t necessarily think of it when creating an Instagram profile or an account on Udemy or a character on Fortnite but we are creating a parallel, digital version of ourselves. In some environments, creating our digital personae is just a pre-requisite of participation, while in others it is the focus.
Most of us exist in more than one place at once and often, in various forms. We’re not the same person on LinkedIn as we are on Instagram as we are with our partner as we are in a dozen different WhatsApp or Messenger groups as we are with that community of other amateur writers. The jokes and conventions, the interests and ways of speaking differ in each space and mostly, we have little trouble moving between these. It’s a luxury to have so many adjacent realities for us to explore and express different parts of ourselves; to find tribes or escape from them. All good stuff.
But it’s not only good stuff. I sometimes feel like my phone is an eject button. If I’m bored or frustrated or restless or in some other way underserved by reality, I pull out my phone and hit eject. Pooof! I’m somewhere else. But it’s worse than that because I might even be quite enjoying where I am but then I think to look something up or I feel the buzz of a notification and they’ve got me. I can pass hours disconnected from the people I’m physically around and it’s no small feat to make it through a whole dinner or a conversation. This feels especially true at the moment.
If, like me, you’ve been living in an especially locked-down place, likely, many of your interactions have been relegated to these metaverses. The technology wouldn’t have been good enough even a decade ago for most of this to be possible. I can’t decide if I’m grateful for it or not. I doubt we would have been so willing to forego freedoms in our physical world if these weren’t so easily substituted. Play that thought out to its natural conclusion and it’s definitely troubling.
While some of this is different, none of this is new. We have always been expected to be different at work than we were at home. From the job-site to the boardroom to the battlefield, we aren’t just required to curate ourselves appropriately, but to cultivate skills and characteristics to function in these environments – a kind of unnatural selection. And then, to return home at the end of the day or the end of the war and be warm and present or even vulnerable. In the Age of Exploration, European merchants, soldiers and colonists were famous for this incongruence. Their conduct abroad was totally and grossly out of keeping with what was acceptable at home from the Opium Wars in China to encounters with Indigenous people from the Americas to Africa to Australia. The recent history of conflict, authoritarianism, exploitation and violence we sometimes associate with some parts of the world has often been a legacy of colonial conduct – an interesting aside, but I digress. In this context, it speaks to the vast range of our potential in vastly different environments. History, like the Internet, is rich with examples of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
It’s tempting to think of ourselves as cohesive and reliable but we are both varied and subject to change. Most of us need a collection of people - friends, family, colleagues and even strangers - to express the range and depth of our personality, our moods and our interests. And we change, somewhat consistently throughout our lives. Not always, but often in response to the way our world is reshaped by circumstance and by technology.
Recently, I’ve been catching myself struggling to maintain focus in conversations – even short interesting ones. Physically, I might struggle to actually keep the persons face in focus and I have to resist the urge to shake my head vigorously to reset my vision. When I’m walking the dog, I’m often in some other metaverse, deep in a story I’m writing or a business problem. I’m lying in bed next to Angelica re-reading the same sentence over and over because I can’t stop thinking about what my friends were saying in that podcast earlier, and I say friends because I listen to them chatting every few days and we feel so close but they don’t know I exist. I’m here, but I’m not really. And as here gets more and better competition, I do wonder how it plans to keep up.