The Looming Delusions of the Metaverse

What will you believe when you immerse yourself in a new reality?

Step back from the buzz of Facebook rebranding as Meta for a moment and consider the grand arc of human evolution. The sole reason our little species of hominids — weaker than gorillas, less fearsome than tigers, much smaller than elephants — conquered the Earth’s biosphere is that we build things outside of ourselves. These things began as sticks and stones and hammers and tools, but evolved into compounded networks, which we call technology … and then we developed stories around them.

Yuval Noah Harari has suggested humans succeeded as much due to the fantastical stories we tell ourselves as the gizmos we build to support them. Sure, an ape might beat you or me in a one-on-one brawl, but 10 humans collectively banded together in a group mission will best the self-defense of any single animal. Our tools/technology combine with our stories/self-delusions to make our hominid species, well, powerful. We move fast via the rolling exoskeletons called “cars” and “planes”; we gain more nutrition by pre-digesting our food in external stomachs called “stoves” and “ovens”; and we delude ourselves by subscribing to ever-more illusory stories of our local group’s special, unique identity, now often called “political parties” or “nations.”

Our fake group stories are the collective glue that holds our technology together.

This brings us to the Metaverse. The Internet is basically a network-of-networks, comprised of three core components: Content, connectivity, and identity. Our .com linkages and social walled gardens have continuous evolved into richer content — from text to images to video to 3D games; wider networks — from PC-to-PC 1980s’ file transfers to the 2020s’ social graphs that connect the world — and new forms of identity such as passwords and Facebook Connect sign-in buttons. The Metaverse is nothing more than the inevitable evolution of the webbed technology we build outside ourselves, what Kevin Kelly has rightly called The Technium — a new layer of evolution that is expanding beyond our bodies.

So will the Metaverse be filled with delusions? Of course. People are already glued to the TV and online video 5 1/2 hours a day, watching fake realities in full-color 2D. The Metaverse will simply feed our hunger for new fictions with higher-resolution graphics, with the added opportunity to move ourselves into the story. And as the polarization and fragmentation of our modern “news” media has shown, we listen best to the truth-challenged stories that we tell ourselves.

In his recent book “The Metaverse and How It Will Revolutionize Everything,” Matthew Ball notes that new technology platforms rarely arrive at a single point in time. It took nearly 40 years for Thomas Edison’s electricity, for instance, to scale from a few test power plants to support half of U.S. manufacturing. Technology evolves as a growing mashup of innovations, companies, products, and systems, and usually lands in a place far from the starting-point’s silliness. Kodak never thought what began as film cameras would end up as tiny glass circles embedding on pocket telephones. Pundits who scoffed at early Twitter as a teen chat network never imagined future presidential elections would hinge on its usage.

It’s worth a note here that the future Metaverse will have practical and positive uses as well — healthcare renderings to guide surgeons; higher-education classes that provide full-immersion in studies at lower tuition costs; architectural renderings that build better cities. But as with any new content technology, entertainment use will likely rule the day.

Microsoft Flight Simulator now renders the entire planet with images so realistic they are barely distinguishable from reality. Its secret is airplanes don’t move very fast against the ground backdrop, so remote computers have time — within today’s limited bandwidth — to slowly load the immense graphics onto your local game device.

So, yes, the Metaverse is coming. How we use its delusions will be up to us. Immense, full-world games such as Microsoft Flight Simulator are already here. The computer power and Internet bandwidth required to bring even more intense, immersive, real-time virtual ecosystems will be developed in the next decade; Mark Zuckerberg’s recent Meta avatar looks cartoonish and perhaps worthy of derision now, but goggles and connectivity will only get faster, rendering better graphics and ultimately experiences. Companies are spending billions racing to stake claims in the soon-to-be world of virtual, immersive, Metaverse unreality for a reason. The prizes are significant; Epic Games, producer of Fortnite, generated $2 billion in 2021 mainly from sales of online avatars and their outfits. If a game maker can produce billions of value by becoming a fashion brand, what else is possible?

This new “beyond our universe” system will be accessed via headsets and handsets, 3D and 2D screens, and it will be filled with new fictions and delusions.

We’ll slide into these delusions — good and bad, healthy and unhealthy — easily, just as we already bathe in Fox News and MSNBC, religion and corporate missions. Which is natural, because believing in delusions has been our species’ growth strategy all along.

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