Coming to a metaverse near you
Mark Zuckerberg, as surely everybody knows by now, wants you to live in his metaverse. That’s why Facebook has changed its name to Meta. What has this got to do with anything? Well, that depends on whether you or those you love have (or may) become virtual reality junkies.
The line between personal experience and virtual entertainment is continuing to blur. Major virtual reality companies are now in the process of creating interconnected “realities” in which you and others can live and move and have your being through everything from virtual reality glasses to gloves with “haptic feedback” (transmitting sensations to your fingers which enable you to touch and feel things in virtual reality). The interconnected system of virtual reality is called the “metaverse”. Each participant is represented by an avatar, and participants can “do” things alone or even together through their avatars, such as playing games, listening to music, enjoying live events, exploring artificial representations of the real world together, conversing, or dialing up any number of immoral “virtual experiences”.
There are plenty of companies exploring these possibilities, such as HTC and Valve and including, inevitably, Amazon and Google. But, as one technical writer recently pointed out, it is Zuckerberg who has renamed his company Meta and who consistently spells his proposed metaverse with that universalizing small “m”. Thus Facebook’s founder does not suggest one company’s proprietary Metaverse, but an innocuous and disinterested metaverse for all, considered by users as simply a value-neutral place or platform. In reality, of course, in Zuckerberg’s vision (and, I am sure, that of others) the metaverse would be controlled by a single company, a company that would deliberately skew your perception of reality, just as a relatively primitive Facebook does now—only more subtly and more completely.
Or look at it more humorously, perhaps: If you think you’re surrounded by advertising now, just wait for the metaverse, no matter how it is run.
What this means
Interestingly, one technical commentator I’ve read seems to think that exposure to “disinformation” in Facebook groups is a good indicator of the threat of the metaverse, but I’d be even more concerned about the labelling and restriction of “disinformation” by all the social media giants, as both big business and big government tend to push the same secularist viewpoints. Always recognizing that the richness of things like Faith and Morals and Liturgy and Sacraments cannot be captured virtually (despite our own Church’s effort to popularize the video “Mass”), one wonders whether the “life” of Catholic things in the metaverse might not be screened out of our “virtual” existence completely.
However this works out, the deeper issue will be the degree to which the human person can substitute virtual reality for just plain reality. No matter how realistic a “virtual reality system” may be, it is actually not the same thing as direct personal interaction with others. This is something that most people understand instinctively, which means that the danger lies where it always has with every form of media—that is, in both convenience and temptation. Does the convenience of interacting virtually, to accomplish tasks or enjoy various experiences, tend to isolate us from real people? Does the temptation to experience virtual pleasures lead us into behaviors in which we would not engage if the real people in our lives knew about them?
In the latter case, of course, we would simply be experiencing an easier way to sin. The remedies for that are all non-virtual simply because they involve purposeful change in our own being under the influence of Divine grace. In the former case, however, the issue becomes one of balance—as it always is when we become too preoccupied with any work or entertainment. We need to recognize the fundamental reality of family and friends, the neglect of which we are notoriously likely to regret later in life when we become more aware of their own emptiness.
But of course that balance will become increasingly difficult as more and more childless couples (or singles) drift into old age with nothing but their own pets. We can say, as with televised Masses, that virtual reality is a great blessing for shut-ins (for example). But when anyone ends up with nothing but virtual reality, there is a very real problem—a problem that is growing dramatically with the destabilization of the family throughout the West, and in other regions as well.
The metaverse promises, in effect, to be a bigger temptation than television, movies, and video games, and with a magnification of the same drawbacks. Having an enhanced “social” element (as exists now in group video games) does not negate the intrinsically isolating character of the experience. Healthy human recreation must be both personal and balanced, not something that displaces full human relationships and genuine responsibility, and not something fundamentally denatured that becomes “all one has to look forward to.”
The Primacy of the Person
One sees here again the genius of that personalism which, since the middle of the twentieth-century, has begun to enrich the Church’s philosophical patrimony, most notably in the work of Pope St. John Paul II, who understood a good deal about love and responsibility. It is precisely the “personal” that is inevitably diminished or even lost in virtual encounters. No matter how multifaceted virtual reality becomes, virtual interaction is not a fully personal interaction, just as the Eucharist as transmitted over the Internet is not the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ.
Catholics are in a unique position to remind the world of what it means to be a person, especially in the context of the difference between what we call virtual reality and what we live and experience as reality itself. The likely challenges are not hard to predict as the so-called metaverse gains traction: In addition to the broad substitution of controlled experiences for real life and the hollow exaltation of form over substance, these challenges include: (a) Ever-increasing distraction and titillation; (b) The profound isolation of continuous sensual bombardment; (c) Constant exposure to techniques of social manipulation and ideological indoctrination; and (d) Social, familial and even personal disintegration.
None of this is new. In a new form, these are the dangers of getting in with the wrong crowd when that crowd is not really interacting with you as a person and a child of God. The power of the wrong crowd may be somewhat reduced when the crowd is not actually real, but the virtual crowd will be available not through the particular circumstances of our real lives but through the flip of a switch. Its presence will be felt even more strongly than it already is through social media (or gigantic educational institutions) today. It will probably be a bit like living, without supervision and with too much money in your pocket, in New York or London or Paris, when you aren’t mature enough to handle it. But how to grow up?
Now—as in the onslaught of previous technologies—one can sympathize with the solution of simply living off the grid, though that becomes increasingly difficult as the “grid” becomes more pervasive—domestically, at work, and at play. But clearly it is becoming even more important for us all to recognize that today’s digital technologies are not morally and spiritually neutral. Everyone, and parents especially, must exercise serious control of how and when we and our children are “plugged in”. It is a requirement of all genuine personalism—that is, a requirement of authentic human spirituality—to engage with others in their entirety as persons. This is far richer, far more surprising, far more challenging, and far more valuable than anything virtual reality can ever offer.
We humans are not mere phenomena; our meaning and our search for meaning are not exhausted by virtual reality, however entertaining and even effervescent it may be. When we do not experience reality directly as we have been created to do, we begin to chase after illusions. And the problem with illusions is that they satisfy only for a moment. If we mistake them for the best reality has to offer, we become disillusioned. And if we have nowhere else to turn, we wither and die.
In the end, even the value of the metaverse boils down to the nature, actions, and intentions of real persons—both in those who create the metaverse and those who participate in it. I would also suggest that the constant cultural temptations which can so easily shape us, amounting even to a form of brainwashing, have always been quite effective even without the metaverse. In our own time, our mass educational systems are sufficient to see to that, and in every period of history, we humans live in the dubious light of knowing where our bread is buttered—and crafting our opinions and actions accordingly.
But the metaverse, as it develops, will concentrate even more control in the wrong hands, pitting each isolated individual who plugs into it against yet another myth-making power. For everything good on offer, there will be a corresponding danger (though there is nothing new in this either). So while we ought to understand that in human enterprises there is nothing new under the sun, we must also realize that each shift in worldly modes of operation—each turn of the psychological screw, so to speak—will require a more perceptive and a more thorough response.
But as for the required determination and courage, well, these have not changed at all.
All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a current donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!