And How it Will Revolutionize Everything
by matthew ball
liveright, 352 pages, $30
My childhood religious education was, you might say, haphazard. I met many of the most famous Bible verses for the first time not in church, or through a family member, but in Handel’s Messiah, which I listened to so many times as a youth that I memorized much of the libretto.
But somewhat like the many people who think they hear Jimi Hendrix singing “Excuse me while I kiss this guy” (as opposed to “the sky”), I didn’t get all the words right. I didn’t hear Handel’s setting of Isaiah 40:1–5 as declaring: “The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, And all flesh shall see it together; For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” Instead, I thought the choir was singing: “And all flesh shall cease together.”
This made sense to me at the time. I was an awkward, unhappy teenager, more interested in reading and daydreaming than in the social world of my peers. If you’d asked me to imagine a moment when God’s glory was revealed, I’d have agreed that this must surely be one where we would be freed from our fleshly bodies, and shine forth instead as beings of pure spirit.
Is that world at hand? According to a recent book, we are on the cusp of creating something that looks, on the face of it, not dissimilar: a fully realized realm of digital “worlds.” In The Metaverse: And How It Will Revolutionize Everything, tech venture capitalist and metaverse investor Matthew Ball defines this “metaverse” in the dry language of investors and techies:
A massively scaled and interoperable network of real-time rendered 3D virtual worlds that can be experienced synchronously and persistently by an effectively unlimited number of users with an individual sense of presence, and with continuity of data, such as identity, history, entitlements, objects, communications, and payments.
In lay terms, this means roughly: “a parallel digital multiverse that all of us can inhabit together, where you can buy and sell stuff, that remembers what you do and doesn’t reset when you log off.” The book itself focuses largely on the technical challenges of realizing this vision. But reading its exhaustive account of payment rails, real-time rendering, data flows, and the like, I experienced a mounting sense of frustration at the author’s apparent lack of interest in what seems to me a central question: “Why?”
Why would we want to build a metaverse? What’s wrong with the persistent, massively scaled, interoperable et cetera world we already live in? Perhaps, to Ball, the answer is too obvious to need saying. After all, I am hardly the first person to think human life would be improved by de-materialization. Not by a long chalk. Among the most influential of such visions emerged in the early days of the Christian Church, when esoteric sects flourished that viewed the human condition as less incarnational than condemned to embodiment. For the Gnostics, the world of matter was irredeemably gross and corrupt, the creation not of divine will but of the Demiurge, an entity viewed as antagonistic to the Supreme Being. For the Gnostics, drawing on Platonist influences, the world of ideal Forms was God’s original Creation; the world of matter was a clumsy copy by an envious lesser being.
If you’d offered my adolescent self a chance to leave my awkward physical body behind, and live instead in that world of Platonic Forms, I’d have wept with relief. As it was, I took every opportunity to get closer to this infinitely more appealing realm, by the time-honored method of reading everything I could get my hands on—preferably fantasy fiction—and daydreaming when I ran out of books. My longing to encounter something purer, higher, and more magical than the everyday events of real life was so intense that I recall once, when I was around eleven, squinting at a patch of empty forest in the vain hope that doing so would cause a real unicorn to make itself visible.
When I think of that age, what I recall is a sense of agonized certainty that the world must surely have more to it than the dull plane of atoms. I still sometimes read fantasy novels that depict worlds so engrossing and appealing that ending the story feels like a tiny bereavement. And perhaps this is less laughable than it sounds. In 2016, Robert P. George wrote an influential essay in First Things exploring the neo-Gnostic tendency within the liberal worldview, noting the prevalence of an intense mind/body dualism throughout, for example, contemporary sexual ethics. And the modern age has indeed been accompanied by a spreading desire to be anywhere other than in “the real world” as imagined by modernity—that is, to dream of higher or better worlds than the gross, corrupted material one.
But this desire is far from unique to the twenty-first century. It is a by-product of the very paradigm that created modernity: the rationalistic, scientific worldview. This worldview was enabled by a slow coming-apart of magic and the “real world,” whereby the richly symbolic lifeworld common to the Middle Ages gradually resolved into a dimension that was understood to be perceptible rationally, objectively, and empirically. This profound shift in consciousness enabled the rapid acceleration of scientific investigation. But the cost was what Max Weber called “disenchantment”: the expulsion of the numinous from acceptable discourse.
Even as this transition began in early modernity, the lost dimension began taking new forms within the world of letters. Arguably the first work of fantasy fiction is The Faerie Queene, written around 1590 by Edmund Spenser, a contemporary of Francis Bacon, whose Novum Organum inaugurated the modern, inductive scientific method. As a genre, fantasy fiction thus emerged in tandem with the slow draining-away of enchantment that has accompanied the march of scientific modernity. For the instrumental, mechanistic view of the universe that took root with Novum Organum and, not long after, René Descartes’s Discourse on Method, tends to view enchantment and myth as symptomatic of superstition, backwardness, or immaturity. And some of the longing for mystery left unsatisfied by the bare world of reason and matter found a refuge of sorts in the deprecated but persistently popular genre of fantasy.
By the time my household got its first dial-up connection, around 1997, I was already old enough to vote. But I instantly grasped the internet’s most bewitching promise. It wasn’t, as its progenitors imagined, merely a way of storing or sharing information. It held out the possibility of inching still closer to escape from the everyday world by radically expanding the class of things I could do without having to leave the world of ideas for embodied life. Whereas book reading was a solitary activity, now both reading and discussion could happen on the same dematerialized plane. I could have a social life there, as well as a literary one.
If my longing for transcendent experience found some satisfaction in fantasy stories, the digital age has been swift to combine fantasy with de-materialized digital sociality, in the now wildly popular domain of video gaming, which surpassed Hollywood in revenue more than a decade ago. Multiple surveys suggest that Americans spend an average of eight to twelve hours per week on gaming, and the number rises with each new generation. And no doubt some of the appeal of such parallel universes is how pleasant they are, compared to everyday reality: all the excitement of achievement, with none of the pain or regret that attends failure in the real world. Given that the increasing sophistication and affordability of video games has been paralleled by stagnating wages, repeated political and economic shocks, dire warnings about climate change, and a collapse in opportunity for the young—only accelerated by Covid policy—we should not be surprised that many retreat from the bruising and frustrating constraints of “IRL” (“in real life”) to other planes that offer at least a simulated sense of agency.
But beneath this is a still more intense yearning. In his 2016 essay, George characterized the neo-Gnostic outlook as an anthropology in which what makes me me is my consciousness, conceived of as radically separable from my body. The clearest and most extreme expression of this anthropology in contemporary culture is, as George observed, among the young people for whom transgender identities serve as a proxy for profound discontent with embodiment itself—a discontent frequently expressed by those within this subculture. One such writes on Twitter: “My own body is a whole existence that I can’t even *BEGIN* to try and feel connected to past carnal wants and desires because it’s so foreign and reprehensible to me.” Body dissociation has come a long way since Descartes’s “I think, therefore I am.”
Small wonder, then, that we find technologists working to synthesize an experience of mystery, enchantment, heroism, or transcendence, to appease the same hunger for enchantment the technological worldview has helped to create. As Ball shows, a key driver in taking us toward the Metaverse has been the tremendous and growing demand for multiplayer online games such as World of Warcraft. If Ball is to be believed, the soon-to-be-even-more-profitable realm of the Metaverse will take us even closer to sating our hunger for enchantment.
This trope has even found its way into the entertainment genre video gaming displaced: the highest-grossing movie of all time is James Cameron’s Avatar, which came out the year video gaming overtook Hollywood in revenue. Avatar depicts a disabled former soldier whose consciousness is projected, by means of a futuristic technology, from his own gray, militarized environment into an able-bodied humanoid “avatar” on a planet of otherworldly beauty where all creatures live in harmony. It is an entrancing depiction of the Gnostic sense of a flawed, ugly embodiment, and the yearning to depart for somewhere more moral, more beautiful, more whole.
But there is a critical difference between the Gnosticism of old and its return today in these tech-enabled parallel dimensions. For the ancient Gnostics, the problem with the world of flesh was how poorly it compared with the true, original world of spirit. Gnosticism took for granted that this world of spirit existed, and that it was in a sense truer and more objective than that of matter. Neo-Gnostics, though, evince no such underlying belief in a transcendent spiritual dimension.
The Metaverse affords no higher Platonic world of objectively existing Forms. On the contrary, it suggests that we can escape from our prison of flesh into an infinitude of infinitely customizable worlds of Forms, tailored to suit each individual. If the root of the Gnostic heresy is a longing for transcendent spiritual experience unburdened by the taint of embodiment, the Metaverse takes this longing a step further. Here, the relief proffered to those longing for bodiless transcendence takes the form of an individualism so radical it affords no space at all for shared meaning, save on an opt-in basis. And it does so with the aim of making money.
Here, the plot of Avatar is unexpectedly prophetic. In the movie, the protagonist escapes his paralyzed body and is made (technologically) “whole” in another realm. But he’s sent to this realm by a resource extraction company, in order to befriend the natives of the land his employer wishes to strip-mine. It is a vivid metaphor for the role of commercial exploitation—a strip-mining of the soul—in the creation of these tech-facilitated simulacra of transcendent experience. This role is made clear in Ball’s book: The infrastructure of the Metaverse is already being influenced by corporations eager to maximize the possibility of value capture, from IP regulation to payment systems.
And unlike the vision of the ancient Gnostics, this picture of radical atomization as spiritual transcendence is structurally reliant on the very world from which it promises escape. This irony is reflected, obliquely, in Ball’s focus on the material practicalities involved in creating this simulacrum. For the neo-Gnostic dream of lightness and infinite possibility is, as Ball acknowledges, ultimately a prosaic material reality of circuitry, processors, and giant undersea data cables. “The Metaverse may be ‘a massively scaled and interoperable network of real-time rendered 3D virtual worlds,’ but . . . it will be realized through physical hardware, computer processors, and networks.”
So this neo-Gnostic vision departs even from the original heresy. It points not to a unitary spiritual dimension, but to infinite imitations of such dimensions, infinitely customizable to each lonely inhabitant. And it departs, again, in remaining dependent on the material world from which it promises escape. In other words, this creation is precisely what the ancient Gnostic heretics believed themselves tasked with escaping: an envious imitation of Creation, which tempts human souls into captivity within itself.
For Ball, though, being a Demiurge is all good: good, at least, for business. “The very idea of the Metaverse means that more of our lives, labor, leisure, time, spending, wealth, happiness, and relationships will go online. Actually, they will exist online,” he declares. The question of why this might be better is, once again, left for others to explore; as, indeed, is the question of how it might be significantly worse. Ball blithely predicts social consequences including a rise in digital surveillance, misinformation, election tampering, political agitation, harassment, “revenge porn,” and deepfakes. He further envisages new and strange cultural crises and conflicts, and a proliferating and radically de-materialized gig economy, along with ever-growing disparities of wealth, in which the rich can play in a world of infinite possibility, “powered by toiling ‘third-world’ laborers for the sake of ‘first-world’ joys.” No matter. Social issues are not his real concern, at least not compared to the challenges more immediately pertinent to his priorities, such as real-time rendering capacity or improved regulation of digital IP.
But perhaps Ball is justified in dismissing these issues. For they are already here, just as the real Metaverse is already here, called into being by science to slake the longing for transcendence that science itself blotted out. Facebook already employs thousands of content moderators in India and the Philippines. For minimal pay, these benighted souls view a daily torrent of Dantesque horrors, from child sexual abuse to torture and grisly murder, with mere moments to assess and act on each case, and minimal support in coping with the emotional impact. “‘First-world’ joys” (of a kind) are already powered by third-world toil.
And the dissociative, disintegrative, de-materializing call of the social internet and its bodiless world of ideas-in-motion already exerts itself nearly everywhere in our ordinary lives. Ball’s “Metaverse” envisions this dislocation as a fully realized parallel dimension. But less extreme versions of it are omnipresent: the text message you try to reply to while talking to someone, the urgent email that coincides with the doorbell ringing, the constant nagging pressure to post what you are doing rather than experience it. We are endlessly enjoined to be somewhere other than where we are.
In Ball’s view, our trajectory into somewhere else—into the Metaverse—is unstoppable. But is it good? Even on the simple metric of well-being, this is debatable: One 2018 study of American youth found that the less time adolescents spent on screen-based activities, the happier and more well-adjusted they were. And this in turn suggests that those best equipped to resist this world’s disintegrative pressure may be those now intentionally ringfencing parts of their own lives as analog-only.
Speaking for myself, as a recovering would-be Gnostic, I find this discipline difficult in the extreme. But whether in dedicated screen-free family time, physical exercise of an intensity that precludes scrolling, or some other strategy, I see the attempt as a matter of survival. The price of technological advancement was disenchantment, and our longing to depart that disenchanted world for somewhere more numinous grows in direct proportion to the deadening march of technology. So, inevitably, the offer of simulated transcendence becomes ever more alluring. One of the most urgent tasks of our age is re-learning how to distinguish the world of spirit from its digital simulacrum.
Those chafing against our disenchanted culture, and the dead-seeming nature of embodied life within that culture, are now offered a million lonely, bespoke worlds of digital Forms. But the truth is that no elaborate arrangement of goggles, servers, or code will take these seekers where they want to go. We should see the promise for what it is: To those thirsting for truth, it’s akin to the vinegar-soaked sponge offered to a dying man two thousand years ago. And when the world seems stripped of life, and of wonder, we should recall the mystery at the heart of that story: that death is not the end, and flesh is not the enemy.
Mary Harrington is the author of the forthcoming Feminism Against Progress.
Image by Justin Brandel. Image cropped.
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