It’s fitting that Mark Zuckerberg’s company is no longer defined by the concept of social networks, but by an alternate reality altogether. Facebook recently announced it is changing its name to Meta—short for “metaverse.” As it rebrands, it continues its movement toward posthuman ambition that has been evident for many years. For nearly a decade, Facebook has been shifting the company away from an ethos of connecting real people and toward a kind of permanent digital habitation, the contraction of life so as to fit inside algorithms.
What is the metaverse? It’s an immersive network technology that promises to take users beyond the limits of physical environments. If traditional social networking connects people to one another through shared texts, images, and videos, the metaverse creates shared space through computer-generated presence. Ian Harber and Patrick Miller observe:
The metaverse is not a digital world. It’s a digital world of worlds through which people can travel seamlessly, retaining their appearance and digital possessions wherever they go. These worlds do not merely exist in VR (virtual reality), but also layer onto physical reality through AR (augmented reality) . . . In the metaverse, people will buy digital designer products, wearing them or using them across platforms in VR, or even in the real world via AR. Put on your AR glasses and a person or place becomes a living, moving piece of art (or advertisement).
Harber and Miller list several examples of existing metaverse technology, such as Pokemon Go, the game in which players use augmented reality to “catch” digital Pokemon in real-world places.
But Zuckerberg’s vision goes far beyond gaming. In his video explaining Meta and its projects, he declares that “the feeling of presence [is] the defining quality of the metaverse. You’re going to really feel like you’re there with other people. You’ll see their facial expressions, you’ll see their body language . . . all the subtle ways we communicate that today’s technology can’t quite deliver.”
This is indeed the Achilles’ heel of all digital technology: the inability to satisfyingly reproduce the feeling of physical community. The pandemic has reminded us that not even the swiftest text message or highest resolution Zoom call can compensate for physical isolation. But Zuckerberg and his colleagues see this not as an inherent limitation of technology but as a flaw in our humanity. If the humane minutia of personal relationships cannot be adequately simulated, the answer, according to Meta, is to make our relationships less humane.
Advocates of metaverse technology insist that there is no dilemma here. Why can’t people continue to work in their offices, host dinner parties, and plan playdates, all the while using the metaverse to bridge geographic divides? But this reasoning is misguided. First, as Neil Postman observed, technologies are not epistemologically neutral. Rather, “technologies create the ways in which people perceive reality.” The metaverse is a teacher, and her lessons will shape her students. What are those lessons? That the human self is indistinguishable from desires or mental will, that our bodies are irrelevant at best, and that the ideal mode of life is one in which your attention can be anywhere, at any point, for any reason. The metaverse preaches the death of place.
Second, Facebook’s own history strongly suggests that the goal is not balance, but an end-to-end digital existence. Few active on Facebook today will remember that the site originally required new users to be part of a preexisting college network. As the site expanded, this rule was stretched to include hometown networks; if your university wasn’t listed but your city was, you could select that network and join Facebook. The network requirement was eventually dropped altogether, a move that suggested a major transition in how Facebook thought of itself. Now the goal was not to offer a technological way to connect with people already nearby, it was to redefine “nearby” to mean Facebook itself. Facebook became the only neighborhood that matters.
Facebook’s infrastructure betrays a desire to keep its apps at the center of users’ lives, whether through an overwhelming number of notifications, algorithms that read and manipulate user moods, or the revelation that its leadership doesn’t care about how its products affect the mental health of minors. There is no reason whatsoever to think that Zuckerberg and his team, armed with technology even more immersive and addicting, will shape users that are less hooked than they are now.
So what will happen? Much will depend on how cost-efficient the metaverse can become, but we can say confidently that Facebook's emerging vision of the good life is one in which people become polygons and places become projections. The metaverse offers a digital liturgy that will entice us to leave behind the inconveniences and limitations of bodily humanity. The yearning for hearth and home—central to not just art and literature but to the Christian life—will be reduced to a buffered connection. Inside the metaverse, we will become less human.
But turning our backs on God has not freed us of him. As Francis Schaeffer observed in Escape from Reason:
So it is a truly wonderful thing that although man is twisted and corrupted and lost as a result of the Fall, yet he is still man. He has become neither a machine nor an animal nor a plant. The marks of mannishness are still upon him—love, rationality, longing for significance, fear of nonbeing, and so on. This is the case even when his non-Christian system leads him to say these things do not exist. It is these things which distinguish him from the animal and plant world and from the machine. On the other hand, beginning only from himself autonomously, it is quite obvious that, being finite, he can never reach any absolute answer...He rebels against, and perverts, the testimony of what exists—the external universe and its form, and the “mannishness” of man.
Our construction of an eternity unto ourselves simply betrays our incurably religious humanity. By trying to become more than creatures we have patented devices that make us more like machines. Nonetheless, not even the trillions that flow through Silicon Valley can vacuum up the divine breath of life inside us. There is a givenness to the world and to ourselves that we can ignore but not erase.
Samuel D. James serves as associate acquisitions editor at Crossway Books and publishes a regular newsletter called Insights.
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