From Meatspace to Metaverse: Two Books on Virtual Reality

In the annals of hype about things not yet here, the Metaverse has taken an impressive rocket-like trajectory. This is so important to Mark Zuckerberg that he changed his company’s name to Meta. Other tech giants, including Microsoft and Nvidia, are also turning to the Metaverse. But what is it? And do we even want one?

The Metaverse: And How It Will Revolutionize Everything

By Matthew Ball


352 pages

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In the mid-20th century, “metaverse” was an obscure synonym for metapoetry, or poetry about poetry. The modern technological meaning of the term was introduced in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 science fiction novel Snow Crash. The people of this 21st-century dystopia would don virtual reality goggles to gain access to a realm that’s part massively multiplayer video game, part immersive internet: a digital city-planet where all manner of entertainment and shady businesses thrive can be operated. Since then, Mr. Stephenson’s readers have wanted to go to the metaverse. John Carmack, the lead developer of the first-person shooter game Doom, once said that building the Metaverse is a moral imperative. Instead we have Facebook.

What exactly the actual metaverse is supposed to be has not yet been clarified. Some describe it as the merging of all existing and future virtual worlds into one vast and fluid digital cosmos. Just as today’s Internet can be described as a network of networks, the metaverse will be the virtual world of all virtual worlds. That’s the vision that Matthew Ball, the former head of global strategy at Amazon Studios, presents in The Metaverse: And How It Will Revolutionize Everything. Herman Narula, on the other hand, operates with a broader idea in Virtual Society: The Metaverse and the New Frontiers of Human Experience. Mr. Narula, the co-founder of a British software company, views ancient myths and religions as proto-metaverses, imaginary worlds with meaningful implications for the physical world and vice versa.

The key difference is that such worlds – say, Greek and Norse mythology – are not interoperable. Hercules cannot visit Valhalla. But interoperability brings its own challenges. “Although it may be amusing to imagine Lord Voldemort being mortally wounded by a hobbit with a machine gun from the ‘Halo’ universe,” notes Mr. Narula, “such an event would likely change the preestablished value systems in each of these.” break universes. ” At the very least, the consumer-resident of our brave new world should be able — analysts predict — to buy a fancy pair of virtual sneakers and wear them everywhere they go.

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Again, this is not a trivial technical problem. As Mr. Ball points out, in the fundamental programming sense, current virtual worlds do not agree on what counts as a shoe. Is it a single object or is it made up of multiple objects? Ironing out the conceptual difficulties of the multiverse is thus like repeating age-old problems in the philosophy of mereology—the study of parts and wholes.

Virtual Society: The Metaverse and the New Frontiers of Human Experience

By Herman Narula


288 pages

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Australian philosopher David J. Chalmers’ “Reality+: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy” is an extremely lucid and thought-provoking exploration of such issues – from René Descartes’ thought experiment about an evil demon controlling the inputs to his brain, to the modern ” Simulation Hypothesis,” which asks if we already live in an extraterrestrial metaverse without knowing it.

Ultimately, the fundamental question raised by Messrs. Ball, Narula, and Chalmers has to do with the societal value of the metaverse: Can a human life spent in a virtual world still thrive? Fortunately, the three authors agree that this is possible. They believe that the structures of our personal and social lives are just as important, whether the substrate is our physical reality or a digital world.

Mr. Narula even argues that the metaverse might be superior to real life in providing a sense of purpose and fulfillment that most humans in meatspace — the old cyberpunk term for the physical world — obviously don’t offer. His diagnosis of the problem is compelling, though his examples of authentic and satisfying life in the metaverse may seem eccentric. “Imagine a world,” he instructs, “where you can inhabit the body of a Galápagos tortoise and speed up time so that you can cram your entire lifespan into the hours between breakfast and lunch.” Why that?

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Alternatively, you could spend your days in Heist World, where an entire virtual economy is given over to robber-and-robber intrigue: some people make a living playing burglars, while others are employed as detectives. Are so many people willing to switch careers and become improv actors? Is the general appetite for role-playing games – basically “Dungeons & Dragons” in VR – that big? We’ll find out. For now, the Metaverse primarily represents a huge new advertising opportunity that needs a killer app. Regular users have yet to be persuaded to join. (The ad tech industry, Mr. Ball ominously notes, will have to colonize this space.)

By the way, what’s happening to the real world that so many of us supposedly want to leave behind? Mr. Ball excels at the massive infrastructure investments required to build a metaverse. Many more fiber optic cables will need to be laid, and the computing power required to present a realistic 3D world to millions (or billions) of concurrent users will be staggering.

Speaking of computational requirements, both Mr. Ball and Mr. Narula argue that blockchain — the technology that underlies cryptocurrencies — will be critical to the Metaverse. For Mr. Ball, among the benefits of blockchain is the ability to reliably authenticate ownership of virtual assets (as is the case with NFTs). Meanwhile, Mr. Narula argues that its decentralized and automated nature can solve the problems of trust in governance that so plague meatspace.

But the elephant in the room is energy consumption. According to a 2022 study by the Columbia Climate School, Bitcoin alone uses more energy than Argentina annually, with CO2 emissions equal to those of Greece. This is because procedures for mining currencies and verifying blockchains require supercomputing clusters. For skeptics, therefore, building a metaverse on blockchain may seem like escaping into virtual reality while setting fire to the environmental infrastructure that sustains us.

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This would be particularly unfortunate given that so much of contemporary Metaverse boosterism is reminiscent of the far-sighted cyberutopianism of the 1990s, according to which the fledgling Internet represented a new era of anarchic creativity and collaboration. (And yet we have Facebook.) For some, the coming metaverse represents yet another political and cultural year zero, one in which we can reshape society from the ground up and avoid the mistakes of the past. But who can change it?

Mr. Ball thinks existing governments should regulate the metaverse, while Mr. Narula envisions new virtual laws being set by something he calls the Exchange: “A number of stakeholders, probably dozens of them, would band together and form a consortium that includes representatives with expertise in technology, economics, game design, ethics, politics, media, art, psychology and so on.” So: an oligopoly, albeit a supposedly benevolent one. Through an alchemy of gentle authoritarianism, these experts will “design a transparent method of governance and a means by which ethical, pro-social behavior is encouraged therein,” though such things have never been accomplished in the real world. Eventually parts of the metaverse, Mr. Narula predicts, will become self-governing countries.

However, if history is any guide, newly created lands will not choose to live side by side in perfect harmony – a fact presumably well known to Mr. Narula, whose own company, Improbable, builds simulations for the military. It’s not clear why this pattern should be different in virtual reality, considering the structures of human behavior will remain the same. (Consider how people behave on social media today.) So, in a way, the dream of the metaverse is another form of naïve digital exceptionalism: the assumption that things will be qualitatively different if we only do them with computers. Meanwhile, the world outside of our VR goggles will continue to burn silently.

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