During the total COVID lockdown last year, I read, at the recommendation of my wife, one of Isaac Asimov’s first novels, The Naked Sun.
It was set in a world in which no one ever left their homes. Each person lived in complete physical isolation, working, playing, and interacting with other people by means of three-dimensional holograms. Thus, when two people needed to have a meeting for work, they would appear to each other as actual human beings, but in reality, they would both be in their own houses., sending a holographic projection.
Sometimes physical interaction was necessary–for example, when married couples, who also lived separately, had to conceive a child–but such duties were considered unpleasant and even, in the case of sex, repugnant. (Asimov might have anticipated the artificial womb, would have solved the problem.)
All physical needs and manual labor were taken care of by robots, who were bound by Asimov’s later-to-be-famous laws of robotics, which prevented robots from being able to harm a human being.
And, yet, in this context of ultimate safety, a murder takes place. A gritty cop from the overcrowded earth is sent to this utopian colony to try to solve this seemingly impossible crime. And Asimov establishes his career as a writer of unusually ingenious and engaging science fiction.
The Naked Sun, published in 1957, reads like a prediction of what is being hailed as the next revolutionary technology: the Metaverse. It involves Virtual Reality technology by which individuals could enter and interact with other people’s Virtual Reality.
Here is how different enthusiasts and observers explain it:
“an extensive online world transcending individual tech platforms, where people exist in immersive, shared virtual spaces. Through avatars, people would be able to try on items available in stores or attend concerts with friends, just as they would offline.” (Wall Street Journal)
Imagine a world where you could sit on the same couch as a friend who lives thousands of miles away, or conjure up a virtual version of your workplace while at the beach. (TechExplore)
“The Metaverse is a network of interconnected virtual worlds in the same way the World Wide Web is a network of interconnected website. . . .I can jump in a web browser, cruise from one website to another. In the future, you will jump in the Metaverse browser from one virtual world to another to another.” (Rabindra Ratan)
“The internet era was defined by the computer being in the living room and the connection to the internet being occasional. . . . The shift to mobile computing meant moving the computer from the living room to the office and into your pocket, and changing access to the internet from occasional to continuous and persistent. Metaverse is the idea of computing everywhere, ubiquitous, ambient. In a simplified sense, think about the Metaverse as a series of interconnected and persistent simulations.” (Matthew Ball)
“It’s a virtual environment where you can be present with people in digital spaces,” he said. “You can kind of think about this as an embodied internet that you’re inside of rather than just looking at. We believe that this is going to be the successor to the mobile internet.” (Mark Zuckerberg)
Zuckerberg, of course, is the head of FaceBook, who recently announced a major initiative to develop the technology to do all of this. He said that in five years, FaceBook would evolve from “primarily being a social media company to being a metaverse company.”
Investors and tech companies are starting to pour millions of dollars into the development of the Metaverse.
Can you hardly wait?
In effect, virtual reality would all but replace actual reality. (The engineers who make and manage the technology would have to work with reality, taking on the role of the robots in Asimov’s story, but few others would need to.)
Already, postmodernists have been talking about reality is just a construction, how we all inhabit our own worlds. This would give us the technology to fully realize that philosophy.
Of course, though we would be living in a “construction,” this would not be anything we ourselves would have constructed. It would all be programmed by the corporations that develop and sell the technology. And think of the power this would give them! Forget about the elitist dream of controlling the government. This technology would let them control reality itself!
This is another chapter in our rebellion against creation, replacing what God has made with what we have made. To be sure, the Metaverse is a realm of illusion, not tangible entities that actually exist, a Gnostic phantasm that disappears if anyone tries to touch it.
Do you think there will be a market for the Metaverse, other than gaming and perhaps as a Zoom alternative? Or is the general public sick of how technology is already infringing on their lives and will push back against attempts to take that to a new, more all-encompassing level? Do we really want to be “inside” the internet? Won’t that mean that it has swallowed us up?
Illustration by Mohamed Hassan via StockVault, Creative Commons CC0