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regular-article-logo Saturday, 20 April 2024

Welcome to hell

The metaverse and the disembodied self

Samantak Das Published 18.11.21, 02:08 AM
Representational image.

Representational image. Unsplash

Ever since Facebook rebranded itself as Meta last month, a concept that was first mooted in a 1992 science fiction novel by Neal Stephenson has become perhaps the most discussed and debated term in cyberspace (and elsewhere). The concept, that of the ‘metaverse’, has been specifically stated to be the inspiration for the rebranding. As the “Founder’s Letter, 2021” by the Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg states, “The next platform will be even more immersive — an embodied internet where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it. We call this the metaverse, and it will touch every product we build. The defining quality of the metaverse will be a feeling of presence — like you are right there with another person or in another place. Feeling truly present with another person is the ultimate dream of social technology. That is why we are focused on building this.”

It’s interesting that a company, which has been in the news for all the wrong reasons, including interfering in elections, promoting hate speech, selling confidential information to the highest bidder, ferociously enforcing secrecy about its functioning, and so on, should be speaking of “social technology”, one that “focuses on connecting people” where the metaverse will help people “move beyond what’s possible today, beyond the constraints of screens, beyond the limits of distance and physics, and towards a future where everyone can be present with each other, create new opportunities and experience new things”, to quote from the same letter.

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Many of the building blocks of the proposed metaverse are already with us — very-high-speed internet connections; VR (virtual reality) headsets; avatars (virtual versions of individuals, whether real or born-digital); virtual tours of places like parks, museums, and galleries; massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), to name only a few. We, in turn, are already used to interacting with virtual representations of people whom we have never met in the flesh, a process that has been accelerated by the use of digital platforms like Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, and so on, the use of which has expanded exponentially due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Holographic representations of political leaders and pop stars have become, if not exactly commonplace, at least part of the world we take for granted now. As part of the promotion of Voyage, their first album in 40 years, the Swedish supergroup, ABBA, is going to present a series of concerts in a specially-constructed venue in London, where virtual avatars of the group’s members will be performing their music. Spectators, we are told, are “delighted” at the prospect, as were supporters of our country’s ruling party when holograms of its star campaigner were used at political rallies as long ago as 2014.

The metaverse will undoubtedly make a lot of things a lot easier, and, potentially, a lot more fun — it will allow us to meet people, visit places, and use things, without actually meeting, visiting, or using a person, a place, or a thing. It will also make it possible for us to create digital selves which are smarter, funnier, better-looking, more caring, braver, more talented — one can keep adding to this list ad infinitum — than we actually are in real life. Those of us who have relatively easy access to high-speed internet and its associated paraphernalia are gradually getting used to leading parallel virtual lives. If the world of the metaverse is all that more attractive than the world we live in, why would we ever want to leave it, and return to our chaotic and mundane reality? Addiction to internet gaming has been recognized as a psychiatric disorder for some time now and it seems not unreasonable to speculate that metaverse addiction may well become a recognized medical condition in the not-too-distant future.

Some 64 years ago, the historian, Ernst Kantorowicz, published his most influential book, The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology, where he spoke of the belief in the two bodies that were supposedly possessed by a king: a “superbody, or body politic” which, unlike the sovereign’s “body natural” or corporeal body, was not subject to natural processes of decay or death. Many in Medieval and Renaissance Europe believed that a king possessed of this immortal “body politic” was “not only incapable of doing wrong, but even of thinking wrong: he can never mean to do an improper thing: in him is no folly or weakness”. The metaverse will enable each of us to create such superbodies, which will be just as perfect and impervious to natural processes, as those believed to have been possessed by Medieval European kings and queens.

Many of the biggest companies and corporations in the world are investing mind-boggling sums of money in various aspects and versions of the metaverse, and it is quite likely that the metaverse will be as ubiquitous in, say, a decade’s time, as the internet is now. But it seems to me — and I may well be wrong — that there is a fundamental difference between seeing something and being within that same thing. The experience of watching footage of a riot is not the same thing as participating in one. The metaverse, if its most vocal champion is to be believed, will enable us to make the transition from the former to the latter with relative ease. This is likely to have profound implications for the ways in which we see ourselves and the world we inhabit. It will blur, if not wholly erase, the still-quite-clearly-demarcated lines that we can all recognize between that which is real and that which is not. More significantly, it will no longer make sense for us to speak of a single ‘I’, a self that we, for the most part, now take for granted. Those who are enthusiastic about the metaverse to come, and are busy putting their money where their thoughts are, see it as a kind of utopia, where we will no longer be constrained by the fetters that now restrict ourselves and the world that the self inhabits and interacts with. Looked at from a closer distance, and given especially that its enthusiasts see the metaverse as a privately-held, revenue-generating entity, this latest technological miracle may well turn out to be more hell than heaven.

Samantak Das is professor of Comparative Literature and pro-vice-chancellor, Jadavpur University. Views expressed are personal

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