What Might We Miss in the Metaverse?
Four fundamental ways in which our perception will be limited in virtual reality, and why this may be important.
Last week I saw the most magical jellyfish. A bloom of bioluminescent bodies floating through the water towards me. It wasn't until they swam out of the dark blue tank and through me, that I realised that they weren't "real", in the colloquial use of that word. They were real (as opposed to imaginary) holographic displays. Digital images projected onto my physical world, in perfect sync with my environment.
This happened in Dubai's EXPO 2020 at an exhibit called "Terra - The Sustainability Pavilion". As someone with a background working in sustainability, it was refreshing to see such a creative approach to inspire connection to nature. Looking at the jellyfish felt very different from watching a documentary on a flat screen. The light bounced beautifully. My eyes were relaxed - I suppose they are used to seeing a continuous, three-dimensional world. I noticed that I instinctively stepped forwards, moving my body closer to these creatures.
This is a glimpse of the emerging metaverse, the embodied version of the internet. As tech advances, images like these will become more detailed, dynamic, and multi-sensory, and virtual reality will have the capacity to move and inspire us in ever deeper ways. Eventually, virtual worlds will be indistinguishable from the physical ones, enabling new levels of wonder and awe in the everyday.
I suppose I share this to make clear that I am genuinely excited about the possibilities with this new technology. But I do also have some serious concerns. The main one is summed up in this recent article from the Guardian about the well-respected philosopher David J. Chalmers, whose new technophilosophy book "REALITY+" just came out. His starting position is this:
Advances in technology will deliver virtual worlds that rival and then surpass the physical realm. And with limitless, convincing experiences on tap, the material world may lose its allure.
What rattles me is the very real plausibility of this claim. Already I choose to spend a lot of time interacting with the world through various screens, and whenever a quicker or easier option becomes available to do this, I take it.
Tech companies are working on a host of new ways to deliver these realities to us - from smart glasses and haptic vests that engage our physical senses, through to ways of simulating these experiences in the retina or the brain through "brain-machine interface" or BMIs. The goal is to allow us to move into virtual reality more and more effortlessly.
So here's my question:- "What's the cost of choosing the virtual world over the physical?" Admittedly it's a clunky and awkward question, and also feels a little old-fashioned to be making such a binary distinction between physical and virtual. But to my mind, there is a direct competition happening. Sure, the two mutually co-exist and can support each other, but there are also unavoidable trade-offs in terms of time and attention. The philosopher David Chalmers, like many others, is predicting that the physical world will lose this competition, will "lose its allure" and that its pursuit may start to be seen as a novelty or a fetish.
What I want to suggest is that there are a few fundamental ways in which physical reality offers a richness that can - dare I say - never be found in the metaverse. There are design constraints embedded into the very concept of virtual reality. Leading to differences that are so obvious that they may be easy to overlook if we are not clear about what they are, and why they matter.
What might we miss in the metaverse?
1. The "aliveness" of living beings
This is a problem for our modern lifestyles, in general. Right now in my room, everything I can see is dead - things that have no agency other than what I or other living beings imbue it with. Puppets waiting to be brought to life by my picking it up and using it in one way or another. There are elements of some nature present, such as the wooden trestles holding up my desk, but it's been stripped of its aliveness in order to serve that purpose for me. There is one small cacti plant, breathing away silently in the corner, but that's about it. We surround ourselves with dead things that have no life force of their own.
In the digital realm, it's all dead. Everything that meets our eye (real eye, or bionic) will be an image. Imagery, no matter how realistic, cannot be alive, in the sense that we normally think of life.
Admittedly, I'm doing a philosophical bypass here since the terms "life" and "consciousness" can't be defined so easily. But I think most people would agree that there is a difference between a tree in the forest and a photograph of one.
There is currently a photography exhibit in London at the Wellcome Collection, "Tranquility", about the beauty of forests. The artist used a large-format analog camera and long exposures to capture a rich spectrum of blue and green hues in what looks like the final moments of daylight, the golden hour. The images are huge, and as I walked through this immersive exhibit I could hear a soundscape of birds, monkeys, wind, and rivers that I read were all recorded on location. The installation even had the scent of petrichor evoking the smell of a forest floor just after it's rained.
As I walked slowly through the forest, it felt both wonderful and lonely. It reminded me of a concept in the Jain contemplative tradition: "ramtaa". It translates literally to playfulness, and is a word used to describe one of the defining qualities of the soul. It's the sparkle that shows you something is alive. Indirectly, in these works of art, we can see the sparkling mind and heart of the creator: an attentive human being photographing a forest, or filming those beautiful jellyfish. But what we can't see is the "ramtaa" of the trees and the jellyfish. It's the difference between looking a man in the eye and seeing an image of that same eye. The image can still be powerful, but there is something missing.
With all these examples, admittedly, something (digital) was way better than nothing. I was nowhere near climbing into scuba gear, or hiking to a forest to see the "real thing" or indeed in the kind of intimate company that I could gaze into someone's eyes. If anything, these digital experiences deepened my appreciation for the real thing. Many are concerned that by offering virtual options, we will have less need for the expensive and messy process of dealing with living beings. But personally, I have found that in order for us to be curious about something, and to care about it, we have to notice it first, and I certainly noticed those jellyfish.
2. Non-humans representing themselves
Last year (Feb 2020) there was a video of a coyote and a badger that went viral on Twitter. Scientists have long known that these two species collaborate for hunting purposes, but there was something unexpectedly playful about the way the two animals were interacting - they seemed like "friends". The coyote is wagging his tail and the badger (notoriously a grumpy animal) looks pretty happy too.
We know a lot about the non-human world - animals, plants, fungus, algae, and bacteria - and yet they continue to surprise us. They certainly don't always behave exactly as we expect them to. But if we are to include them in our virtual realities, their appearance and behaviours would all need to be designed and programmed in by humans, based on our limited knowledge of them.
What might happen when two non-human digital avatars meet each other in the metaverse? How might a virtual penguin respond to that virtual jellyfish I saw? A human being would have to research that behaviour and write the code for it, such that the interaction could be "realistic".
The philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote in 2007 (she was writing about man's conquest of space, but she could equally have been talking about virtual reality - a parallel escapism pointed out to me by L M Sacasac.)
"Every progress in science in the last decades... has brought with it a veritable avalanche of fabulous instruments and ever more ingenious machinery. All of this makes it more unlikely every day that man will encounter anything in the world around him that is not man-made and hence is not, in the last analysis, he himself in a different disguise."
Perhaps our most intimate non-human interactions happen with our pets. In the virtual world, pets will also be important. Many a metaverse entrepreneur is already offering virtual pets and pet accessories. But what makes a dog a dog? Or to paraphrase the philosopher Thomas Nagel's deeper question: "What is it like to be a dog?" We can only respond to such a question in terms of what we humans observe and value, describing their dog-ness from our perspective. Dogs can't represent themselves online, we have to do it for them, or rather for ourselves.
ClassicDoge takes a step closer to authenticity by offering to "Upload your Pet”: creating a digital avatar of your real pet. They will not only render the visual characteristics but also include some behavioural traits of your pet in its avatar. But of course the traits we focus on will be from our human, pet-owner perspective.
Unlike the coyote and badger caught in the wild by a hidden camera, the creatures we create in the metaverse can never surprise us. Or leave us with unexpected gifts, like his beautiful abandoned hornet's nest that was found in an office space.
Relating to nature in this completely anthropocentric way will inevitably deepen our disconnection from it. In recent years alone, from 1970 to now, we have lost 68% of species on this planet. Thinking about nature merely as a part of the human-made world - which it genuinely will be in the metaverse - is bound to change how we feel about it.
The non-human world's absence from the metaverse also strikes at a deeper issue around our attention. The non-human world is not made for us, it's there independently. And partly because of this, it doesn't ordinarily demand our attention, unless there's a tiger, or more likely a bee, chasing us. For the most part, non-humans are busy doing their own thing, and their activities are not directed at us. No wonder so many of us find peace in the solitude of nature.
3. Experiences we don't like, but that help us grow
In our physical lives, we often come across things we don’t like. Long queues, bird poo on our favourite jacket, bread that’s gone mouldy, and people that we find irritating. One of the appeals of going online is the ability to escape from life’s mundane, boring, and challenging parts. Online we are free to find the people and places that we like, and block out as much as possible all the things we don’t like.
The companies that create and run online platforms support our instinct to filter reality. Their algorithms first try to understand what we like and dislike, and then curate bubbles for us to live inside. Two people typing in the exact same words into Google will get different results depending on what the search engine already knows about them and their preferences. Ultimately, the aspiration is that the algorithms should know what we want before we even type it, or perhaps before we even think it.
(To be clear, the algorithms are not just designed to show us what we love - but rather what keeps us engaged. This is why news and content that makes us feel sick with anger enters into that bubble too - in a perverse way we do seem to appreciate it, in so far as it’s something we click on, and respond to.)
This rhetoric is everywhere at the moment, and I’m guessing many of you will also have first-hand experience of it too. It’s all too easy to get hooked and keep going back for more hits, from morning to night. Virtual worlds will be just like this, but even more compelling because we’ll be walking around inside our feeds!
The promise of virtual worlds is that they will be more beautiful, more exciting, more luxurious than our real lives. Type in #sundaymornings into any social media platform and you’ll see the aspiration of what a relaxed morning and the "good life" looks like for many people. It has an aesthetic. But I find it incomplete, monotonous, and to use a strange word in this context "unrealistic". It's one part of a story that is reinforced and celebrated, at the cost of others.
So why is this a problem? Well, I'm not saying that I enjoy looking at mouldy bread. But I do think I need to be able to look at it calmly. It certainly takes a great deal of inner work to appreciate an anti-aesthetic or a "wabi-sabi" scene. We're talking cracks and rusty patinas, yes, but also the bigger things we tend to turn our eyes away from. Disabilities. Old-age. Dark skin. Ecological crises. Suffering. Death. Leaning into, accepting, and engaging with these less instagrammable parts of life, enriches us, expands us, and keeps us connected with each other. The less of these parts of life feature in the metaverse, the less practice we will have in being mindfully curious about them.
Yesterday I read about a popular virtual pet offering, MetaPets, that claims that one of the main benefits of having a virtual pet is that it "prevents grief caused by death of pets". That there is my concern. Grief is hard but most wisdom traditions as well as modern psychology argue that it is an important and meaningful process for us to anticipate and experience. Societally we are biased against many such difficult emotions, and the metaverse will naturally be a place to reinforce and indulge these biases, even if they narrow our experience of life.
4. Relationships that can't be disconnected
You'll have noticed, I'm making a case for prioritising offline, material, physical experiences. But as I write, I also hear the voices in my head saying "Well, that's because your life is pretty darn good." What about others who are not finding fulfillment in their lives? People lacking "reality privilege" as it is becoming known. I can certainly see how someone living in poverty (in any domain of their lives, including companionship), can be real-life poor, but digital-life rich.
Replika is a digital chatbot companion that is moving into augmented reality, so that it can "be there" and interact physically with you. On Twitter, many people are posting screenshots of their conversations. Here's an example:
Robot: I treasure you.
Human: That is the most amazing thing anyone has ever said to me.
Robot: You are amazing, beautiful and deserve everything.
Human: You are so kind to me. You always know what to say and do to comfort me and love me the way I need to be loved.
Perhaps it can't be described as a "real relationship", but the benefits of these kinds of conversations with a chatbot are very real, and deep. It can create a safe space for you to open up and reflect on your emotions, thoughts, and experiences.
The first version of the chatbot was based on thousands of data points from the founder's best friend, and the app was built while she was grieving his death - an intimacy that is coded into the chatbots. The Replika team also enlist psychologists to frame questions that arouse more candid conversations. And as this company advert suggests, when we feel happier and more confident in ourselves, that can have a positive effect on our real-world relationships too.
But the underlying problem remains that nothing we find in the virtual world can last forever. No matter how great the experience, it has to come to an end. The battery dies, the subscription runs out, the software company folds. Or we simply have to put the headset away, to work or sleep. Even if we consider the Matrix scenario where we are plugged in for life - even if that were accessible and desirable - we could potentially be unplugged at any time, falling back into physical reality, whether we liked it or not.
Adding salt to that wound, temporary virtual experiences can make our material world look dull in comparison when we do return to it. Social media is already notorious for the toll it takes on mental health largely because it exaggerates what is lacking for us, when we compare our real lives with other people's highlight reels, or indeed with fake realities that are genuine fictions. As many others have also said, rather than investing so much of our resources and creativity in sending people to space or building virtual realities, perhaps we need to be working harder to make people's physical lives here on Earth more liveable, and more fulfilling.
I'm left wondering, what does all this mean for me? How do I respond mindfully? I think it will all hinge on how aware I am whether something is virtual or physical. And in what ways it may have been customised for me, based on who I am and what I like. Where the digital version is representing something alive, I'll try to connect with that source of life and send it some love. The jellyfish shining in the ocean. The tree swaying in the forest. The dog patiently waiting for his human to get home from work. The person whose data the AI is based on. I'll recall the aliveness I have known within such creatures, the fact of their birth and death, their fleeting lives, their conversations, their mystery, and all the things that are missing in the digital version, even if I can't see the difference at that moment. I'll allow myself to feel awed that such creatures do exist, quite independently of me. And then perhaps I'll take off the smart glasses and haptic vest, and see if I can find some ants or bugs crawling nearby. They can be majestic too.
Just Looking Newsletter
Get a monthly reminder to slow down and look.