The Metaverse is a Second ‘Second Life’
When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced his bold plan to create an “embodied internet,” or metaverse, many marked this development as something that will change the internet forever. Those who take a positive view of the change tend to imagine something like the Oasis in Ready Player One, a virtual world where anything is possible and people live out their fantasies for most of their days to escape a drab dystopian reality.
Indeed, this is the way Vanity Fair correspondent Nick Bilton described the metaverse: “You could hook up your exercise bike to race against Maurice Garin in the Tour de France. Or your running machine to race against Usain Bolt at the Olympics (and lose). You could go to the zoo. You could be an animal at the zoo. Visit the Louvre. Le Mans. The International Space Station. You could go for a walk on Mars. Neptune. Float in space. Play ‘red light, green light’ with your friends in Squid Game.” With all this and more being possible, why bother ever leaving the metaverse?
No one would, suggested Declan Leary here at The American Conservative. He predicted that most of the world will succumb to Zuckerberg’s metaverse and “rationalize the blue pill by telling ourselves that this is not the subjugation of man through the machines but merely an innocent, silly side project for an obscenely rich and socially inept Harvard dropout.” After all, nearly everyone is already addicted to their screens and disengaged from the physical world constantly. The metaverse is just the logical conclusion of this.
But what if the metaverse turns out to be merely an updated version of Second Life?
For those who may not remember it, Second Life was a virtual platform created 15 years ago that allowed users to interact with other people through a customizable avatar. Naturally, due to the technical limitations of the time, the Second Life world looked and felt more like the Sims than actual life.
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Similar to the metaverse, Second Life was hailed as a game changer. People could live out their lives in it, buy virtual property, do virtual work for virtual money, and build up virtual communities. Companies and universities created virtual campuses, buying into the hype. Even The Office had a short segment on it.
For a while Second Life was enormously popular, boasting millions of users. But eventually, the novelty wore off and people stopped using it. In trying to please all people, Second Life began to turn most of them away. No one could say what it was, and this became a problem. Was it a social media platform? Was it a space for virtual meetings? Was it a massive multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG)? If it was supposed to be all these things, there were better, more focused options out there—like Facebook, which started around the same time.
While the metaverse uses much more powerful technology than Second Life, and is an open system—more like the Internet 2.0 and less like MMORPG—it still seems likely to face the same challenges as it tries to do too many things, too.
More than its technology and even more than the magnitude of its user base, so much of the metaverse’s success will depend on its convenience—how useful it is and how easy it is to use. Zuckerberg should know this better than anyone, since this was exactly how Facebook became so popular. There were plenty of social media platforms that did the same things as Facebook—Myspace, Friendster, Xanga—but they ended up becoming so convoluted and messy that people migrated to Facebook.
Rather than learning from the idea of keeping things simple and convenient, Zuckerberg wants to deny it as fully as possible, creating a wide-ranging virtual world that contains everything. Sure, it’s cool (and intimidating), but it’s also smacks of inconvenience. Why should you bother with it? If you want to sound off on an issue, you go to Twitter. If you want to keep up with friends and family, you use Facebook. If you want to meet remotely, you use Zoom. And if you wants to distract yourself, you have a wide array of options on your smartphone. None of these require putting on a VR headset, picking an avatar, and traversing a virtual world with other people.
There’s also the obvious fact that the virtual world is not real. The grass may be greener in the metaverse, but it’s not real, nor is anything else in it. More importantly, the people aren’t real either. They are idealized projections of people—or they may very well be bots.
In other words, the metaverse is a superbly crafted, state-of-the-art lie. But all meaningful relationships are rooted in knowledge, so they must be based in truth—that is, at the very least, in the idea that people, places, and things are what they are. At its most basic level, the metaverse is perfectly useless and inhuman. And as media-addicted and escapist as the masses might be, they will prefer the reality that makes them human to the fantasy that makes life meaningless.
So is metaverse the future? Probably not, but its failure will teach a valuable lesson to today’s generations: There is a line that technology cannot cross, and that line is reality. The whole Western philosophical tradition reaffirms this truth. Human consciousness cannot be uploaded and customized, nor can the physical world be downloaded and manipulated. People can pretend that this isn’t the case and escape to the metaverse, but reality will always reassert itself—because that’s what reality does.
The sooner a person understands this, the closer he will come to a happy life. Zuckerberg knows this and hates it, which is why he’s pushing his new metaverse. That’s why it would be best to ignore the hype, avoid the delusion, and reengage with the physical world once and for all.
Auguste Meyrat is an English teacher in the Dallas area. He holds an MA in Humanities and an MEd in Educational Leadership. He is the senior editor of The Everyman and has written essays for the Federalist, the American Thinker, Crisis magazine, The American Conservative, and the Imaginative Conservative, as well as the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture.