Facebook chairman Mark Zuckerberg announced last week that he was changing the company’s name to Meta, because he believed that the “Metaverse” of virtual reality would become the company’s most important business in the future. Whether Zuckerberg or someone else succeeds in creating a convincing Metaverse, it seems to me a wholly negative development for humanity. Electronic reality, already highly competitive with the world we live in for gadget users’ attention, may take over completely. Surely that would bring civilization to a miserable end, for economic as well as philosophical reasons.
Ever since the advent of video games in the 1970s, computers have been used for two entirely separate purposes: as productivity-enhancers for activities that take place and relate to the real world, and as escapes from the world altogether, in which the ordinary difficulties of human interaction can be ignored.
As enhancers of our capability for managing our real-world activities, computers have been spectacularly successful. Possessed of an almost completely illegible handwriting, I found the original word processors an incredibly liberating experience. At last, one could compose a memorandum or letter and have the result bear some resemblance to what one wanted to write. For a few years, I had a wonderful secretary to whom I could dictate 20-page papers and get the results back accurately (her shorthand being better than my handwriting) – she, and the rest of the office called me “The Great Dictator.” However, secretaries of that quality were very few, requiring employers who were prepared to pay them properly, and they disappeared altogether once the concept of “secretary” became outdated.
The Internet and Wikipedia further broadened my horizons, enabling me to look up at least a first cut at the information I required immediately. Naturally, one was aware of its inaccuracy and susceptibility to political and social bias, but I solved that problem by writing on 18th and 19th century history, on which Wikipedia is surprisingly reliable.
Overall, therefore I would be the last to deny the usefulness of modern technology. I have never used social media, being only too well aware of my ability to lose jobs, contracts and lawsuits in 140 characters, but with that restriction, technology has added immensely to my life and my ability to earn money without spending hours on a commuter train and putting up with the eccentricities of colleagues and, worse still, bosses. It has made me lazy about human interactions, a tendency that has recently been reinforced by Covid-19, but I am at least a generally contented hermit.
Technology’s effect on its passive users has however been entirely different. In the 1980s and 1990s, parents worried about the effect of video games on their offspring, especially teenage boys. The video games were often violent and almost always very fast-paced and absorbing; their players would appear cut off from the outside world, unresponsive to questions and comments from those around them, lost in a world of their own. There was also a concern that the violence in the video games might bleed over into real life, increasing the level of violence therein, at a time when crime was already unacceptably high and apparently rising uncontrollably.
Those concerns appear to have been largely but not completely overblown. The video game generation generally read fewer books than its grandparents, but that damage had probably been done by color TV a generation earlier. The video game generation played less outdoor sports than its predecessors; that has led to increased obesity in its adulthood, although various changes to the American diet have contributed to that large but mostly unexplained change. Nevertheless, the video gamers graduated from college at about the same rate as their predecessors, and are now playing a useful role in the workforce, in many cases using skills of quick reaction to screen-based video information that were honed by their teenage video game activities. Violent crime has declined (save for an uptick probably due to the Covid-19 pandemic) so many of the worries ascribed to videogames by anxious parents have proved to be wrong.
For the following generation’s passive technology users, those devoted to social media (Facebook, Twitter and their successors) and the ubiquitous cellphones, the outlook is rather murkier, though part of that murkiness may be due to these applications having been in widespread use for only a decade or so. Because of the more limited information conveyed by a cellphone compared to a conventional PC, the experience of using it is far more passive than that of using a PC.
I have never used this generation of applications significantly; owing to mild technophobia and mildly deteriorating eyesight, but as an active user of modern technology I have not found any areas where they add to my existing capability. (To be fair, although an aficionado of board games, I never played video games significantly, either – the electronic bad guys always whizzed about too fast for me to catch them, even in my 30s and 40s.) Nevertheless, I have seen the destructive use the wokies make of Facebook and Twitter, destroying the careers of the innocent who are incautious enough to violate one of the several million inscrutable social norms of modern life. Had I been tempted to interact with this generation of applications, I am certainly not so tempted now.
There is now considerable evidence that immersement in social media is highly damaging to the emotional stability of the vulnerable, especially those of tender years They no longer make friendships off-line, but instead get all their self-validation through their social media interactions. Emotionally and intellectually stunted, they will have great difficulty navigating an enjoyable and productive way through adult life. As with video gamers, there will be jobs available to them – the innumerable censors and wokeism enforcers of Facebook, Google, Twitter and the like will mostly be electronic, but will need human backups to ensure the electronic guillotines are not being applied too sparingly. However, few of them will procreate, their old ages will be miserable and their lives will be wasted. That might not be a major problem, except that the world will miss out on what they might have produced, were they capable of functioning as anything more productive than a wokeism censor.
The Metaverse, as visualized by Zuckerberg and his competitors, will be even more immersive and addictive than video games and social media. Hence it will suck in an even higher percentage of the human race to its maw, and away from the real world. The essential fallacy of the concept is seen by watching Zuckerberg demonstrating it. Here is a self-made centi-billionaire, still well under 40. In the real world, he can go anywhere, enjoy places of the greatest beauty, meet the most attractive, interesting and powerful people, eat the most delicious food, etc. What can a Meta-world, created only from his own brain, give him that can compare with those opportunities? The Meta-beauty will be short of the world’s best, the Meta-people will have no power, and will be far short of the world’s most intelligent and fascinating, and there will be no food (or sex) at all.
That suggests that the Metaverse will be of little interest to Zuckerberg, except as a way of making yet more money. For the young, the insecure, the impoverished and the unimaginative, it will be relatively far more attractive, indeed wholly addictive. If it works, the great mass of humanity will exist in a vegetative state, without interaction with the real world, enjoying the sterile pleasures of the Metaverse.
The great majority of people did not become immersed in video games, and so remained connected to the real world, and active in it. With social media and cellphones, the percentage immersion is greater, the percentage of humanity immune to them less. With the Metaverse, if it is done effectively, the percentage of humanity immersed will be very high indeed, and the real world will contain only the lifeless shells of their physical existence. How long the power stations will keep on running in such a situation must be open to doubt.
Aldous Huxley, in his 1932 “Brave New World” postulated an existence in which the great majority of humanity existed in a vegetative state under the influence of the drug “soma.” However, Huxley’s fantasy never seemed to me entirely a dystopia, because there were a few “Alphas” whose intelligence had been at least mildly increased, who were fully aware of the world about them.
Zuckerberg’s Metaverse, however, may indeed create a dystopia –a “Brave New World” without Alphas.
(The Bear’s Lair is a weekly column that is intended to appear each Monday, an appropriately gloomy day of the week. Its rationale is that the proportion of “sell” recommendations put out by Wall Street houses remains far below that of “buy” recommendations. Accordingly, investors have an excess of positive information and very little negative information. The column thus takes the ursine view of life and the market, in the hope that it may be usefully different from what investors see elsewhere.)