...and Didn’t Even Need the Metaverse
In Salvo #60, I reported on the Think Big Festival where one of the presenters, Chen-Ping Yu, spoke about his own research into Augmented Reality (AR), including the development of glasses that will blend together physical and digital spaces. Chen-Ping told us that AR will soon change how all of us experience the world, because our sensory perception will become linked to AI algorithms that will continually adjust how the world is presented to us.
Will this mean that we all become cyborgs? That was a question one member of the audience asked the panelists. The answer given by Chen-Ping was instructive:
When you think about cyborgs, you typically think about hardware being implanted in your brain to enhance your sensory system. But you don't really have to because now imagine having your AR glasses on you. AR glasses are not only showing you information [about] the world, it's also sensing the world through computer vision AI that's running on [your] device… Therefore, I think all of us will become cyborgs in the next ten or twenty years.
Chen-Ping was not simply talking about a variation of “Google Glass,” which was all the rage for the first half of the last decade but never moved beyond experimentation. The glasses produced by Google were basically just a computer by which external information was delivered through an optical head-mounted display. The goal of AR glasses was much more ambitious: to change how the physical world looks to the user, to overlay the real world with an enhanced version of it – enhanced, perhaps, by a personalized algorithm in the cloud that is wirelessly connected to each user’s smart contact lenses. Such an algorithm could continuously update itself based on the latest information about the user's preferences and desires, and then use that information to customize how that person sees the world (and perhaps even other people), offering a view of reality that is “just right” for him or her.
Shortly after the conference, the notion of customized reality hit the public with a frenzy, as Mark Zuckerberg made it his goal to create a parallel realm, overlaid on top of the real world, that each of us could enter, interact in, and customize for our own needs. He even gave this world a name: the metaverse.
Imagine putting on VR goggles and controlling a three-dimensional avatar with which you can attend social events, form relationships, and browse virtual storefronts to conduct business. Suppose that through a convergence of AR, VR, AI, 3D holograms, smart contact lenses, and perhaps even brain-computer interfacing, the internet becomes a “place” where you can actually enter and have life-like experiences. As far-fetched as it sounds, that was the state of affairs—known as the metaverse—that Zuckerberg hoped to bring to life.
In an interview with The Verge on July 22, 2021, Zuckerberg described the metaverse as “the successor to the mobile internet,” and promised that his company would work to “bring the metaverse to life.” He added:
You can think about the metaverse as an embodied internet, where instead of just viewing content, you are in it . . . a persistent, synchronous environment where we can be together…. What the metaverse broadly is going to help people experience, is a sense of presence…. The interactions that we have will be a lot richer, they'll feel real.
Emancipation from Material Limits
Zuckerberg’s announcement was followed by a flurry of commercials for the metaverse, which I analyzed here. The 2022 metaverse commercials revealed something important about the utopian vision of the executives at Meta. They showed that the architects of the metaverse hoped to supercharge an idea of freedom conceived as emancipation from all limits, as if the fixities of the material world are a type of fall from which digital technology can deliver us.
For some activists, this promise of deliverance from material limits promised to open new avenues for body autonomy, finally delivering men and women from the annoying fixities of the physical world. In a keynote speech for the Roblox Developers Conference 2021, David Baszucki gave a presentation about how his gaming company, Roblox, had “taken a leadership role in defining what the metaverse is,” and that “it starts with identity.” He went on to share how he was perfecting avatar technology so that, in the metaverse, any user can construct any identity:
We're going forward now to a world where, in our vision, you have to be whoever you want to be… Any body, any face… everyone will be who they want to be.
At the time Baszucki gave his keynote, avatar technology had not reached the point of facilitating any identity. For example, the range of available avatars seemed to reinforce conceptions of gender eschewed by members of the LGBTQ+ community. The MIT Technology Review cited gamer Kirby Crane (a self-described, “fat, gay, pre–medical transition trans man”), who found it frustrating that some games “didn’t allow for an avatar to be male with breasts, which Crane found isolating, as it suggested that the only way to be male was to be male-presenting.”
Problems Bringing The Metaverse to Life
From the beginning, one of the main problems with the metaverse was hardware. For the metaverse to work, there needed to be hardware that enabled the simulated reality to feel real to the user. But because hardware is, well, hard, it must necessarily make certain concessions to the form and solidity of the material world. And this, it turned out, created innumerable difficulties.
Zuckerberg was quite optimistic that these difficulties could be overcome, and that advances in hardware would make it possible for the metaverse to feel real. For example, Meta Platforms spent millions of dollars trying to create gloves that use high-level electronic technology to simulate the sense of touch for the wearer. The gloves would use airflow to create the sensation that objects are pressing against the skin, and thus to bring tactile perception into the experience of the metaverse.
Despite advances on the hardware front, Meta just couldn’t make the metaverse feel real. Outside the gaming community, few were interested in spending hours wearing oculus headsets in order to live inside a digital illusion.
Even more insurmountable than the hardware difficulty was the financial problem. In autumn 2022, hype about the metaverse was superseded by excitement about generative AI, which had the advantage of not being purely hypothetical. Following enthusiasm over ChatGPT, investors dumped billions into AI, while companies who had invested in the metaverse were left holding colossal losses. Meta Platforms had to lay off over 10,000 employees, while Meta’s Facebook Reality Labs (the division responsible for bringing the metaverse to life) recorded a $4.28 billion operating loss in the fourth quarter, bringing its total loss for 2022 to $13.72 billion. In February 2023, Zuckerberg wrote a Facebook post explaining that his company would move its focus from the metaverse to AI.
As for Chen-Ping Yu’s company, Phiar, it was acquired by Google, closed down their website, and went dark.
It seems that we temporarily escaped the future prophesied by Chen-Ping at the Think Big Festival when he said that we would all become cyborgs.
Or did we?
The metaverse hypothesis, like the excitement about augmented reality, had been based on the notion that the boundaries between the online and offline worlds could become so porous that it would be impossible to tell which is which. In the utopian optimism of men like Mark Zuckerberg, the metaverse would blur the difference between reality and simulation. But it turns out we didn’t need clunky hardware and body suits to achieve that. It turns out we could become cyborgs without the metaverse.
We’re All Cyborgs Now
The term “cyborg” was first coined in 1960 by Manfred Clynes and Nathan S. Kline to describe a being with both organic and biomechatronic body parts. But the term has come to be widely used to describe humans who are controlled externally by a machine source. And, in case you didn’t notice, that’s us.
Consider how many parents are ostensibly spending time with their children while their attention is actually elsewhere, distracted by what is happening on their phones. Consider how many spouses spend more time with technology than with each other. Consider how many individuals have given up studying and memorizing, confident that they can just google anything they need to know.
The turn away from physical reality to the digital ecosystem is now so commonplace that it seems normal. We didn’t need oculus headsets or interoperability for the demarcation between reality and simulation to become blurred, trivialized, and irrelevant. All we needed were our smartphones.
“The virtual camera is in our heads”
In June, 2023, when Apple released a limited rollout of its Vision Pro Headset, it seemed like a blast from the past, a concession to the material world that we have already left behind.
“Our reality has been augmented, virtual, and mixed for a long time, and we’re at home in it,” observed Nicholas Carr ina blog post earlier this year. He continued,
“Bulky headgear that projects images onto fields of vision feels like a leap backwards.
Baudrillard explained it all thirty years ago in The Perfect Crime. “The virtual camera is in our heads. No need of a medium to reflect our problems in real time: every existence is telepresent to itself. The TV and the media long since left their media space to invest “real” life from the inside, precisely as a virus does a normal cell. No need of the headset and the data suit: it is our will that ends up moving about the world as though inside a computer-generated image.”
Who needs real goggles when we already wear virtual ones?
I think Carr is onto something. The idea of the metaverse still made concessions to our materiality on the assumption that a completely immersive digital experience would have to mimic the sights, sounds, and feels of the real world. In that sense, the metaverse was parasitic on the very materiality it sought to leave behind. Zuckerberg paid homage to the abiding importance of physicality when he spoke of his longing for an “embodied internet.” His projects, like the gloves that enable you to “feel” the sensation of touch, further underscored the importance of what he called "a sense of presence.” The desire for the metaverse was, in fact, the last gasp of techno-utopians not yet ready to give up on the normativity of embodiment. Yet for a new generation catechized to disbelieve in the normativity of nature and biology, embodiment is no longer the goal. For the generation that has grown up using smartphones since they were in diapers, a sense of presence is often not a feature but a bug. We don’t need life-like experiences; indeed, the point of our phones is often precisely to escape from life.
In the end, we don’t even need our smartphones to be emancipated from the fixities of the material world. The camera is indeed inside our heads.
When David Baszucki gushed in 2021 that avatar technology would enable anyone in the metaverse “to be whoever you want to be,” he underestimated the potential of a society that catechizes us to believe that each of us can customize our own reality. Why wait for an avatar in the metaverse to underwrite your identity as a man with breasts? We live in a society that already underwrites such concepts and that, in the words of the authors of Planned Parenthood v. Casey, gives us “the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe.” As such, many of us already live in a simulation. It didn’t even take the metaverse for the difference between reality and simulation to become blurred, trivialized and irrelevant.
- The Body Problem From the Roman Empire to Social Media
- From Pokémon to Beauty Filters: Augmented Reality and the New Nihilism
has a Master’s in Historical Theology from King’s College London and a Master’s in Library Science through the University of Oklahoma. He is the blog and media managing editor for the Fellowship of St. James and a regular contributor to Touchstone and Salvo. He has worked as a ghost-writer, in addition to writing for a variety of publications, including the Colson Center, World Magazine, and The Symbolic World. Phillips is the author of Gratitude in Life's Trenches (Ancient Faith, 2020), and Rediscovering the Goodness of Creation (Ancient Faith, 2023). He operates a blog at www.robinmarkphillips.com.• Get SALVO blog posts in your inbox! Copyright © 2023 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/post/how-we-became-cyborgs