Virtual reality is coming for your eyeballs, and there is little, if anything, you can do to stop it.
No one needs it, and few seem to even want it, but that is unlikely to stop our overlords in Big Tech from funneling yet more pixels into the world’s fontanel. Humanity already lost the battle of the synapse during the iPhone invasion of 2007, trading global tracking and perpetual data harvesting for an occasional squirt of dopamine (approximately one hundred rat-like attempts made per day, according to recent studies). More recently, the extraordinary R&D opportunity presented by Covid-19 demonstrated that the information workers most likely to venture into VR are ready, willing, and able to sit in a chair for hours at a time to conduct virtual business with virtual colleagues who, as it turns out, have no real desire to be around each other anyway. We are now well primed to fulfill Ernest Cline’s vision of hyper-banal regression in Ready Player One, a world where people abandon Pac-Man IRL so they can chase 8-bit ghosts in a simulated arcade nestled within a simulated pizza shop that went dark with Player One’s adolescence.
Mark Zuckerberg’s vision of this purgatory will be brought to you by “Meta,” a name that the laziest writer at Star Trek might have coughed up for an evil supercomputer that Spock defeats by posing a series of logical contradictions. Adding insult to injury, Meta has adopted a warped infinity symbol as its emblem: This is the “metaverse,” the universe that ate all the other universes, a closed loop you cannot escape that will now be here forever and always. As digital flypaper, Meta aspires to be more than an occasional diversion. It will, stockholders hope, become a second way of a second life. Look forward to even more performative online speed dating! Ultra-vivid DEI training! Photoreal troll-bots—constructed for maximum annoyance from your own personal psychographics—who won’t stop promoting Ayn Rand until you finally agree to update your software. You will participate, and you will like it. Why? Because three dimensions are better than two, obviously, so invest in a good orthopedic chair, stock up on the Dramamine, and quit whining.
Technological utopianism runs deep in the United States, particularly when it comes to media technologies. More communication is always better than less, we are told, and faster communication is better than slow. As an awkward internet crawled toward Web 2.0, futurists predicted the resurgence of a functional public sphere, rational progress toward ending various inequities, a utopia of “prosumer” creativity, and—as a bonus—a new Weimar Republic of polymorphous perversity where horny avatars and skintight pressure suits would allow everyone to work through a backlog of simmering libidinal fantasies. None of that came to pass, of course, because futurism neglected to realize that capitalism, even when confronted with a seemingly universal longing for freedom and equity, was not going to simply give up and go home. At least the pandemic allowed many to finally level up to the Jetsons-era dream of a basic video phone, so there’s that.
The cybernauts of the 1990s might be excused for having so thoroughly misunderstood how the digital revolution would unfold. But what is our excuse now? At this point we generally understand that tech does not fall from the sky to save us from ourselves but instead embodies all the conflicts and contradictions that brought it to the marketplace in the first place. Given that VR will emerge from the same laboratory of neoliberal capital and democratic declension that birthed the internet, there is little reason to assume its fate will be any different. The Metaverse; OASIS; the Matrix: whatever we end up calling it, virtual immersion is likely to become a second, wholly superfluous “reality” curated to maintain market share and growth predictions. Sci-fi visions of this world seem particularly fixated on the dream of prophylactic clubbing, funky avatars gathering from around the globe and grooving to an endless EDM set generated by DJ algorithm. Dance like no one real is watching! But this is a bacchanalian face stretched over the skull of continuing atomization, agitation, and despair now facing Planet Data. And it will only get worse with the addition of a third and even more horrible dimension.
Avatarred and Feathered
For those who can pay, Club Zuck may well offer a few hours of diverting yet ultimately sad grinding in a hallucinated discotheque. Everyone else can look forward to a virtual bouncer showing up every ten minutes to drag freeloaders outside the paywall for a spirited presentation on the benefits of premium membership. Tired of your uncle’s lizard-brained political memes? Just wait until he can disrupt your Candy Crushing with a 3D GIF of Hillary Clinton wringing every last drop of adrenochrome out of a wailing baby. The fundamental human right to plausibly deny receiving a text or email will be gone forever once you are forced to make eye contact with your boss’s avatar, her swiveling head hovering over the Arc de Triomphe as you attempt a quick jaunt to virtual Paris. And what will be the VR equivalent of the pop-up ad strategically timed to slip under your cursor just as you are ready to scroll, thereby forcing you to learn ten truly inescapable facts about Benedict Cumberbatch? This virtual realm could easily become like London in the 1850s: pop-up crimps with digital blackjacks materializing out of a literal nowhere to shanghai your avatar into a life of ransoming data and spreading malware.
At least the pandemic allowed many to finally level up to the Jetsons-era dream of a basic video phone.
Tech-folk like to say there are no good or bad technologies, only good or bad uses of technology, a libertarian sophistry common to both Silicon Valley and the NRA (iPhones don’t drain human interiority, people drain human interiority . . . with their iPhones). But by the time any gadget or gizmo assumes its recognizable form, it is already thoroughly inscribed with the economic and political agenda that willed it into existence. In the wake of World War I, great-great-great Grandpa was on the verge of creating the World Wide Web through an “amateur” network of two-way radio sets. But once an alliance of corporations realized the money to be had by implementing unilateral broadcasting, Grandpa and his gear were sent packing to the garage and exiled to the hinterlands of shortwave, replaced by a mahogany cabinet in the living room that could lecture you about Cream of Wheat without any back talk.
Why did Americans spend much of the twentieth century staring at TV sets with only three networks? Because that was precisely the model worked out by the government and the various corporate players involved in television’s development. Public-minded reformers tried to fix the situation by promoting the vastly inferior UHF band, but by then it was too late; ABC, CBS, and NBC ruled the airwaves for decades until Rupert Murdoch wormed his way onto the spectrum in the late 1980s. Legacy media depended on oppressive systemic stability. Workers toiling under the disciplinary state of the twentieth century could expect somewhat routine cycles of work and leisure. For their part, the old Hollywood studio system and network television coughed up a dozen or so programs in prime time each night and a couple of new movies on the weekend. There were problems of scarcity and a lack of diversity in such a system, to be sure, but most folks still had some ability to carve out somewhat private blocks of mental time and physical space. Even television at its most imperious still allowed humanity the option of not participating.
Our task today, of course, is to produce and consume data around the clock, even as we celebrate the illusions of increased interactivity and greater flexibility. As we became lashed to our information technologies, work began to follow us home and cat videos began to follow us to work. Now that the smartphone has become indispensable for basic human functionality, even minor absences from the grid are impossible. If the old system depended on stable routines, the new logic is one of excess, proliferation, and perpetual suspension, an endless daisy chain of information leading nowhere. As it turns out, legacy media might have been doing us a favor by still allowing us the possibility of occasionally refusing to communicate, thus avoiding the brain-scrambling vortex of rings and pings now transforming us into automatons that even Pavlov’s slobbery dogs would pity. At least Winston Smith had a couple of blind spots where he could hide from Big Brother. No more.
We have been similarly defeated in the realm of hardware. The television sets of old often survived a decade or two with few problems. A knob might fall off, or an antenna could snap, but the technology still found a way to fulfill its basic mission of harvesting sitcoms and ad breaks from the ether. Digital technologies and commerce have no patience for such durability. Now Apple changes its operating system and port configurations every full moon, each new version of their wares further acclimating users to perpetual obsolescence and never-ending updates. Even if you know yourself well enough to understand that transitioning to wireless earbuds would mean burning a C-note every two months to replace them, Apple will penalize your lack of enthusiasm for its new design imperative by casting you into the slightly less expensive pit of lost dongles. If you owned a new car that became wholly incompatible with the local highway system in two years, you’d set it on fire. Sadly, however, there is no sign of revolutionary counterforces organizing to free us from the Sisyphean nightmare of lost passwords, dual-authentication protocols, and unwanted updates that instantaneously translate your desktop into Egyptian hieroglyphics. Not only do we accept this world like cows moseying toward the bolt-gun, we stand in line, happily, for the privilege of throwing away iWidget 6 for iWidget 7.
The goal here should be obvious—an accelerating feedback loop of information on hardware and nervous systems pushed beyond capacity and to the point of impending collapse. As brainstems begin to smoke, there will be no choice but to demand rather than resist advanced biometric assimilation. Just put a chip in my eyeball, link it to my bank account, and be done with it. I’m a cyborg now. You win.
Of course, some can’t wait to become machines. When Marshall McLuhan described technology as an “extension of the nervous system,” many futurists saw this as an invitation to abandon flesh and blood platforms. And who could blame people for wanting to upgrade from the increasingly disgusting, frequently mutinous, and ultimately humiliating technology that is the human body? No doubt this dream has existed from the moment the first Homo sapiens saw his pal disemboweled by a mastodon. Religion served this purpose for centuries, assuring believers that they would somehow survive forever somewhere other than here. When scientific rationalism made this seem like a quaint fairytale, technology stepped in to keep the fantasy alive. No sooner had Samuel Morse debuted the telegraph by tapping “What hath God wrought,” metaphysicians rallied to the revelations of the “spiritual telegraph.” This was no metaphor. For the American Spiritualist movement of the mid-nineteenth century, the spiritual telegraph was a literal technology that connected the Spiritualist medium with the Other World. And this device had good news! Soon everyone would be in Seventh Heaven at a never-ending Victorian garden party, eating spiritual patisserie, painting spiritual sunsets, and giving Shakespeare advice about his new play at the spiritual theater.
Social VR offers a less ambitious version of this fantasy, but the motivational impulse is similar. This world sucks. Get me out of here. Even more ambitious in their quest to escape the sad realm of fleshy disappointment are the neuroscientists investigating the fantasy of Whole Brain Emulation (WBE). The idea here is to construct a 3D avatar of the brain, accurate down to the level of the synapse, that will one day host a magical transmigration of human consciousness. Immortality at last, engineered by real science! And without all the noxious blood, pus, urine, feces, and assorted other secretions that make human existence a lifelong battle to repress and/or sublimate eruptions of abject revulsion. Such nonsense is the inevitable conclusion of treating the brain as a computer (loaded with “ego” software) and reality as a modular construct (be it of atoms or pixels).
These transcendental dead-ends might have been avoided if only everyone had taken psychoanalysis a little more seriously. Psychoanalysis remains spectacularly unpopular, probably because of the distortions and resistance thrown at caricatures of Freud for the past 150 years. We all want to sleep with our mothers, except for women, but psychoanalysis does not care about girls anyway. Your dreams are the royal road to revealing you’re probably a monster, mainly because you want to sleep with your mother, but also because you secretly wish to murder your sibling, show your genitals to the mailman, or eat Twinkies in the bathtub. At the heart of the Freudian project, however, is a much less complicated, though admittedly more dispiriting, premise: you are not who you think you are. Worse yet, your “ego” is a fiction that started when the bloblike paradise of infancy started to encounter the unpleasant obstacles of other people, deferred pleasures, and the inescapable traps of language. Yes, your mind resides inside the brain, but “you” are more than a pattern of electrical charges that can be quantitatively mapped and moved by jumper cable into some other vessel. The ego is an occult fiction, baked in the body through its qualitative negotiation of internal drives and external pressures. What makes you a “you” is not an epic and fully searchable database that can be streamed or stored on a huge thumb drive.
Tapeworms and Telemarketers
Some futurists will protest that the human body is already a machine realized by DNA blueprints and that consciousness is ultimately no different than other forms of “information” that might be stored, transcribed, and transferred. (Norbert Wiener, in his foundational work on cybernetics, made just this point.) Even if this were so, the very act of transferring this ego data packet would necessitate either hiding the act of transfer from the ego in question or instead celebrating the move from viscera to silicon as a radical rebirth. In the first scenario, the transmigrated wake up in more-or-less the same world as before, burdened by the very same schmuck-like boredom, jealousy, anger, irritation, and mortal anxiety that plagued everyone in Life One (except now this struggle will go on for centuries, perhaps forever). In the second scenario, hooray, I realize I’m virtually “immortal,” only now the conventional understanding of space, time, self, and Other that produced the magic of “me” is now utterly meaningless, and what is more, I know it’s meaningless. Good luck when Platonic Idealism is not merely a theory but a known fact, even as the larger mystery of who or what created the universe that created the mainframe that creates the illusion of you remains unsolved. No one, at least at present, can keep that many layers of shit together.
As David Byrne and other philosophers have observed, Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens, because for things to happen, events and things must be modulated so as to differ from other events and things. Living as an oceanic field of eternal bliss blended with the spirit of God, the universe, or the mainframe would be pointless, at least to the “you” who you are presently. Without lived boundaries of self, who or what exactly experiences this bliss? At the same time, retaining your individual ego in Heaven has its own problems. Are you really going to play spiritual golf every day for all eternity? Sign yourself up for a millennium-long orgasm? Will we really have to see everyone again in Heaven, even the people we can’t stand?
There is no sign of revolutionary counterforces organizing to free us from the Sisyphean nightmare of lost passwords, dual-authentication protocols, and unwanted updates.
A theologian of the nineteenth century once pondered a question that continues to plague many even today: Do dogs have a soul? Will we see them again in Heaven? Yes, he concluded, but for this to be true, one must also concede that all living creatures have a soul, including gnats, fleas, and intestinal amoebas. So, in the final analysis, he proposed that Heaven exists as a generally better place, but even so, one had to recognize that every so often a spirit-leech might end up sucking your spirit-blood (perhaps after a day making Heaven more hellish for the spirit-fish living in a nearby spirit-stream). But in the end, isn’t this the best anyone could hope for? Pure bliss, in the body or as a cosmic force, would quickly become homeostatic nothingness, a void.
A Heaven without tapeworms and telemarketing is not only unfair to tapeworms and telemarketers, it also supposes an ego that would be content with an utterly static state of existence removed from both the obstacles and victories that make desire and enjoyment possible in the first place.
The MetaOmniTrix is nowhere near plunging us all into such existential dilemmas, and most likely, an asteroid or virus will take us all out long before the coding work on this project is complete. Still, it is somewhat dispiriting to see the human species continue to run away from itself, draining more and more enchantment from the real world just to prop up commodified fantasies of disembodied contentment in places that do not actually exist, not really. God forbid anyone spend the time and resources necessary to make the decidedly non-Meta lives of most humans slightly less awful for the limited time we each have on this ridiculous planet. Face it. The universe tends toward entropy. We’re all going to die. Perhaps pissing away the hours in a virtual lounge with people you will never actually touch, feel, or smell is not the best use of your time. And even if we do eventually migrate some facsimile of ourselves into digital avatars, at best we’ll spend a century or two growing increasingly bored and then die all over again when someone or something crashes the system. Much better to accept that, ooh baby, Heaven is a place on earth, even with the tapeworms and telemarketers, and that no technology, be it the pay-per-being existence of Meta or a giant communist mainframe is going to deliver the ego from the bodily constraints that gave it birth and give it meaning. Yes, this world often sucks. But there is nowhere else for “you” to go. And if that seems bleak, take heart. Once you are no more, there will be no more you to care about it.