Whatever the metaverse is, we are dangerously unready
by Bob Schwartz
We are not ready for the metaverse, whatever it is.
There isn’t yet a settled definition for the buzzword “metaverse”. Those who speak “knowledgeably” about it are like Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking-Glass, who said, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
Instead of defining, here are a couple of pertinent observers from the wayback: Marshall McLuhan in 1964 and Neil Postman in 1985. Both observed trends in media and society, both concluded that unexamined and unguided powerful progress could lead us unwittingly to dangerous territory.
They weren’t the first or last of such observers. But they were early—early enough to have possibly had some impact on just how careful we are in embracing this latest generation of the next new thing. To show how little impact they have had, it is likely that fewer than ever—very few now—know them or their work.
In the Introduction to Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan wrote:
After three thousand years of explosion, by means of fragmentary and mechanical technologies, the Western world is imploding. During the mechanical ages we had extended our bodies in space. Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned. Rapidly, we approach the final phase of the extensions of man — the technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society, much as we have already extended our senses and our nerves by the various media.
The final phase of the extensions of man — the technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society.
The media extensions of man McLuhan wrote about included Spoken Word, Written Word, Comics, Photograph, Press, Ads, Telegraph, Typewriter, Telephone, Phonograph, Movies, Radio, Television. While digital media and digital life were not an essential element in 1964, his description pertains more than ever: “[T]he technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society.”
In the Introduction to Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Neil Postman wrote:
[I]n Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think. What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.”