Pondering The Metaverse and Adorable Robotic Dogs
“Now the king of all Egypt at that time was the god Thamus, who lived in the great city of the upper region, which the Greeks call the Egyptian Thebes. To him came [the god] Theuth to show his inventions, saying that they ought to be imparted to the other Egyptians. [...] Thamus said many things to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts [...] but when they came to the letters, “This invention, O king,” said Theuth, “will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories; for it is an elixir of memory and wisdom that I have discovered.” But Thamus replied, “Most ingenious Theuth, [...] you, who are the father of letters, have been led by your affection to ascribe to them a power the opposite of that which they really possess. For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom..."
-Socrates, telling a story of an old fuddy-duddy king, in Phaedrus
Our great flaming asteroid of a society carries many elements on its back, and among them are those who are working very hard to create ever more complicated improvements to our complicated culture.
In the last couple days, we have been given a preview of two sensational visions of the near-future, delivered in a way that only our goofy, self-parodying era could devise.
The first comes from Mark Zuckerberg, who, in a humanlike presentation, unveiled that his company Facebook will now be called Meta and will be reorienting itself toward its greater goal of bringing its customers – er, well actually technically we're the product, not the customers, but anyway – to the metaverse. The metaverse is a project to create a more “embodied internet,” as Zuckerberg puts it, combining virtual reality with social media and other apps. Have a look for yourself.
It is impossible for me to have only one reaction to this inevitable, relentless, glass-half-overflowing good news. There is the feeling of absurdity around the rallying corporate sales pitch aspect of it, which is a familiar cradle-to-grave feature of American life. There is the feeling of dread I have over the continued march toward a disembodied virtual existence. And also, I have to say, there is a kind of awe, and an itch to try out a cool new gadget.
Meanwhile, Boston Dynamics has dropped a new video of their robot dogs dancing to The Rolling Stones' Start Me Up, continuing to show just how fun the near-future can be, even as similar companies are fitting their robodogs with guns and courting the US military. It's alleged that there's no CGI used here but I still can't quite believe it. The movements are extraordinarily streamlined and exact. In any case, these robots are getting better every year, and people are getting more and more creeped out by it.
And we really should take a moment to consider just how extraordinary it is that such technology can actually exist. Any of us over the age of 30 were born into a relatively analog world. And now we – or at least the wealthy among us – are perhaps on the verge of checking out of countless everyday physical responsibilities and handing them over to adorable robots. This of course includes household chores, but also more complicated tasks, dangerous jobs, and inevitably, violence at home and war abroad.
The idea of replacing humans with unconscious automatons in dangerous domains is particularly interesting, and presents a true moral and philosophical problem. Who can argue with a vision of the near-future where people do not have to run into flaming buildings and die trying to save someone else, or where fewer human soldiers come home in coffins? How does any leader or critic who has stood against this new technology as a kind of relinquishing aspects of the human experience look a bereaved family member of a fallen officer in the eye and tell them it is better for humanity that we do not adopt these new gadgets?
This is why, barring some separate kind of societal collapse, these changes will happen. Because these questions are too difficult and awkward to answer and the economic benefits to the developers are too great. The other question, far too embarrassing and immaterial to ask out loud, is the one which will, at least at first, be ignored: What good is a society without its heroes? What will happen to humans if physical courage is not a virtue we have to call upon anymore?
There is a pro-futurist answer which immediately comes to mind and it is well worth wrestling with a bit. It goes something like this: 'The notion of heroism is a mutable one. You may have in your mind the cliché of the fireman running into the burning building, but that is only one kind of heroism. And while that brute, physical heroism might be in slow decline for the human race, heroism will appear elsewhere! You will find it in the compassion of the AI programmers who are committed to making the world safer, and in the online activist communities who stick their neck out for vulnerable populations. And you can find it out in the metaverse where people will be counseling others amid their [inevitable] mental illnesses.' (Alright, that last bit was not exactly steel-manning the counter-argument, but you know it's going to be part of the picture.)
Well, each person must decide for themselves whether or not that sort of answer is satisfactory. Certainly it has some truth in it. There are all kinds of ways to display bravery in mind and spirit that go beyond traditional notions of physical heroism.
I also find that there is something false in this possible answer. The falseness is in what it doesn't notice, or the way it sidesteps something about our physical existence which we are slowly giving up. Yes, it assumes a natural progress toward the virtual and away from the physical. It turns us more and more into passive observers, choosers, experiencers. But it also banishes nature itself – the untamed, non-human parts of the world which lay beyond the edges of our gardens – further from our routines and further from our experiences. The new experiences we have will not be wild, they will have been curated or created by someone else or sprung up from the catacombs of a human-made algorithm.
And what to make of this other, perennial argument against the skeptics of technology? Namely: that there were people who opposed the printing press too, the industrial revolution, the motorcar. That someone, as Plato imagined of Thamus, even opposed the invention of writing itself as an assault on human memory! Ultimately, they will argue, this is a feeling which comes from an irrational sense of alienation and fear and distrust, and a romanticizing of the past, when in fact the past was actually quite a horrible place to have found oneself.
I admit, as a person whose natural tendency is toward distrust of shiny new horizons, this argument does sting. And therefore to some extent it must have some truth to it. But how can we say honestly that in each aforementioned innovation that there was not also something which the human experience lost? How would we know?
One question which we will one day get around to asking ourselves is, amid all these beautiful and bold technical achievements, what is it about them that we admire? And then, where are those corresponding admirable qualities to be found when we look at ourselves?
When I was a young teenager, I dabbled a bit in the world of charismatic evangelical Christianity. And there was a night that I went to a real shout-and-holler style event, and wandered up to the line of people who were hoping to get knocked over by the Holy Spirit, and did in fact get overwhelmed and knocked over. And as I was ambling back to my folding chair, buzzing from the experience, I recall having two feelings simultaneously: 1. That was pretty wild, and not easily explainable. And 2. If this was meant to be from God himself, I kind of expected a little more. Call me ungrateful, but in that moment of supposed connection to the divine, a seed of disappointment was planted which ended in my eventual exit from that particular sort of flashy American spirituality.
And in some way I have a similar kind of feeling about these great technical leaps. Undeniably they are amazing. In some ways their manifestation is surprising. And there is no mystery as to why people are caught up in their glow. But ultimately, it strikes me as a neon glow. Slightly hollow, slightly buzzing. Not quite all it's cracked up to be. And as the human experience embraces a widening range of things to occupy its time, I can't help but also feel a corresponding flattening out. A perpetual feeling of having forgotten something fundamental to life, of leaving something essential behind.
But every day that goes by, it is less and less a Zuckerbergian or Bezoan, or Kurzweilian assault upon our poor, innocent, better angels. We have had enough time to ponder this now, and from now on it is on us to decide how to respond. If we are missing something that has been left behind in the warp-speed changes of our society, it is for us to go back and find them. In the meantime technology's distractions will continue to fight for space in our minds and in our lives. I don't actually think it has to be this way. But it will be for most of us, because Lord knows we have not mastered ourselves or our impulses. And yet we keep getting handed bigger and bigger weapons. Audio Version: