And introducing: Letters from the Metaverse
Like most young children, I didn’t have much say in the matter of what I could do at any given time. My daily life revolved around movement from space to space for purposes of education, moral upbringing and practicality.
Although my parents weren’t very strict, I didn’t have much freedom in the way of room decor and clothing choices either. Any requests to hang posters or amateur drawings were denied on the grounds that push-pins damaged the walls. My clothing was always bought for me during Christmas, birthdays and back to school sales without my input.
In short, personal choice to represent myself was scarce. As someone who was very fortunate to have everything I needed and generally wanted, I still found something to wallow in: a lack of options.
These normal (to me) childhood conditions were deeply contrasted by the video games I played. One game, Sim City 3000, offered the freedom to build an entire metropolis. Another, Age of Empires, provided similar place-making tools but I could also control villagers and soldiers on the screen. To me, these games were the pinnacle of entertainment and imagination, because I was in control of what was and could be.
None could compare to Animal Crossing: Population Growing. This digital space gave me the near-full autonomy of an actual adult. Never mind that my neighbors were talking animals and furniture fit in my pocket. Animal Crossing offered the freedom to design my home, dictate my time and dress myself. But most importantly, Animal Crossing also provided opportunities to build community through interactions with my neighbors. In other words, I now had the complete freedom to do what I pleased. All my needs were met.
There would be more opportunities to do what I wanted to do through games like The Sims and Elder Scrolls as I got older. These digital spaces created a community of one for myself, but quickly grew into large communities as game-based online entertainment rose in popularity.
Although I never played them, I was keenly aware of other online worlds as a child where you could do anything. World of Warcraft and Second Life grabbed a lot of my attention to the point that I had a deep desire to experience these spaces where I could not only create and dress a digital avatar, but also engage with real people on the other side.
Eventually, I would play Minecraft, Fortnite and just about every online shooter that provided physical space and customization options. The freedom offered by these platforms created escapist utopias for myself.
In today’s terms, all these experiences were part of the Metaverse. Some more than others, of course, but based on the Metaverse’s many definitions, it isn’t offering much in the way that’s new to me.
Definitions of the Metaverse focus on immersion through virtual and augmented reality — implying the need for expensive headsets and powerful computers. Often, the Metaverse is described as something pending, coming soon to a virtual reality headset near you. But there’s another element implying that the Metaverse is just the next evolutionary stage of social media, digital art, video games and the Internet. Only now, everything will be connected and fully integrated as a continuous, virtual world.
Charles J. Read for Hackernoon writes, “The Metaverse is a collective virtual shared space, created by the convergence of virtually enhanced physical reality and physically persistent virtual space, including the sum of all virtual worlds, augmented reality, and the Internet.”
This is happening through a re-branding, a marketing campaign, essentially, of the things we know as the Metaverse. These activities are ushering in the next wave of digital reality: a walled garden separate from physical reality.
We’re already used to this separation from physical reality through social media and video games. These mediums let us engage entire worlds, concepts and people through our screens — slowly detaching ourselves from the physical spaces we reside in. The same effect has been occurring in the workforce through jobs that require endless screen time.
So when thinking about the Metaverse in this broad context, I don’t think we can hand-wave the term away as something exclusively focused around augmented reality tools, digital currencies and so on. It’s simply not a fad and we should start considering it in more serious terms as the Metaverse slowly becomes an amalgamation of the digital properties and things we already use and engage with daily.
This change has been getting intense for some time. The pandemic forced many of us to work from home and the NFT/crypto craze created opportunities to own digital things in the same way we own physical things.
Our entertainment is more digital than ever too, with TikTok capturing our attention spans and immersing us into a world full of trends actual people are performing in the real world for the express purpose of online engagement. Then there’s digital concerts being hosted on Fortnite and parasocial engagement through Twitch.
Just about everything co-exists with a digital counterpart or is being replaced by something in the digital world. The relentlessness of it all, the increasing pressure to choose digital over real has been exhausting.
Nearly everything I do or want to do requires some sort of digital thing. There is no escaping the Metaverse, even though I have yet to buy anything remotely tied to virtual reality and frequently express a deep resentment towards its existence.
Yet, I’m already here, fully immersed in every practical sense of the word. And the promise of future innovation tells me it’s only a matter of time before there’s no leaving the walled garden that is the Metaverse, just as there’s no leaving behind phones and the Internet.
I’ve been left wondering what I could possibly do. A near constant temptation is to disconnect and leave it all behind. And I largely have left many Metaverse properties behind, such as most social media platforms. Engaging and observing human interaction online has become very displeasing. But a complete abandonment of what’s available provides diminishing returns.
Lately, I’ve been reading How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell. Her book addresses the attention economy at large, which is the underlying fabric and economic driver of the Metaverse. I’m three chapters into the book and have yet to find anything about the Metaverse, but I think much of the book’s themes and concepts apply to our digital reality pending or otherwise.
In the second chapter, Odell describes the historical temptation to abandon it all and live off the land when the world feels uncertain and oppressive. Hippie communes of the 1960s prove to be an excellent case study in the matter, Odell writes, but it becomes apparent that leaving isn’t the best choice when faced with the need to largely recreate what you left — society. The same holds true for completely abandoning our technology-based era, she writes.
Instead, it’s not a question about whether or not we engage with these spaces, and ultimately leave them, it’s a question about how we engage with these spaces. This has been a motivating thing to read as I grow weary from the constant push and pull of the Metaverse. I can’t simply abandon things, instead, I must choose how I wish to participate.
While I’m unsure what my participation will fully mean as time goes on, I’m using this space I’m dubbing Letters from the Metaverse as a way to think things through. Additionally, I’m hoping to discover what I want and need in the future as a human, as a professional and creative person who might consider themselves a creative writer or artist from time to time.
While the Metaverse appears to be another opportunity for displeasing human connection, I think it’s important to be ready to make a choice that still keeps you connected in the increasingly online real world while protecting your preferred method of human connection.
After all, there’s a reason we’re addicted to the Internet: it offers connections to community and humanity. The Metaverse is already doing the same on a grand scale already, even before the fully integrated and immersive parts are fully baked. The real question, though, is how will we continue to protect our humanness throughout this next sea-change, just as we’ve had to do and have to constantly do with the Internet.
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