The Metaverse Is Coming After The Rest Of You

In a certain way, the internet already has our eyes and the constellation of muscles and joints (neck, shoulder, wrist) involved in using phones. The internet has people’s faces: Recognition software takes from large deposits of photos, and the iPhone uses biometrics to unlock themselves. The internet better understands our distinct voices over time. We send our steps, heartbeats, and sometimes our DNA away into the internet, to tell us more about ourselves.

The internet already has a lot of people’s brains, too — that gets talked about the most, mostly in a melted, political fashion. But the internet has reshaped expectations of time, proximity, and behavior in the tangible world in a wide array of invisible and often good ways, like the ease with which we can calculate the distance between us and the best route to meet in a third location immediately. The knowledge that we can do that, and come up with the next location on the spot over text, has also changed the way people’s minds work. In this manner, the internet has remade hearing the sound of someone’s voice via an unexpected phone call as something more unusual and possibly more formal or urgent, and remade written communication more common and central to our happiness. Sending out parts of yourself (in terms of speech, participation, and social risk) into the world is, basically, required for any society to function, with or without phones. But when your body is alone in a room or in a crowd, you are never entirely alone; texts and platforms remain present.

Usually, we talk about that dynamic from the other end, in terms of the individual repositories and third-party access: what Facebook or Apple or the government might do with the data comprising my face. But this is not precisely the real-life experience of being a person walking the quiet earth with a chaotic phone, right? The deep meaning of what happens through a phone in people’s lives, and the discomfort with the internet’s presence inside our heads, is often more abstract than Nike buying ad targeting data from a third-party data vendor. The everyday dynamic is more like you vs. the internet, or you submerged in the internet, or something in between, even if there are infinite versions of any one person’s relationship with their phone. There are, maybe, twin versions of the self, with one getting pieced together out of those parts sent online and the one in the tangible world occasionally filtering what’s happening through the phone. It’s actually getting harder to describe the difference between something happening in traditional “real life” and online, because they work so fluidly in concert. What does it do, or mean, then, to constantly be in this dynamic where your body might feel the physical strain of looking at the internet, where all these representations of yourself get entered and, possibly, interpreted?

That sounds a little crystals-and-the-soul to think about a dynamic between the body and the internet. But we are in a big period of reconsideration about the internet as it stands. Amid a brutal series of stories about Facebook and Instagram’s uneasy role in regular people’s lives, people have written about the company’s financial strength or existential weakness, about Facebook’s unfathomable scale, about the deleterious effects of fame and surveillance, about the benefits of more aggressive content moderation for smaller communities, about exhausted creatives in their teens and early 20s. Sometimes the reconsideration shifts more into the idea of a new era of the internet: about sunny (or scammy) plans for Web3 and blockchain projects that can reshape ownership of the foundational internet; about various iterations of a metaverse where people, identities, and investment objects move more seamlessly between interconnected digital spaces. The spirit of obscure regret hangs over a lot of this, like we all entered into a bargain centuries ago there’s no getting out of. And on some level it’s true: We all kind of know, intuitively, that old-school tabloid vibes, conflict, and ceaselessness are foundational to much of the social internet that now undergirds the media, entertainment, sports, politics, and a lot of daily personal interactions and ultimately our sense of self within society.

Even in the pitch decks, the tone can sound a little surreal and haunting. The CEO of Pokémon Go maker Niantic, John Hanke, recently said that the metaverse “should build on our shared world and humanity, rather than seeking to replace or subvert it. That vision of the future drives us to build this technology platform and tools so creators can build a healthier, more entertaining, and more fulfilling world.” This company makes games! But who does not feel a little desperate about the state of the internet in our lives?

What links all this together seems to be two things: First, that people seem plainly unhappy with the internet we have today. And second, there’s a real question about where the “real world” begins and ends now, and that solving the question of what ails us online either requires much more of ourselves — or much less.

The genesis of all this theorizing has to partly be the weird nature of the last two years. During the early stages of the pandemic, people switched channels into emergency-reserve, generator-power community — an internet subsistence measure that was at the same time distilled internet. You know this story because we’ve all lived it, but school and office work moved remote. All kinds of annual or routine cultural, religious, and personal events — from weddings to simple parties — were rescheduled, modified, continued as something unusual and charged, or stopped altogether. And what was left? People and their phones and screens, gauging themselves and society more than ever that way: eyes, joints, mind.

This served up an unusually intense experiment. The New York Times reported this fall that, according to internal data, many teens were spending an average of three to four hours a day on Instagram during the pandemic. Whether just a few weeks or literal years depending on your life, the pandemic has tested how much internet the body can take separated from other people, how long the individual can go with major events and information mediated through the phone, and how well certain digital forms truly substitute for interpersonal interaction.

And how are we all doing? We are not doing so hot. “I’m skeptical that we’re going to wake up in the morning and intentionally sit at home, strap on our headsets and conduct all of our daily activities that way,” Strauss Zelnick, the CEO of the company that makes the Grand Theft Auto video game series, recently said. “We had to do that during the pandemic, and we don’t really like it so much.”

When you log onto Twitter or Instagram, you can find a population touched by a great unhappiness that far exceeds the bounds of the internet into everything else, but also can’t be entirely divorced from it. As Max Read wrote, the stories this fall about Facebook resonated because they were not about ideological systems but because they were “about a basic, common-sense fact about Facebook: Facebook and its subsidiaries make people feel bad, and we all know it, including Facebook.”

Deep into one of those stories, the Wall Street Journal reported that in one study, a Facebook user-experience researcher found teens “often counseled” younger relatives who joined Instagram “not to share too frequently, and not to post things they would later regret.” The jolt idea of world-weary teens reenacting the same routines of adults underlines the deeper, almost spiritual premise of all this reconsideration: This is just the world we live in, not one that will eventually close up shop so we can begin (or resume) our real lives. You personally can quit Instagram and Twitter, Facebook itself can swoon into the ocean like defeated Godzilla, but the world as it is constructed now will continue to exist and will keep extending its rhythms.

This runs across the whole gamut: Ring cameras and NextDoor posts, push alerts, group texts, For You personalization on TikTok and on streaming services and in ad targeting, better food and photography, music available immediately, a shocking number of goods available for delivery tomorrow and underpinned by hourly labor. Without much in the way of conscious decision-making, the fluid world between the phone and real life did get remade in a lot of ways.

For that reason, arguably, the concept of realness consumes, already, Twitter and Instagram — from how tethered to real life Twitter is, to the mediation of self that Instagram asks for and breaks down. Heavy use of either platform, on some hokey spiritual level, requires you to invest a real portion of your actual body and psyche in them, so the existential questions of reality and what you’re doing with your life are bound to hang over the enterprise. And maybe the body is simply still absorbing the big adjustment of the last 20 years, like a recalibrated baseline for space, proximity, and the level of interaction you now can expect on a given day — like, presumably, people in earlier eras navigating industrialization. It honestly even seems possible that we’re on the downslope of big changes on the reshaping scale of the smartphone, direct-to-consumer sales, and streaming — the things that changed the everyday sense of communication, time, and space. If that’s the case, then maybe the spikes of chaos and discord would just fade further into the ambient rhythms of life.

But if it’s hard to imagine more internet pumping through the veins or on Earth’s surface, tech and gaming companies promise this in the coming decade with increased augmented reality and virtual reality offerings.

To make that kind of technology work, especially the more immersive you go, these companies often need even more of your body. The technology needs to understand how those eyes move, how far apart they are, the way your head might be sized or centered, how you smile (to give “a richer sense of presence,” as Mark Zuckerberg has put it). A Microsoft design director explained in 2019 the company has a data set of 600 heads to understand how to calibrate the company’s HoloLens 2. The technology also needs more information about where your body is, like the size and shape of the room you’re inside (so you don’t fall down some actual stairs). To feel realer, basically, more of the real world is needed. “I think the metaverse is this embodied internet,” Zuckerberg has said, “where instead of looking at the internet, you’re in it.”

Even if there’s a deep financial stake in all this, there really is something to this idea of the “embodied internet” and the concept of embodiment itself in 2021. What if the only way to resolve some of the worst aspects of online life is to submit more, to give things that “richer” presence and reduce the strain. There’s this strange dynamic of putting all these pieces into a phone, and the warmth, anxiety, and strain of that action flooding back into the body, without most people’s humanity coming through in total complexity online. The difference between knowing and feeling something and merely being aware of it sometimes does not overcome the gap between real life and internet life. If that’s the world we live in, what’s the alternative?

Ten paragraphs into stories about the metaverse, analysts, executives, and researchers acknowledge this is all 10, 20, 30 years out, because the technology doesn’t quite exist, or is else an altogether illusion, because in the end people don’t want an embodied internet for humdrum tasks like office meetings, or we are simply already in a/the metaverse. Instead, that second group of people often argue, an “embodied internet” will look more like augmentation, where reality blends with the other reality, and soldiers wear headsets that project their distance from other soldiers like in a video game, and sisters will be able to unfold a holographic chessboard in the living room then change to Scrabble seamlessly, and a beach trip can also involve a CGI monster jumping out of the water, and people will be guided through repairs of a bike or a tunnel by proprietary instruction. In that version, we already kind of live in the metaverse, and the internet would just be jumping even more from our brains and phones to our eyes and what’s in front of us.

Some of that sounds cool and fun, like something new at last. But it can be hard to read about many versions of an online future, and not feel a dazing full-body weariness, thinking about the way human frailty can overtake social spaces online and the perpetual link between you and the internet.

After this pandemic era, after all the reconsideration and the tattered wreckage you can find any good day online, who could want MORE? ●