Do we have a problem with reality? You might think so based on the recent announcement by Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who has decided to rename his company “Meta” and unveiled his dream project of creating a virtual reality platform he calls the “metaverse.” At first glance, it seems strange that a 37-year-old man who is worth $120 billion would be so interested in virtual reality. You would think he’d be pretty pleased with his experience of actual reality.
It’s true, however, that human beings have always sought to enter into imaginative worlds. Think about how much we love stories which come to us in the form of epic poetry, novels, dramas, operas, television and film. These things are important, because when they’re done well these forms of entertainment build our moral imaginations. Through them, we learn something about human nature and how to approach the struggles that are part of life. A popular example would be a work like The Lord of the Rings, which is the product of J.R.R. Tolkien’s remarkable imagination. It’s a story that helps us to experience through its narrative the value of friendship, courage in the face of danger, and how easily even the best of us can be seduced and corrupted by power. There is something important and deeply pleasurable about sharing the experiences of these stories with each other, and allowing those experiences to form our regular lives. It is one of the ways that culture is shaped.
One wonders what will be the cultural fruit of the virtual reality platform that Zuckerberg is developing. Unlike the best forms of traditional entertainment that serve to bring people together for a shared cultural experience, the metaverse seems to foster greater withdrawal into ourselves and the worlds we create. It feeds into our fallen desire to control everything, providing us with a “safe space” where we could seek to live untroubled by the threat of real people and real events, as lonely gods of our own creation dwelling among the digital phantasms. If the metaverse, or any other large-scale virtual reality platform, were to enjoy wide commercial success, it would have serious cultural consequences.
In a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, Jim Towey, the founder of a non-profit called Aging with Dignity, wonders: “Where will the elderly poor, disabled, or dying in our world fit into Mr. Zuckerberg’s metaverse?” He answers his own question, saying: “They won’t. Their real-world isolation and suffering, and the groans and dreams of the developing world, will find no place in a make-believe playhouse ruled by a pioneering Meta-billionaire and his programmers and technocrats.”
Those are harsh words, but he’s almost certainly right. Considering the epidemic of loneliness that is a hallmark of our contemporary culture, it would seem the last thing we need are more perfect ways to escape into greater isolation and reinforce our habits of selfishness and self-pity. What we do need are more ways in which we can learn how to live together as real people, to confront our egoistic tendencies in order to love one another better – and to be willing even to do it badly as we learn to do it well. Building up a healthy community and a humane culture takes hard work and sacrifice, as well as a shared vision of the good. And grace, of course, which is at the very heart of reality, and something no logarithm can replicate.