Not so long ago, I discovered a delightful 2018 remake of Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s classic about a book free future—where Firemen actually go around and burn books rather than put out fires.1 This HBO version melded new technologies into Bradbury’s dystopian vision—specifically an Alexa-like little camera, Yuxie, mounted in just about every room and public space, tracking your every move and word, and helping you be constantly connected to the Internet. The technology was disturbing, as was its omnipresence—with even newscasts covered with little heart and angry-face emojis as people reacted to the news in real time. But worse still was that those who choose to live Yuxie-free lives were described as “mentally ill,” as “tumors,” living “like wild animals.”
And now, this feels even more relevant, as the Facebook corporate behemoth—providers of WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, “parent” of nearly one hundred subsidiaries and acquisitions, and shapers of our cultural and political realities for good and for ill (mainly the latter)—rebrands itself as Meta and offers its vision for the “metaverse” future, where everyone is happily interconnected and living their lives in a virtual world.
Now this isn’t a rant about social media or even Facebook, err, excuse me “Meta Platforms” (or Meta, for short); there are enough of those. Instead this is what’s turning out to be an ongoing reflection along the theme of Amusing Ourselves to Death. I worry that if the consumer civilization doesn’t collapse due to smashing against the ecological limits (a gigantic if), we will increasingly inhabit a virtual world, detached from our relationship with Gaia and from physical reality—exactly the vision Meta is trying to bring about. We’ll be sitting on our couches wearing our Oculus headsets living in our virtual ‘second life’ mansions, pretending to fly to far-off vacationlands, and once in a while taking a break to eat our industrial fake meat burgers, our fermented chocolate-substitutes, or our Soylent shakes. The scariest part is that as the rainforests continue to burn, we might not even miss them—as we’d still have our fake chocolate (no longer dependent on tropical cacao trees) and we’d still be able to visit David Attenborough’s Metacottage, where he’s always available to give us a private tour of the Metaforest with all its wonderful “wildlife.”2
Even more disturbing is that the vast majority of people would be cool with this—or if that’s too harsh—would quickly get used to it (and the next generation would be born into it so would know no better). On the surface the metaverse will be fun, entertaining, and easy to rationalize: definitely better than the burning apocalypse to the west or the flooded one to the south and besides if I don’t leave my home, won’t that reduce my carbon emissions?3
But the whole idea fills me with horror. And if I’m being honest I fear it more than collapse (as collapse is not an endpoint—there will be a die off and then those who survive will be bound to find a new way of living that is in balance with Gaia—albeit in Gaia’s harsher hotter new reality). Compare that to the delusional version of living intentionally in virtual exile from Gaia until either a) things suddenly and horrifically fall apart; b) our toxified semi-gelatinous selves can no longer reproduce, or have lost the urge to, thus reducing human numbers to a level Gaia can sustain in our high-consuming metaverse culture; or c) we “colonize Mars.”4
Truthfully, with all the energy, materials, and water required by our computing infrastructure, virtual reality will not slow our overpopulated overconsuming species from collapse, but accelerate it, as more people spend all day surfing, working, and playing online—which will increasingly blur together. For example, check out this recent article about the upcoming smartphone game “Guild of Guardians,” a dungeon crawler where the gems you find are a ‘real’ cryptocurrency, and you can sell the treasure you find and make a profit when others in your guild do as well (like an online franchise). Now you really can play videogames all day for a living! (And I’m sure that’ll only get worse.)
As I was writing this, I started to imagine a really dark future. That as things fall apart, and people are living mostly virtual lives, they’ll succumb to a great ploy to be used even further. People, or self-labelled “metahumans,” will sign up to “colonize Mars.” As most of the Mars colonization will be controlling bots to do the digging, building, and exploring, lots of metahumans will sign up, ready for adventure and with the right skill set.5 Though in reality, they’ll “blast off” to a deep underground prison where they’ll plug in for the rest of their days, never to leave again, happily “exploring Mars.” And while there, they’ll be milked of blood—to help make concrete (they’ll be told, ‘wink, wink’)—maybe even an organ or two to feed the growing organ trade as our toxic world and increasingly artificial diets degrade our bodies. But they won’t mind, because they’ll think they’re exploring Mars and helping their fellow colonists to survive and sow the first seeds of an intergalactic human civilization.
And yes, come to think of it, this sounds eerily like The Matrix. With one big difference. Humans in this case will choose to venture into the Metax, rather than being forced in due to having been defeated by robot overlords.6 Instead our billionaire tech overlords will have created (or have already created?) a siren song tempting enough to lure us into an empty illusion that will smash us full force against Gaia’s real and rocky limits.
Gratuitous Positive Ending Section
Probably not the most optimistic note to end on so instead I offer you this instead. A long quote from Neil Postman comparing public discourse to a river:
“Changes in the symbolic environment are like changes in the natural environment; they are both gradual and additive at first, and then, all at once, a critical mass is achieved, as the physicists say. A river that has slowly been polluted suddenly becomes toxic; most of the fish perish; swimming becomes a danger to health. But even then, the river may look the same and one may still take a boat ride on it. In other words, even when life has been taken from it, the river does not disappear, nor do all of its uses, but its value has been seriously diminished and its degraded condition will have harmful effects throughout the landscape. We have reached, I believe, a critical mass in that electronic media have decisively and irreversibly changed the character of our symbolic environment.”
Now, Postman was writing in the 1980s, when television had done all this (but the Internet had yet to kill the river almost absolutely). What he would write today, I can only imagine. But he ends that comparison with what can be seen as a silver lining: “Like the fish who survive a toxic river and the boatmen who sail on it, there still dwell among us those whose sense of things is largely influenced by older and clearer waters.”
Most likely, no one will force you to hop into the Metaverse. Sure, you’ll have to sacrifice a bit of convenience and excitement, like bots that play music for you or trips to the Metacottage. But that’s probably worth it to keep yourself a thinking and rational human being. Perhaps Gaians and others who inoculate themselves from this degradation into “silliness”7 will play the role of boatmen in Postman’s metaphor, helping to sustain knowledge of what a healthy river environment looked like (possibly in the literal sense as well) and as the pollution wanes, can play the role of guide, teaching people how to once again healthily and sustainably use and care for the river—and help bring that healing about.
1) Strangely, they didn’t update this to firefighters and I didn’t see any women firemen in the entire movie. (An interesting statement about this self-reportedly color-blind future that women are still subtly portrayed as inferior.)
2) Well, not Attenborough, himself, as he’d be long dead. But an AI bot, managed by a significant staff of computer programmers, who sounds like him, has his mannerisms, and his knowledge (gleaned from hundreds of hours of documentaries, books, and interviews). At that point, who needs the real David Attenborough? (Plus, the ‘wildlife’ would be programmed to do only entertaining things, rather than their normal routine of mostly hiding and sleeping—bonus!) But hopefully, they would not do what was shown in Meta’s introduction to the metaverse—fish absurdly swimming in the air, for example—further distancing people from any understanding of our Earthly reality.
3) The good news: we probably won’t need any firemen. People are simply reading fewer books (and certainly books of substance) with all the entertaining video and now VR opportunities out there. Hence why Neil Postman’s assessment that we’ll live in a Brave New World rather than 1984 [or Fahrenheit 451] future, where “there would be no reason to ban [or burn] a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.”
4) I hereby acknowledge my lack of imagination. Honestly I can’t imagine a way in which our species can live beyond the means of the Earth in a way that sustains this virtual future very long—not without Earth’s systems breaking down rapidly, disrupting everything from human settlements and food production, to electricity generation and water access. The idea that renewables or any other source of energy could sustain the Metaverse (fusion, hydrogen, nuclear waste!) is essentially dreaming for a world of magic.
5) Fun Fact: I remember when touring colleges that when visiting West Point, I was told playing Warcraft was encouraged as it taught collaboration and online warfare. Twenty-six years later, in a world of remote drone strikes, that’s not surprising at all. What jobs will inhabiting the metaverse prepare us for?
6) Pronounced Meh-tax. Interestingly, the similarities between Metaverse and the matrix are so great that Facebook probably should have just called the company Matrix (I’m sure they could have acquired the film rights and trademark with their billions). And if you want a really frightening vision just watch Mark Zuckerberg describe and pretend to inhabit the Metaverse.
No, this place is not a-ma-zing. It makes me nauseous (and it’s not from the depiction of weightlessness or the vertigo triggered by the VR headset). (Video from Meta’s introduction to the Metaverse.)
7) Postman wrote: “The decline of print-based epistemology and the accompanying rise of a television-based epistemology has had grave consequences on public life, that we are getting sillier by the minute.”