In the metaverse a new concept of space and time

15-03-2023 | News

It is difficult to understand and evaluate today the impacts on our perceptive and psychic system of the new opportunities of the metaverse. But they will certainly be relevant and transformative.

by Andrea Granelli

Few perhaps remember it, but the term "metaverse" was coined by Neal Stephenson in the cyberpunk novel Snow crash (1992) to indicate a three-dimensional space within which individuals can move, share and interact through avatars personalized. His description recalls a gigantic operating system whose regulation is entrusted to spirits – perhaps we should call them daemon – which act without being seen and to which users connect, transforming themselves into software to better interact with the system and with each other. In this way the avatars they can have an autonomous (electronic) life... or better, apparently autonomous as they always depend on the resources, i.e. the time and priorities that the operating system grants them.

For those unfamiliar with the term digital avatars, it derives (incredibly) from Sanskrit where it indicates the epiphany of the divine and that is the forms and masks with which the Indian Brahman and Hindu deities decided to make themselves visible to humans on Earth. Their incarnation, therefore, which in the case of the god Vishnu reached 10 forms. In contemporary language it has therefore taken on the meaning of icon or mask chosen by the user to appear – and therefore be seen – within a virtual reality.

The first film that attempted to describe virtual reality was a cartoon produced by Walt Disney in 1982 – Tron – directed by director Steven Lisberger. A beautiful, almost poetic film, it managed to give a very effective visual representation of this reality. However, the commercial results were disappointing, with revenues much lower than expected. But the interest in the phenomenon was now evident, so much so that Disney itself made a new version of it – Tron Legacy - In 2010; more modern and hi-tech film, but much less poetic and incisive.

The word metaverse had great media coverage in October 2021, when Zuckerberg announced the change of the name of the company he founded - owner of platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp - to Meta Platforms, Inc. A radical turning point for the social network, given the decision to invest over 5 billion dollars to develop a real economy based on advertising, the sale and purchase of virtual digital objects and the possibility – through avatars of enter a world that allows you to live virtual experiences in the first person.

Even the logo, which at first glance recalls infinity, brings to mind the Moebius strip where Escher made some disturbing red ants walk without interruption. But this apparently simple logo was born from the creativity of the best advertising heads on the square and certainly also wants to convey subliminal messages. The first that comes to mind is that it resembles a mask, and more properly an upside down mask (such as that of Diabolik); mask that can integrate glasses or visors. On the other hand, Meta's goal is to become a metaverse builder and part of his plan is to improve the performance of the headset Oculus making it evolve into a pair of agile and light glasses that allow – when worn in the new virtual world – to experience a sense of almost real and limitless presence.

The conditions for the success of the metaverse are now all there. A recent research conducted by Wunderman Thompson highlights two important aspects: the 76% of the interviewees affirm that their daily life depends more and more on digital technology and even the 81% thinks that the digital presence of a brand is as important as its presence in physical stores.

The shiny aspect of the metaverse and human frailties

But the main question regarding the future of the metaverse isn't just whether it will be successful. Take, for example, a more vivid and participatory description of the metaverse: “This place is like no other country in the world. Its population is all made up of boys. The oldest are 14 years old: the youngest are just 8. In the streets, a joy, a noise that attracts and stimulates you! Groups of young people everywhere: those who play, those who interact, those who communicate, [...] others, with theirs avatars, do things impossible to humans: who recites, who sings, who does reckless exercises, who fights [...]».

Perhaps this passage seems familiar to some, and indeed it must be. With some small modifications and substitutions I have used the description that Carlo Collodi makes – in his The Adventures of Pinocchio (chapter XXXI) - of the "land of toys", an imaginary and wonderful place, where everyone is or quickly becomes friends, where there are a thousand opportunities to pass the time and have fun, where you can do the most daring things without risking anything and where our weaknesses, frailties and shortcomings disappear as if by magic.

This I think is the key point to reflect on the future of the metaverse. Sherry Turkle, professor at MIT and one of the leading experts on the psychological impacts of digital, clarifies the topic in a timely manner in her bookAlone together: «Technology is seductive when its appeals meet our human vulnerability». Fragility that is transformed – as a form of defense – into the neutralization of fear and the consequent growth of the will to control and supremacy. Jacques Ellul also notes, in his The technical system, this phenomenon by observing that «what seems to characterize the man who lives in the technical environment more profoundly is the growth of the will to power».

And what are the possible consequences then? That what we think strengthens us actually weakens us even more. This was the disappointment and suffering of Pinocchio of Collodi and this reminds us of John Maeda – for many years co-president of the MIT Media Lab in Boston – in his The laws of simplicity"What I learned from Ivan Illich's work is that technology, while a fantastic means of empowering, can also be a maddening means of maiming."

Behind the utopianism of a better world where everyone is friends, there is in fact a profoundly dystopian thought: the real world is bad and out of control, so let's take refuge in an artificial paradise where we are recognized, appreciated and we dictate the rules. The infantile drive for omnipotence returns, never dormant, where everything is controlled. This mechanism is evident in the words of Chris Cox, chief product manager of Meta: «Everyone is exhausted from videoconferencing. You don't know who's watching who, everyone is constantly interrupting each other." This technology, he argues, is an excellent alternative to meetings and meetings organized between avatars they will be much better. As if the responsibility for a bad meeting were attributable only to the technology used (thus considering the meeting room and the consequent physical event as one of the technologies available).

The metaverse is also the perfect place to mint virtual currency. Roblox is a publicly traded company that has already made its own metaverse; this parallel world lives and develops thanks to the so-called creator, which help to create and populate a virtual economy powered by a specific cryptocurrency called, who knows why, Robux. 

The concerns of Roger McNamee - an early Facebook investor - published by Huffington Postand relating to the company's new strategic course, are therefore more than legitimate. In a world that is more complex and risky every day, flows of people will take refuge in the new artificial paradises, increasingly losing the courage and responsibility needed to want to contribute, and therefore fight, for a better way. Individualism and the immediate satisfaction of one's needs will be the engine of the metaverse, that pleasure principle that Sigmund Freud opposed to the necessary reality principle that characterizes adult life. The psychological fragility and fears of direct, bodily confrontation will increase. Avatars and digital screens will be our defenses.

Moreover, the escape into the metaverses is already a reality today: with the pandemic, the number of those who withdraw from social life has grown: currently there are between 120 and 150 thousand cases in our country. 70% is represented by young males between 14 and 30 years old. Sayings hikikomori, they withdraw from social life by choice and shut themselves up at home, sometimes for months or even years. The condition is called a adaptive social distress. Many spend hours and hours in front of video games, especially with those games that allow you to create fictitious characters, with identities that satisfy them more than the real one. 

While in Japan the phenomenon is widely documented and has considerable dimensions - the psychiatrist Saito Tamaki estimated two million cases in 2019 - in Italy there is no registry office for hikikomori. Who knows how many potential hikikomori will enter the digital abyss thanks to the digital seductions that Meta's marketing gurus will conceive? 

The metaverse extends the concepts of space and time

Looking at the potential of the metaverse, perhaps the most interesting (and problematic) aspect is the possibility of dilating not only time but also space in a vivid way.

Digital – let's think of e-mail or WhatsApp (especially with voice messages) – has long extended the notion of time by creating asynchronous experiences, where vivid communications take place. It is one thing to read a letter or an e-mail and one thing to listen to the recorded voice. Listening to it, it is as if the author were speaking to us at that very moment. Asynchronous communication temporally brings distant moments together and its potential is yet to be discovered.

Even the concept of space – thanks to the simultaneity of presence made possible above all by video communication – has been expanded by digital means. The concept of ubiquity – once a divine attribute – is now current practice. In fact, we can easily participate in a meeting that takes place on the other side of the globe from the comfort of our home. In a certain sense, digital has reduced distances by blurring the difference between center and periphery, office and home, workplace and holiday destination.

But the metaverse goes one step further: by building three-dimensional digital environments, it allows our avatars to immerse oneself in them, cross them and inhabit them, making a new experience of space and time even more concrete and tangible. We will learn to explore and get to know a real space simply by driving our own avatarsin the digital twin of space, in its virtualized representation. Herein lies the potential of simulation and training in virtual spaces.

Today, it is difficult to understand and evaluate the impacts of these new opportunities on our perceptive and psychic system. One thing is certain: these impacts will be relevant and transformative.

For some time, however, psychologists have been warning us of a confusion between reality and virtuality: an excessive virtualization of experience - especially when done at an early age, in that very delicate developmental phase in which we are investigating external reality for understand it, delimit it and, above all, differentiate it from our omnipotent ego by creating the other-than-self. The risk of frequenting the metaverse in this phase of our development is precisely to con-fuse, inter-change physical reality with virtual reality, concreteness with fiction.

According to some psychologists, for example, games “shoot-them-up” – where the player must kill as many “bad guys” as possible (and there would also be a lot to say about the criterion for identifying the “bad guys”), naturally avoiding killing the “good guys” (often recognizable as “similar”) – are highly diseducative. Indeed, in addition to making extreme violence normal and considering the killing of the "bad guys" just, they virtualize the concept of death. Every time you start a game session, the "bad guys" killed in the previous game reappear in perfect shape, as if nothing had happened. Murder is relativized, it becomes infinitely replicable by losing its own hubris, and death becomes a revocable state.

Andrea Granelli is the founder and president of Kanso.

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