The metaverse offers a digital liturgy that will entice us to leave behind the inconveniences and limitations of bodily humanity. The yearning for hearth and home—central to not just art and literature but to the Christian life—will be reduced to a buffered connection. Inside the metaverse, we will become less human.
It’s fitting that Mark Zuckerberg’s company is no longer defined by the concept of social networks, but by an alternate reality altogether. Facebook recently announced it is changing its name to Meta—short for “metaverse.” As it rebrands, it continues its movement toward posthuman ambition that has been evident for many years. For nearly a decade, Facebook has been shifting the company away from an ethos of connecting real people and toward a kind of permanent digital habitation, the contraction of life so as to fit inside algorithms.
What is the metaverse? It’s an immersive network technology that promises to take users beyond the limits of physical environments. If traditional social networking connects people to one another through shared texts, images, and videos, the metaverse creates shared space through computer-generated presence. Ian Harber and Patrick Miller observe:
The metaverse is not a digital world. It’s a digital world of worlds through which people can travel seamlessly, retaining their appearance and digital possessions wherever they go. These worlds do not merely exist in VR (virtual reality), but also layer onto physical reality through AR (augmented reality) . . . In the metaverse, people will buy digital designer products, wearing them or using them across platforms in VR, or even in the real world via AR. Put on your AR glasses and a person or place becomes a living, moving piece of art (or advertisement).
Harber and Miller list several examples of existing metaverse technology, such as Pokemon Go, the game in which players use augmented reality to “catch” digital Pokemon in real-world places.
But Zuckerberg’s vision goes far beyond gaming. In his video explaining Meta and its projects, he declares that “the feeling of presence [is] the defining quality of the metaverse. You’re going to really feel like you’re there with other people. You’ll see their facial expressions, you’ll see their body language . . . all the subtle ways we communicate that today’s technology can’t quite deliver.”
This is indeed the Achilles’ heel of all digital technology: the inability to satisfyingly reproduce the feeling of physical community. The pandemic has reminded us that not even the swiftest text message or highest resolution Zoom call can compensate for physical isolation. But Zuckerberg and his colleagues see this not as an inherent limitation of technology but as a flaw in our humanity. If the humane minutia of personal relationships cannot be adequately simulated, the answer, according to Meta, is to make our relationships less humane.