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The Metaverse: From Fiction to Reality and the Perils of Utopian Vision

For the common populace, how long has it been since they encountered the ethereal notion of the ‘Metaverse’?

In November of 2023, PICO, a virtual reality enterprise under the ownership of ByteDance, made public substantial workforce reductions and restructured its organizational framework, affecting over 300 employees, constituting roughly 23% of its workforce—this development transpired merely a stone’s throw away from ByteDance’s grandiose foray into the Metaverse. Two years have since elapsed.

Indeed, over the course of 2023, the fervor surrounding the concept of the Metaverse has noticeably abated.

In January, Microsoft dissolved its recently established industrial Metaverse division, barely four months old; in February, Tencent disclosed the commencement of significant layoffs within its technical departments, citing financial pressures… In an era where generative artificial intelligence (AIGC) has emerged as the new darling of the tech sphere, the Metaverse, once heralded as the epitome of innovation, now appears to recede into the shadows with a poignant sense of departure.

The underlying rationale lies in the fact that despite numerous technical hurdles remaining unbridged, the Metaverse remains but a distant prospect—perhaps only through divesting it of its capital-driven veneer can we rekindle our initial aspirations and recollect why the Metaverse initially captured the imaginations and expectations of so many.

After all, the ‘metaverse’ is meant to be a poetic conjecture.

Digital ‘utopia’

The term ‘Metaverse’ originates from the pages of ‘Snow Crash’ by American science fiction luminary Neal Stephenson, where ‘Meta’ connotes ‘beyond’ or ‘transcendent’, and ‘verse’ evokes the cosmos, thus rendering ‘metaverse’ a literal embodiment of ‘transcendence beyond the physical realm’.

Evidently, within the collective consciousness of humanity, the Metaverse is envisaged as a resplendent, boundless realm, a utopian expanse capable of accommodating all manner of romantic aspirations.

‘Here, reality knows no bounds, and imagination reigns supreme. One may traverse any realm and pursue any endeavor.’

Such is the portrayal of the ‘Oasis’ in the science fiction opus ‘Ready Player One’, widely regarded as the quintessential embodiment of the Metaverse—a fully immersive virtual realm replete with social interactions, entertainment, and commercial endeavors, where denizens craft bespoke identities, engender content ad infinitum, and expand the very fabric of the world.

For Wade Watts, the protagonist of ‘Ready Player One’, relegated to a dilapidated slum in the physical realm, the idyllic ‘Oasis’ becomes a sanctuary, the sole bastion of happiness and self-actualization—indeed, not solely for the protagonist, but for countless souls of that epoch, the ‘Oasis’ assumes the role of spiritual refuge.

Amidst the lingering technological impediments, the Metaverse remains a prospect yet unrealized.

In 2002, Japanese light novel luminary Reki Kawahara commenced the creation of ‘Sword Art Online’. Within its narrative, the ‘NERvGear’ apparatus facilitates a direct neural interface with the virtual realm, effectuating a wholly immersive virtual experience. Thus, when players engage with ‘VRMMO’ (virtual reality massively multiplayer online) games, their interactions transcend mere gameplay, approximating a ‘life’ within the virtual milieu.

The central protagonists of ‘Sword Art Online’ find love and companionship within the realms of ‘VRMMO’, establishing a cozy lakeside abode as their virtual haven. It is noteworthy that, for certain cohorts, only through immersion in ‘VRMMO’ can they liberate themselves from the constraints of corporeal existence, indulging in aquatic excursions, perilous exploits, and interpersonal connections within the expansive virtual expanse, thereby attaining a semblance of ‘true’ existence.

In China, circa 2005, a deluge of literary works centered on ‘virtual reality’ gaming began proliferating across online platforms, swiftly coalescing into a well-defined narrative framework that endures to this day. For many readers, these works serve as their inaugural encounter with and comprehension of the Metaverse.

Heidegger once opined: “Poets summon forth illusions and dreams amidst the tumultuous and cacophonous tapestry of reality.” Our most enchanting and fantastical reveries remain inexorably tethered to the bedrock of reality—from this vantage point, the envisioning and comprehension of the ‘metaverse’ ought to be intrinsic to the human psyche, transcending ephemeral delusions and flights of fancy, akin to a mirage of ‘utopia’ beckoning from afar.

It is apt to characterize the metaverse as the digital ‘utopia’ towards which we cast our highest aspirations.

Gravity from the tangible realm

Hence, how far have we traversed on the trajectory towards this utopian metaverse?

Perhaps, the primary impediment lies not solely in technological constraints but in our perennial trepidations.

In 2005, the esteemed domestic periodical ‘Legends of Antiquity: Fantasy Edition’ serialized Fang Baiyu’s ‘Game Era’. Notably, the ‘real fantasy’ depicted within the novel’s game world is inexorably tethered to the tangible realm, eschewing any semblance of ‘technological’ or ‘magical’ virtual spaces.

Furthermore, to access the ‘authentic’ environment, one must sever ties with their corporeal memories, forsake all ‘enhancements’, and immerse themselves in an unadulterated existence devoid of augmentation.

The game’s motto proclaims: “Embrace the splendor of infinity within the confines of finite existence.” Yet, for the majority of players, ingress into the game merely begets a cycle of drudgery and adversity, ensconced within the yoke of a classical feudal regime. Heidegger extolled humanity for ‘residing poetically upon this earth’, yet suffering and bewilderment oftentimes overshadow moments of transcendence, even within the virtual realm.

Alternatively, the pursuit of prospective ‘wonders’ parallels a gamble, wherein even the slightest probability of ascension to a ‘superior’ echelon compels droves to venture forth, heedless of the inherent illusory nature.

As for the rationale behind eschewing ‘technology’ and ‘magic’ within traditional games, and the requisite expunging of memories, ‘Game Era’ posits ‘equity’ as the driving force—indeed, sans constraints, capital would inevitably infiltrate the ‘authentic’ realm, engendering an insurmountable chasm between users, relegating the vast majority to NPC-like roles in the retinue of a select few ‘deities’.

Similarly, driven by the pursuit of “authenticity” and “equity,” the inaugural “VRMMO” unveiled in the saga of “Sword Art Online” metamorphosed into a perilous realm of mortality – where a player’s demise within the virtual confines signified a forfeiture of life in the tangible world. The constructs of conventional gaming spaces crumbled in the wake of such fatalities, giving rise to a harrowing realism and a savagery that eclipsed the bounds of reality.

The veneration of martyrs for ideological ideals is not an uncommon phenomenon. Yet, it is more probable that the “Metaverse” remains ensnared within the gravitational pull of the tangible world.

Turning our gaze back to the cinematic narrative of “Ready Player One,” beneath its ebullient storytelling lies a somber vista of a cyberpunk future.

It is a realm on the brink of energetic depletion and imminent societal collapse. Venturing into the virtual expanse has nearly become humanity’s sole recourse. The “oasis” undoubtedly mirrors the barren “desert” of reality. Scores plummet into bankruptcy, ensnared as “serfs” by corporate titans, their ceaseless toil an endless repayment of insurmountable debts. What was once a realm of leisurely diversion has transmuted into a sweatshop, manipulated by capitalist overlords.

These capitalists harbor ambitions of absolute dominion over the “Oasis,” rendering it a mere tool for profit. To achieve their Machiavellian ends, they orchestrate the protagonist’s real-world assassination. Despite his dominion over the “Oasis,” in reality, he remains an inconsequential figure at society’s nadir.

In 1981, Verno Vinci’s science fiction opus, “Real Names,” espoused the notion of a “brain-computer interface,” elucidating how the human psyche could directly interface with virtual realms. Vinci’s work forewarns of the paramountcy of concealing one’s “real name”: even the preeminent “wizard” of the virtual realm metamorphoses into a vulnerable quarry upon the revelation of his true identity. Vulnerable to merciless exploitation.

Such narratives have since become an inexorable facet of themes exploring analogous realms.

Two years ago, amidst fervent capitalistic hype surrounding the concept of the “metaverse,” it was vaguely touted as an immaculate utopia, a panacea for all worldly ills.

However, a sobering reevaluation of our current reality is imperative. Perhaps, so long as humanity remains ensnared within the confines of “authenticity,” inexorably consuming itself from within, the utopian allure of the metaverse shall remain naught but a fleeting mirage. Such resplendent vistas perpetually elude our grasp. Though cognizant of these truths, humanity is compelled to forge ahead.

“Forward, by any means necessary.”

The genesis of a novel world invariably begets a nascent power paradigm.

In his magnum opus “Avalanche,” Neal Stephenson envisages a “meta-virus” dubbed “snow crash,” disseminating swiftly throughout the metaverse, infecting unwitting “avatars.” These afflicted users degenerate into zombie-like entities bereft of cogitation, reduced to incoherent babbling.

Behind the “Meta-Virus” looms an oligarch of the information industry, masquerading as a cult leader, wielding the “Avalanche” virus as a tool to amass acolytes and subjugate humanity.

Within the narrative of “Avalanche,” the demarcations between the virtual “metaverse” and the tangible realm blur and convolute through the conduits of this lethal medium, extending the tendrils of real-world power struggles into the metaverse, rendering it a prime battleground.

The veracity of whether a digital contagion, comprised of binary code, can genuinely influence humanity remains a contentious proposition. Nonetheless, complacency is unwarranted. Humanity may overestimate its emotional fortitude.

The erstwhile realm of leisurely diversion has been transmogrified into a capitalist dystopia.

Christopher Nolan’s seminal science fiction masterpiece, “Inception,” unveiled in 2010, vividly portrays the art of crafting an immersive “dream” realm, where reality and illusion intertwine seamlessly. The human psyche, susceptible to manipulation, is ensnared within this labyrinthine machination—a deception tantamount to dimensional reduction.

Unquestionably, the loftiest impetus driving humanity into the metaverse is its spiritual yearnings. Envisioned as a haven where one can manifest their deepest aspirations, the distribution of power within this realm remains a contentious issue.

The inexhaustible potential inherent within the metaverse has not escaped the avarice of capital, with higher echelons of authority already devising stratagems. This grandiose chess match, determining the fate of humanity, remains in its embryonic stages. As ordinary denizens, we stand at the precipice of uncertainty, peering into an uncertain future fraught with peril: emulate reality, resigned to toil, or surrender to hedonism, inviting self-annihilation.

At one terminus of destiny lies the quintessence of postmodern cyberpunk, as delineated by William Gibson in his seminal novel “Neuromancer,” where multinational conglomerates and automated intelligences reign supreme, humanity relegated to servitude, individuality subsumed by the machinations of industry.

Conversely, the opposite pole of fate finds embodiment in Aldous Huxley’s dystopian magnum opus, “Brave New World.” Here, uniformity reigns supreme, with human desires satiated ad infinitum, yet devoid of genuine emotion, humanity languishes in an existential void.

In 1999, the seminal film “The Matrix” delivered a chilling prophecy: humanity consigned to the captivity of a virtual realm, ensnared by an artificial intelligence dubbed “The Matrix.” Subsequent installments elucidated the AI’s intent—to catalyze its evolution by harnessing human emotions.

The Matrix postulates that human emotions, incomprehensible to artificial sentience, are wellsprings of creativity.

Humanity, architects of their own subjugation, is deemed by machines as the unwitting instruments of their own demise—a grim irony tinged with polyphonic humor.

The metaverse may well prove to be humanity’s self-imposed “prison.” Thankfully, the dire conjectures regarding the metaverse thus far remain as elusive as the metaverse itself—or perhaps, the hour of reckoning simply has yet to dawn.

In any event, humanity’s fervent pursuit of an idyllic parallel to reality, wherein all quandaries find resolution, beckons us to relinquish our apprehensions and await its unfolding.

With an ardent yearning for a poetic utopia, the indefatigable “poet” shall one day conjure forth their “illusions and dreams” at will.

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