In a recent essay in the Wall Street Journal, former Amazon executive and metaverse promoter Matthew Ball claims that the advent of the metaverse should not be alarming, because “as with almost all technologies, it is neither moral nor immoral.” According to Mr. Ball, once this augmented version of the internet becomes widely available, “customers can choose to accept or reject” this new technology, becoming “co-authors” in the history of the future. Once again, a powerful corporate voice is reassuring us that we will remain in control while using their technology. Can we take Mr. Ball at his word? Is the metaverse really a morally neutral innovation?
But before we analyze whether the metaverse has ethical significance, we need to clarify what the metaverse is and how it differs from other online interactions. According to Forbes magazine, the metaverse is a “combination of the virtual reality and mixed reality worlds accessed through a browser or headset, which allows people to have real time interactions and experiences across distance.” In essence, it is an online environment augmented and made more immersive with virtual reality technologies. You might think of it as a combination of your social media platform and a video game. Your social network becomes like an online meeting or party where your “avatar” (a three-dimensional image that you choose for yourself) interacts with other avatars in a curated digital environment.
Thankfully, philosophy provides us with a host of conceptual tools to analyze this kind of technology. One thinker who can help us understand the meaning of a technology like the metaverse is the twentieth-century French philosopher Gabriel Marcel.
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Marcel’s philosophical approach is difficult to pin down. Known as a “Catholic existentialist,” he stands astride several intellectual currents that emerged in the first half of the twentieth century. For our purposes, a key theme of his thought is his attempt to ground his metaphysical outlook in the intersubjective (that is, in the relations between persons). For Marcel, I can only know reality insofar as I get outside myself and engage with you. René Descartes’s vaunted “I think, therefore I am” is a philosophical trap for Marcel: by using the subjective thought as a conceptual starting point for knowledge of reality, I put myself at risk of being cut off from reality. I may get stuck in an ego trap, and no further philosophizing can provide an escape.
If we grant Marcel this intersubjective basis of reality, new technologies like the metaverse present certain difficulties. If reality in some sense is an unfolding between persons, the structure of an augmented reality platform must have some very fundamental philosophical implications. The key question becomes: what is the nature of our relationship when we encounter each other in the metaverse? Before we pose this question, however, we must first examine the inner workings of Marcel’s intersubjective paradigm.
To illustrate what he means by an intersubjective constitution of reality, Marcel invokes a classic play by Pierre Corneille in which the main character (who happens to be Caesar Augustus) grapples with a recently unveiled assassination plot. At first glance, the necessary reaction for a Roman emperor is obvious: kill everyone involved. But upon deeper reflection, Corneille’s Augustus realizes that he cannot, in good conscience, simply kill those who plotted against him, for he has been involved in many such plots himself. And who can count the number of soldiers who have died trying to achieve his goal of becoming emperor and expanding the empire? Indeed, his career has been nothing if not a bloodbath.
Through this “second reflection,” Augustus is able to step outside himself, to see things as others might, to engage with their point of view, and to understand them in a deeper sense than he might have otherwise. Augustus is changed as he becomes involved with the mysterious depth of these thinking, willing, acting persons. Rather than have the knee-jerk reaction that one expects of a Roman emperor who has just been threatened with murder, Corneille’s Augustus exemplifies what Marcel calls “creative fidelity.” That is, by exercising his freedom to get outside himself and engage with other persons, he puts himself in touch with that unimaginably vast potential that constitutes his personhood in the highest sense.
High political drama aside, Marcel’s teaching is clear. To connect myself most fully to reality, I must be involved and engaged with other persons. This requires that I open myself to the possibility that who I am and who you are become fundamentally changed by our interaction. Through the (often unpleasant) give-and-take of living our lives with others, we become more fully ourselves, even if things don’t unfold exactly as we might want.
This fascination with the philosophical significance of the intersubjective has deep roots in Marcel’s biography. His visceral distaste for the eminently abstract philosophy that was so common in the early twentieth century arose out of his experience in the First World War. As a worker for the Red Cross, his primary duties included investigating the whereabouts of soldiers who had gone missing in battle. Every single request that came across his desk was a “heart-rending personal appeal.” In most cases, he ended up reporting deaths to the families who had come to him hoping against hope for the safe return of their sons. Each case on which he worked became real in a way that casualty statistics or philosophical appeals about the justice of the cause could never capture. He became involved with each and every case; every distraught family member meant something that could never be analyzed in the abstract.
At this point, one might be asking: doesn’t Marcel’s philosophy actually support the goals of those who promote the metaverse? If being is founded on my connections with other people, doesn’t Meta’s goal of “bringing people closer together” actually help strengthen one’s grasp on reality? Wouldn’t more quality personal interactions online actually enhance reality? In other words, what is it about the metaverse that distorts reality?
The Fragility of Openness
As we have seen, Marcel makes clear that access to reality requires a certain openness to the claims others place on me. But this openness is fragile; it can be distorted in myriad ways. Perhaps you have been in a situation at work where there is someone with whom you really need to speak on an important issue, but you can’t because other colleagues are present, making it inappropriate to discuss whatever is on your mind. Or maybe you have experienced being in a loud restaurant where conversation is stunted because it is hard to hear the other person. Similarly, I would venture that far too many of us know the dreadful experience of miscommunication via text message. These situations demonstrate how, in one way or another, the other person may not be fully present or available in the Marcellian sense. When the other person is somehow delimited, there is no way in which she and I can fully reach each other. Reality itself is distorted.
To be sure, there are ways in which delimited modes of communication can sustain or even enhance a relationship. You might be reminded of the love letters of Abelard and Héloïse or the prison letters of Franz Jägerstätter. Perhaps after reading a great literary or philosophical work, you felt a personal connection to that author even though he or she has been dead for centuries. Another example might be the traditional practice of lectio divina, in which the text of scripture opens the way for a deepened spiritual encounter.
All of these counterexamples highlight an essential aspect of what Marcel’s philosophy gestures toward. In each case, the givenness of the constraint is precisely what enhances the relationship involved. It was not Jägerstätter’s choice to be imprisoned for his refusal to join the Nazi regime, but through the trials of his persecution his love for his wife was certainly deepened. The experience of these constraints is another reminder that my preferences are secondary to the existing conditions of the interaction. This givenness of the nature of the relationship with the other person requires us to get outside ourselves and enter the intersubjective reality that Marcel is trying to invoke.
It is easy to see how engaging in the metaverse—which we curate according to our preferences—would distort this reality. If I have never met a coworker except as his or her avatar in the metaverse, can I say that that person has ever really been available to me? Can I say that I trust that person? The answer is a resounding “no.” If I can make myself into a robot or a monster, change my voice, or control the personality of my avatar according to my wishes, and the other avatar can do the same, it seems clear that we are never really present to each other in any meaningful sense. In Marcel’s words, “The communion in which presences become manifest to each other and the transmission of purely objective messages do not belong to the same realm of being.” When every aspect of how I present myself to others is a choice, all my relations become objects of manipulation. Without the authentic connections of involved, concrete, and personal relationships, I become disconnected from being. I descend further into the Cartesian ego trap mentioned above.
These philosophical problems are connected to the practical difficulties that we already see emerging from excessive online social media use. The metaverse seems likely to worsen what has already become a worrying trend toward disconnectedness and loneliness. The metaverse, by objectifying nearly every aspect of our personalities (and by inviting us to spend nearly all of our lives in such an environment) is all but certain to exacerbate these worrying trends in mental health.
Contrary to Mr. Ball’s assertions otherwise, the moral implications of the metaverse are anything but neutral. By reminding ourselves of the meaning of the presence of persons in the Marcellian sense, we can see through these mendacious assertions and reject this further encroachment of technocratic ideology into our lives. And we must do so before it is too late.