Facebook, now Meta, promises to create a metaverse. The metaverse will allow us to experience a life beyond what is possible for us now. We can instantly communicate with anyone in the world. We can constantly see and experience new things. Information and data will be accessible to us in new and visually pleasing ways.
Recently, a buyer spent $450,000 to purchase a plot of virtual land next to SnoopDogg in the latter’s virtual world. It is not as though the transition to the metaverse will be difficult. During the pandemic, days of Netflix and video games were the norm. Already, people play online games, creating communities (or clans). They spend hours a day on it. The digital world becomes their real world.
The same sort of thing already happens on social media. Many of us spend hours on Instagram and TikTok and other platforms. We live for the like. We live to see another short video to entertain us. A whole culture has popped up through YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram. It is the real-life of many, the life that feels closest and most important.
The metaverse adds a new way of living in the digital world. The transition will not be difficult, as long as the technology works. We already live in a time where material objects have been replaced by digital technology.
From Objects to Technology
Byung-Chul Han in his work Undinge argues that information makes “things” (real-life objects) disappear from our day-to-day life. But we don’t notice it because information feels like “things.”
Han calls it thing-inflation (Dinginflation), in which we get new tech, data, information and so frequently. We feel like we experience new and exciting things—the charm of surprise. But in reality, we have lost our connection to material objects in the world.
As a conservative (in the old sense, not the political party sense), I know that our connection to the land, the rocks and trees, homes and families—these things bind us to a place, make us want to conserve what is good and more.
De-thinging our lives wrecks that possibility. The metaverse, for example, promises to impede our connections to things.
Han tells us that this charm of new things, the constant newness of data, makes us lose the capacity for stillness, for quietude, for being rooted and anchored in that which does not move.
Conserving the Beautiful
I find the idea of the charm of newness troubling. I know this charm all too well. And yet not everything old should be left to its own devices, and not everything new should be received with gladness.
We should love and conserve what is stable and so stabilizing.
Everyone loves what is near to them. We love our families, our homes, our neighbourhoods. If someone loves the environment, they will likely want to preserve the green space in their neighbourhood. They will work hard to preserve or conserve what is near to them. In this narrow sense, everyone is a conservative.
A connection to the land, its rocks, its trees, its people, its history—these real objects, whether physical or metaphysical—ground us. George Grant once said, “Beyond space and time, there is order.” And that order, that thing that is bigger and wider than us, that order stabilizes our existence.
Aristotle called it First Philosophy. Plato named it the Supreme Good. We might call it an experience of Grandeur, of something beyond our sight yet still genuinely there. The moment we see a sunset at the beach, the horizon seemingly endless, and the experience of an order beyond our capability to grasp. It is beyond space and time.
This experience, I think, cannot be replicated. Virtual emulation can attempt it only by mimicking the physical order. And its algorithmic purpose centres merely on keeping our attention, giving us a new experience of information to deliver endorphins to us. It cannot deliver, except by imitation, an experience of grandeur.
This inability is part of its design. The digital specializes in changing, mutable experiences. A new like, a new post, more engagements, a new experience, a new trend. It is unstable by design. The order behind space and time and the material objects of the earth point to something stable.
Stability When Everything Changes
The ancient poets of Israel called God, their rock. A rock persists. In a changing world where all is flux and one cannot step into the same river twice, rocks appear the same.
Human life, on the other hand, changes constantly. To be human is to change. “Man is like a breath” and “his days are like a passing shadow” (Ps 144:4). The mutability of life should draw us to desire something stable.
Yet to avoid this inner compulsion for stability, we turn to games and play and technology. Yet the need for stability remains. Our hearts are restless, Augustine once wrote, until they find rest in God. The basic need for stability remains, even if we ignore it and store it deep away in our hearts.
Modern society commodifies everything, and everything is up for sale. Inventory must move. Our life stories are mere commodities for social media. To sell a home, we give it a story—to entice buyers to buy it. But these commodified stories imitate the real thing. They are the vapor, given off my information-capitalism.
To re-discover our need for stability and to experience the grandeur of deep stillness, we must turn to Beauty. The slow cultivation of what we love—conserving the beautiful—reveals this hidden love.
Beautiful things attract us, and we want to conserve and protect what we love. And if we spend the time to gaze over the horizon, we will observe the beauty of nature, which draws us beyond and space and time so that we might experience Order.
If digital information is our resting place, we will always be in motion. But if the world of material objects and Order is our resting place, we will find our rock. There, we must find a spot to linger in a world that denies us a place for lingering.
Time and Boredom
“Everything that stabilizes human life is time-consuming,” writes Han (Undinge, 15). The disappearance of rituals, of old practices means we lack stability. “Truth is also time-consuming,” Han writes (Undinge, 15). Here, Han points to our relation to time.
Digital time rewards speed, change, fast rewards, constant stimulation. It feeds digital information, but there is no meta-story. History becomes useless, unpractical. The long arc of time that brought us from there to here is unimportant. Lingering over work, shaping and forming a chair out of wood felled in one’s yard—that has a story. Fortnite has no story, at least like this.
Truth takes time too. One plus one equals two. The basic computation of digital machines is, more-or-less, easy. Truth takes time. If truth exists outside of us alongside justice and love, then it is something real and accessible. But it also takes work. It takes a long gaze in the same direction, a lingering, fulsome approach.
To see beauty, we must seek it in truth. To “gaze upon the beauty of the Lord” is a contemplation that takes “all the days of my life” (Ps 27:4). It takes patience, time. It takes conversations in which we disagree over the nature of truth. It takes writing and working out ideas. It takes sitting alone or with others for a long time to contemplate.
The metaverse will not be boring
The metaverse will not be boring. There will not be time to linger. Something new and exciting will be around every corner. Why enjoy one painting in our home, when we can see every painting in the world with a few movements of our hands. Why spend the time to craft an object at home, when you instantly craft objects with a word.
In fact, why craft when you can command Alexa to bring you the object instantly from Amazon? We speak, the object comes. The NFT, the digital plot of land, this is where the action and excitement are. It takes no time at all, and there is no liminal space for boredom.
The digital order makes our words and gestures create. We create worlds with words and gestures. We order our daily needs through a digital medium. It comes to us. We do nothing. It is just ours.
Not only will real-life objects feel obsolete, but our time and connection to these objects will loosen.
A New Order
Our movement from real-life objects to digital objects and from lingering to instant gratification make conserving the good and beautiful seem passe. The digital order, located in space and bound by time, delivers what we want when we want it. It is a new order in space and time. It cuts us off from the Order beyond space and time.
But I am left wondering if our new order, our digital era, will further separate us from the things of earth and seam, mountains and oceans. God gave us these things to induce a sense of grandeur in us. He is Rock. He tames the sea.
The Metaverse no longer teaches us of the permanence of the Rock and God’s taming of the chaos of the sea. We create the rock now. We tame the sea. We control by a word and gesture. We are deified, and we are detached from the physical world.