What does "meta" really mean?
On the "metaverse" and ships in bottles
When people use the phrase "Orwellian", they often intend for it to suggest a surveillance state -- one in which "Big Brother is watching you". While there are plenty of reasons to be concerned about the creeping surveillance state -- especially as it is imposed both at home and abroad by authoritarian regimes like the one with power in China -- that isn't the only way in which circumstances can be Orwellian.
■ The surveillance state is indeed an instrument of terror, but so is the other aspect of the Orwellian condition: One in which the language itself is bent so as to destroy meaning and vex understanding. It is in this latter sense -- perhaps even more than the former one -- that we should be alarmed by the "Metaverse".
■ While the corporate name change at Facebook to "Meta" is largely interpreted as a matter of smoke and mirrors, the name itself is Orwellian in the latter sense. Mark Zuckerberg wrote in his announcement of the name change that "I used to study Classics, and the word 'meta' comes from the Greek word meaning 'beyond'."
■ The notion is that this "metaverse" (in which Facebook/Meta wants to be a major stakeholder) will be a sort of one-stop shop "to do almost anything you can imagine", a virtual enhancement -- or perhaps a surrogate -- for the world we currently recognize as reality.
■ But in the sense it is being pitched, the "metaverse" is less the removal of arbitrary limitations and more of a constraint around an experience of reality. It's really a "microverse" -- like a snow globe, or a ship in a bottle.
■ The distinction is important. Like a ship in a bottle, an online environment can be crafted with precision. It can be made nearly perfect. It can even represent an entirely mythical or fantastical place. But it cannot be the reality a person inhabits completely. It is not "beyond" -- it can only be "in addition to", and only then, within constraints.
■ Some connections facilitated by the Internet have a wonderful place in our world. The ability to share interests, to overcome artificial barriers (whether of geography, physical abilities, or of brain differences), or to maintain contact with acquaintances is all quite good.
■ But no "metaverse" can take the place of meaningful human connections that are untethered to whatever some computer programmers in Menlo Park are willing to hack. It is generally good to have more people who will celebrate your triumphs and commiserate in your sorrows. But there is no number of acquaintances that can fully substitute for having people who would be willing to donate a kidney if you needed one. No metaverse is required to sustain those relationships -- nor can it create them at scale (the aid and influence of dating apps notwithstanding).
■ So, while we should be cautious about the surveillance risks of our online interactions, we ought as well to be skeptical of the other kind of Orwellianism, too: The one that says technology can substitute for reality by going beyond it. Like a ship in a bottle, a digital microverse may be a thing of beauty -- but it is inevitably smaller than the real thing.