Recently the new Matrix film came out and even though it is an enormous flop, it does make me return to the philosophy of the original film. What could 20 years ago be seen as dystopic make-believe is beginning to become reality, or rather virtual reality. Mark Zuckerberg announced the Metaverse a couple of months ago. The Metaverse is a place where you can create your own avatar, customize its looks, and interact with other people inside many different worlds. It’s like real life, only it isn’t.
This will bring us to fundamental existential and philosophical questions. The philosopher Robert Nozick is famous for a particular thought experiment. Imagine that you are laying in a vat of water with electrodes attached to your head. You feel absolutely nothing unless someone sends signals to your brain through the electrodes. If the person would create happiness in your brain, Nozick asks, is it real happiness? His answer is no, it isn’t. Because we believe that such happiness is artificial and that to be happy, we need to experience pain as well. People would reject this kind of happiness says Nozick. Boy, was he wrong.
People are looking at a screen almost all the time. The average time a Western person spends on their phone is about 5-6 hours a day. That’s only their phone. Take with that that the average person watches 4 hours of tv a day, and you see how quickly we come to a full 10 hours of screen time a day. Sometimes I’m ashamed to admit how much screen time my computer announces I have at the end of the day. With the average workday being 8 hours, we can say that the average person has a work, screen sleep, repeat cycle going on in their lives.
But why are we all hooked on those screens? Well, social media and games are designed to be addicting. The Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma shows many accounts of how social media is designed like a slot machine just to get you hooked. Video games, and particular mobile games aren’t really any better. Many mobile games have certain functions that make you play the game every day. And when you have to wait for you next Pokémon egg to hatch, you can always buy some new incubators with just a little bit of money by microtransactions. These things are specifically targeting the same neural network as gambling does.
As Elon Musk said: “We’re already a cyborg.” We are so connected to our device in our pocket that we can’t barely imagine a world where we don’t have it. But why exactly? Instagram is one of the worst social media apps for your mental health. Still, millions of people use it daily. One of the reasons could be to escape this ‘real’ reality. As Arthur Schopenhauer wrote: “The world is the hell, and the people are the pained souls as they are the devils.” This world is filled with suffering which can make the strongest of us anxious. Why not instead escape this world into a better one? We can look the way we want, we can do things we want to do and be the person we think we are meant to be. All of this is just one click away. Why take the Red pill? Just take the Blue pill and all of your worries will leave, until the time comes that you need to take another, and another and another again. Just like a drug addiction, it creates a need to consume.
This brings us to why the Metaverse is a dangerous concept and worrisome going into the future. It makes us believe things are real that actually aren’t. Nike has announced last month that they will be creating sneakers for the Metaverse. You can then buy shoes for your avatar. But this is literally nothing of real substantial value. It is only valuable because we say that it has value. It is the equivalent of value of a famous tiktok influencer or holy water. It’s a sham while people will still be spending hundreds of dollars of their well-earned cash into. Jean Baudrillard famously called this ‘hyperreality’. Hyperreality is “a representation, a sign, without an original referent”. Which means that it is a concept that doesn’t refer to anything real. The virtual shoes do not refer to a real product namely a shoe, but to a pseudo representation of a shoe. When people value the virtual shoe as a real shoe, the virtual shoe becomes hyperreality. It becomes reality in our own minds even though it isn’t.
Instead of attributing value to the real things in life like friends, family, happiness, we will instead attribute value to the hyperreal namely virtual friends, virtual family and happiness given to us from artificial substances. We already see this in the value that people put in their Instagram following or their friends on Facebook. Even though that number doesn’t say anything we still believe it does, because the programs are programmed to make us believe it that way. We are already making the transition to the Metaverse.
And why shouldn’t we? It’s way too hard to go to the gym three times a week and push weights for hours and do that for years while in the meantime you also have to eat right to get the body we want. Why not just push a slider to the right so we can become buff in mere seconds? It’s way too hard to take the dog out for a walk every day and feeding it. Why not get a virtual dog that never dies but will always be happy to see you? Why should face the hardships of the world, if we don’t have to.
The answer to this question is one every person should answer for themselves. If a person wants to escape the hardships of life and plug himself in, he is free to do so. You need to find a reason as to why the suffering of the world is meaningful to you. What you have to pay is pain, failure and loss. What you gain is inherent meaning in the process of being. You will never achieve the level of happiness, flourishing or meaning in the realm of hyperreality, in the Metaverse. It will always be a fake, but maybe it’ll be fake enough that we’ll believe that it is real, as many men and women now believe that the way porn portrays sex is the real way to have sex. However, by overcoming this hyperreal tendency, we can achieve much more meaning in our lives.
I haven’t even begun to speak about the dystopian tendencies that the Metaverse has. That might be something for another post. The Metaverse is a threat to whatever makes us human from multiple angles. It will all depend on how we view ourselves and how we want to world to look in the future, if the Metaverse will completely change our life. I, however, would like to still walk with my real dog with some real Nikes on my feet while enjoying the warm sun of a beautiful sunset in the summer. But maybe that’s not even real anymore. Let’s hope there won’t be a man in a large black trench coat knocking on my door soon.
 A. Schopenhauer, On the Suffering of the World (Own translation from Dutch)
 Back in the day when the Nintendo DS came out, there was a game called Nintendogs which is basically that concept. People would play that game more than take their real dog out for a walk.