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Who needs the universe anymore?

Benjamin Boivin

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Photo by James Yarema on Unsplash
Mark Zuckerberg, in an attempt at rebranding his very own Facebook after years of severe criticism, announced a few weeks ago that the company would be renamed Meta to reflect its focus on being a leader in the creation of the metaverse.
Many criticized or ridiculed the move, dismissing Zuckerberg's metaverse as a half-baked idea, a red herring whose purpose is to change the conversation after a series of controversies and attacks against the corporation he leads. This may be true, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't take the promises of the metaverse seriously.
 
The new normal run amok
With the helping hand of a cultural elite of brainy entrepreneurs, we finally won't have to put up with the universe anymore. Just what you've been looking for! Tired of the commute? No need! Sick of the mall? Who cares! Waking up early on Sunday mornings for Mass has been bumming you out? Whoever needed that anyway... You can do all of it – and so much more! – from the comfort of home.
Sound familiar? I bet it does.
Of course, the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that in grave and extraordinary circumstances, we can, indeed, streamline our experience of the world through screens, keyboards, and cameras, a thought that was fully out of the mainstream a short while ago.
Some even thrived under this exceptional regime. Remote working has opened a world of possibilities of which I, for one, have been able to take advantage. Yet the damages of a life lived through avatars, secondary identities, video games, and virtual reality are as major as they are common.
 
Virtual socialization and its discontents
The realities of virtual socialization are well-known.
People have been going through depression and anxiety at alarming rates. Young people – in particular young women – have shown signs of intense discomfort with their bodies as a result of overexposure to images that are totally unreal.
Young men are often absorbed from an early age into the consumption of pornography and have become accustomed to the worst of the worst in terms of violent sexual images. They are increasingly being swallowed up into a world of video games which wastes their time, breaks their spirit, absorbs their energy, and deprives them of social abilities essential to their development and happiness.
We often talk about the ways in which the internet and social media have alienated people politically and radicalized social polarization. We have heard over and over and over about media fragmentation and online echo chambers. Those are real problems. Yet the alienation cuts deeper than that.
 
The estrangement of the sexes
In many ways, young men and young women have been set apart by differentiated parasitical activities affecting their respective development and mutual interactions in a way that is frightening. From excessive social media use to cyberaddictions related to pornography and video games, virtual socialization has lasting, often lamentable effects.
Of course, a lot of young people don't get married and have children anymore, at least not before many years into adulthood. We know that, and the reasons for that form a complex, intricate web of social and cultural changes.
But now, they don't court. They often don't date. In fact, many times they won't even meet. When they do, it leads in many instances to disappointment, frustration, and misunderstanding. The culture brought about by virtual socialization has simply not given them the tools to behave in a way that is indicative of their particular situation, intentional about the purpose of the occasion, or ordered according to a specific, higher goal.
 
The spiritualization of the world
A while ago, a close friend of mine shared a thought with me: in a very weird and frightening way, we have become spiritualized. We are more spiritual than we ever were. That's one of the most uncommon things I had heard in a good long while.
Those of us who are Christians often place a high value on what is deemed spiritual. And we should! Up to a point at least. But the nature of our human bodies, animated by immaterial souls, is indicative of the excellence of our physicality. We often speak of Christianity as the religion of the Incarnation. Yet a very common error throughout Christian history has been to despise our bodiliness.
Throughout history people have expressed realities of the mind and soul through exterior signs, filled with meaning. Noblemen would wear clothing that was ostensibly rich in materials, colours, and symbols, of the house or family to which they belonged, for example. Relationships between people of different background, origin, or sex would be dictated by certain rules of conduct which were filled to the brim with meaning  – and often wisdom – although sometimes hidden behind a curtain of traditionalism, stubborness, or snobbery.
Today, we don't have aristocrats anymore, but we certainly do have oligarchs, and they are the ones who pursue the metaverse. Some of their fortunes are worth hundreds of billions of dollars, yet they are often outwardly indistinguishable from the average Joe.
In a way, that is the promise of virtual socialization: to become whoever you desire to be. Gone are the limits, the drivers, and gone with them is an understanding of one's abilities and shortcomings – one's body – in the context of God-given personhood.
 
A veneer of democratization 
From a socio-economic perspective, this illustrates the triumph of a democratic spirit that dominates the culture of our times, which one might perceive to have taken its origins from the Gospel.
We no longer expect the visible to speak of the invisible, whether it be in simple things like clothing or courtship habits, or more generally in our social interactions, in our entertainment, in our sexuality. In this way, we are more spiritual than our elders, and there are countless ways in which that is true. Put simply, we don't interact with the world in all its physicality.
 
Utopian promises
Of course, this has a lot to do with the internet, which certainly brought undeniable benefits along the way as well. However, considering the somewhat utopian expectations around the internet when it first came around, one can't help but wonder what good can come out of the so-called metaverse once we are trapped in it.
If the internet was a square, the metaverse would be a cube. A properly dystopian mechanism ready to enable us in our self-imposed drill of work, entertainment, loneliness, and despair, all while sitting on a pile of fast-expiring gadgets, delivery leftovers, and dirty socks.
Keeping ourselves at a healthy distance will be hard but essential. We sometimes say that tools in themselves have no moral content, a notion we might want to dispute. But the metaverse is not a tool as much as it is an idea of the good life which is foreign to a classical and Christian understanding of the human person and the way in which one can pursue happiness.
 
Living an embodied life
Meaningful and healthy relationships, friendships, marriages, brotherhoods most often can't be sustained or allowed to grow in charity when we are all on our own.
The sacramental life – which welcomes man into a relationship with God through signs such as water, consecrated bread, and the marital union – is one of the ways in which Christians are bound to community among themselves and with God, a community that has bodiliness. After all, we speak of the mystical body of Christ.
We must inhabit our churches, our communities, our families, our friendships with the whole of ourselves. Really, who needs the metaverse?


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