Dystopian or Not, There’s a Market for the ‘Metaverse’ — and It’s Growing
A Christian philosopher reflects on her students’ increasing preference for virtual reality, and what’s at stake.
Since Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg previewed his plans to develop and launch a “metaverse,” an immersive, interconnected virtual reality that one could feasibly spend all their time “living in,” reactions have largely been harsh. “The metaverse looks like hell,” said one commentator in New York magazine. “Dystopian” and “terrifying” have also been oft-repeated descriptors from all corners of society, as opposition to the metaverse seems to be at least one issue capable of uniting socialists and conservative Catholics alike.
But the near-universal condemnation of Facebook’s latest venture meshes uncomfortably with another fact: There’s apparently a significant demand for what the metaverse offers, big enough to compel Zuckerberg and Co. to push through the backlash and move forward with plans to hire 10,000 metaverse-dedicated employees and invest $10 billion this year alone.
This news isn’t surprising to Megan Fritts, a professor at St. Scholastica, a Catholic college in Duluth, Minnesota. The Episcopalian philosopher has already had some shocking insights into people’s preference for virtual reality over real life, revealed, of all places, in her classroom.
As part of Fritts’ course on ethics, she regularly teaches “The Experience Machine,” a thought experiment put forward by the American philosopher Robert Nozick. The premise is simple: If you could be hooked-up to a machine that gave you simulated experiences of pleasure — or whatever other mental state you desired — would you prefer this “Experience Machine” to real life?
Writing in the 1970s, Nozick took it as a matter of fact that nearly everyone would answer, “No.” People would not prefer to be hooked up to the Experience Machine and all its pleasant sensations, he reasoned, if it would mean they wouldn’t be “in contact with reality.” Nozick used the thought experiment as an argument against hedonism, the ethical view that happiness consists solely in pleasurable experiences. The Experience Machine, he argued, showed that, when push comes to shove, people value more than just good feelings.
But when Fritts asked her students if they’d be willing to enter the Experience Machine e — adding the caveats that they wouldn’t know they’re in the machine nor would their loved ones be adversely affected by their decision — she got a dramatically different result than what Nozick would’ve expected.
“All but one student were immediately and unreservedly in favor of entering the [Experience] Machine for life,” she shared on Twitter after the lesson. “Never had that happen before, rather threw off my lesson plan!”
The Register spoke with Fritts to get her further reflections on what that classroom experience suggests, how it might relate to the metaverse and significant societal changes, and how people can begin to “unplug” from the Experience Machine.
What do you make of your students’ responses?
I teach the Experience Machine at least once a year, and I’ve never gotten that large a percentage of students wanting to enter the machine. I don’t know entirely what to make of it yet.
One thing that I think is true is that people are very tired. They’re kind of miserable right now. And I got a lot of responses that were like, “Well, as long as it won’t make anyone worse off, then it seems better than real life.” I think there’s a desire to not have to deal with everything that they’re dealing with right now.
I don’t know for sure if this implies that they accept hedonism or not. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t value anything besides [pleasurable experiences]. It could just mean that the exhaustion with life right now is so overwhelming that it crowds out other values.
As you noted, the responses you got seem dramatically different than what would’ve been expected in Nozick’s day. People then, he thought, didn’t want to enter the Experience Machine as a matter of principle. So what changed? Have we practically said yes to “little Experience Machines” along the way?
Yes, certainly. We have “little Experience Machines” like social media or gaming, which have really taken on a life far beyond just turning on a console and playing some Donkey Kong or whatever. Gaming has become this whole virtual community.
But the obvious big difference between these things and the actual Experience Machine is that there are still real relationships with real others happening, even through these virtual mediums — not with the Experience Machine. And that difference — that relationships in the Experience Machine aren’t real — gets the most amount of students to rethink things.
So after students initially say “Yes” to the Experience Machine, there’s some reconsideration when you press that point?
When I pressed that point, there were at least a few of them that did reconsider and ultimately change their views. But it was still with the caveat that, “Well, maybe if my life was really miserable, I’d still enter the machine” — that even sort of having all of those experiences being fake or illusory is still better than living a miserable life.
How do you think what you found in the classroom regarding your students and the Experience Machine fits into the discussion on Facebook’s “metaverse”?
One interesting thing is that the technology’s changing: not just how we communicate or relate to people, but also how people think. It’s changing the structure of consciousness itself. A lot of evidence points to the fact that human thinking is becoming more and more machinelike and more computational as we engage with technology on a more constant basis. So the effects are both ways: We are making technology more lifelike, but also technology is making us more machinelike.
And that change in our mental makeup could be another plausible contributor as to why something like the “metaverse” could be taking hold today: that there’s not that big of a disconnect nowadays between the way we think and the way machines “think,” at least not as big as there was five decades ago. Maybe this makes the prospect of what we might call “escapism” not really look escapism, like leaving one reality and entering another, but just a normal way of making life better. If virtual reality doesn’t seem different than regular reality, than it might just strike us as a kind of improvement.
So you’re saying that these kinds of technologies aren’t really neutral, right? That they’re not just being used by us, but are sort of conditioning us based on their own interior logic?
Yes, absolutely. Changes to attention-span length is the one that gets the most attention, but also reading styles. Humans today skim for certain key words rather than actually reading. There’s a lot of data on this that’s really sort of interesting, but in a kind of terrifying way.
What’s terrifying about it?
It seems worse to me to think in a more machinelike way. There’s something unique about how humans think that we can’t replicate mechanically, no matter how hard we try, which is why these robots or A.I.s that are “cutting-edge” still look really kind of silly to us and say very silly things. For instance, there’s a brand-new “ethics bot.” It’s supposed to tell you what’s right or wrong based on a question you asked. And it pulls from really weird sources, like online forums on Reddit. That’s one of its sources for determining what things are “okay.”
The ability to think abstractly is this really extremely unique human thing. It requires a different, non-computerized way of approaching information. So it does worry me that, as typical human cognition styles change, that that will become harder and harder to accomplish.
Okay, to broaden things out beyond just cognition to what’s at stake here, I want to go back to happiness. Because a lot of moral systems other than utilitarianism, like Aristotelian virtue ethics, maintain that happiness is the aim of life. But maybe that’s a different understanding of happiness than just experiencing pleasure. You mentioned before how virtual reality has conditioned us to view these things like the metaverse not as escapism, but as “just a normal way of making life better.” So are we really talking about a redefinition of what “a better life” is? And if so, how is it being redefined?
I think maybe not a total redefinition, because my students who were willing to enter the Experience Machine wanted to make sure that they weren’t just experiencing feelings of euphoria all the time. They thought there needed to be highs and lows. There needed to be accomplishments and challenges. The difference is they just didn’t care if it was real or not as long as they “experienced” it.
So, in one sense, they seemed to accept an aspect of Aristotelian ethics, that happiness is more like flourishing and requires not just feeling contended all the time, but really working hard and overcoming challenges and accomplishing things. Or at least they think it’s true that we need to feel as though those things are happening.
But, yes, a redefinition in the sense that, for Aristotle for instance, reality matters far more than what we feel. That’s why he thinks that someone’s life can be made worse even after they die, if their children go on to ruin their reputation or something. How life goes is a completely objective thing for Aristotle, totally rooted in real events rather than just how we perceive a thing. So, yes, a redefinition in one sense. But still some awareness that euphoria is not all that matters.
From a Christian perspective, why is this sort of disconnect from reality problematic?
Oh man … I mean …
Yeah, sorry, that’s a huge question. (Both laugh.) But, if we believe that God is “being itself,” and he created everything in reality and became incarnate to redeem created reality, why is this disconnect from reality so problematic?
In one sense, the answer is so big it’s almost hard to say. Reality matters because it’s the only thing that matters.
But if hedonism is right, and pleasurable experience is all that matters for making a life good, then most people’s lives would be absolutely awful. And this is where we see the rise of what’s called “anti-natalism”: that it’s actually gravely immoral to reproduce, to bring children into the world. And I think that’s rooted in a kind of hedonistic picture of what the good life is — that a life that involves more suffering than happiness isn’t worth living. It’s a “net bad.” Anti-natalists think most lives are like that, and maybe they’re right. I think they are probably right that life generally includes more unhappiness than happiness, if we’re just counting up the instances.
But if hedonism is right, then all of these things that are typically considered good, and especially considered good in the Christian worldview — for instance, that life itself is an intrinsic good, and therefore reproduction is a good — aren’t actually good. In fact, in the hedonistic view, they might be the opposite.
It reminds me of how ancient Gnostic ethics took one of two extremes: ascetic anti-natalism, or caprice and self-indulgence. Also similar to Gnosticism, contemporary hedonism seems to be equating happiness to some sort of “non-real” or at least non-incarnational sense or experience. But, in Christian morality, happiness is intimately connected with being faithful to created reality — not just to an abstract set of rules or spiritual realities, but to the truth of our human nature, and also to the context and relationships and responsibilities we find ourselves living in. There is no happiness apart from being faithful to reality. How do you help your students see that?
I think there’s definitely a limitation of language about happiness, at least when it comes to talking with my students. “Happiness” doesn’t mean anything else to them than just a feeling of pleasure or relief or contentment. So defining what Aristotle is talking about as happiness has routinely kind of backfired for me. (laughter)
I tend to go for different words like “flourishing,” because then you can get students to acknowledge that there’s something good about not going into the Experience Machine. Even if it’s not “happiness,” it’s something else.
For instance, if they watch The Matrix, and you ask them what they think about Neo [the protagonist], they generally think he’s doing something praiseworthy, admirable — something good. Would they say his decision led to his happiness? Probably not, because, again, “happiness” means something very specific to them.
I think, rather than getting hung up on the word, one thing to do is to show young people that there really are values beyond a hedonistic version of happiness. They admire people who will put aside their own happiness in the hedonistic sense for some other good that doesn’t appear to be related to happiness at all. Maybe it’s related to truth or fidelity or something like that. So there is a limitation to language, but I do think there can be inroads to this deeper truth by helping them see and reflect upon their admiration for these kinds of characters.
So, as a society, if we’ve kind of gradually “dipped our toe” into the Experience Machine, such that now we’ve reached a point where we’re willing to say we would get into it and even prefer it to engaging with reality, what are some practical recommendations you have for how people can begin to take a step back?
An interesting thing about my students is that they’re on social media all the time, but a lot of the statistics show they don’t really want to be. For instance, in studies where there is a group of students who have their social media restricted but also a control group, some of the students will actually request to be put in the group that has their access restricted. They don’t feel like they can really do that on their own, because their friends are on social media, and they have a kind of fear of missing out on stuff. But they don’t want to be in the virtual realm all the time.
That makes sense. So the first step would be to give them tools and help to restrict social media use, to really make it a very small part of the day, rather than a very large part of their day. I also try to make a lot of my classwork on paper, not online. This is a big thing: Professors are being pushed to use more and more technology, and I just don’t think that’s a good thing. So, honestly, I use as little as possible and try to make sure that the time we’re in front of a screen and immersed in a virtual world is kept to a minimum.
That’s really revealing, because it sounds like although we can recognize that true happiness isn’t found in these virtual forums, we also don’t have the power on our own to hold back from them. We’re addicted. So if our freedom is so compromised, to what extent do we need some kind of radical change to restore it?
I think there’s a huge need for dramatic change. I’m also very pessimistic that that will ever happen. Data right now is the most valuable commodity on Earth. It’s more valuable than oil — and has been for years. Social-media sites are where just a huge and unbelievable amount of that data comes from. The amount of money to be made via social-media sources is so eye-watering large that I am pretty pessimistic that those things will ever go away or be regulated with any kind of efficacy, unfortunately. I hope I’m wrong.
One takeaway from this conversation is that our society is almost becoming like a collective Experience Machine. And while there is pushback on something like Facebook’s metaverse, it’s also clearly another step along the way. As a Christian philosopher, what are your final thoughts and recommendations on the topic?
I think we need to take seriously that there’s a unique sort of misery that college students are experiencing right now. I get the reaction in the opposite direction, because life in general is so much easier today than it has been at other times. There’s much less suffering than there was 100 years ago. And that’s right, in one sense, but it also doesn’t make sense of the statistics we see regarding self-harm and suicide and mental illness and everyone just feeling miserable and doomed.
Part of this is that I think people can deal with a lot of suffering if they think there’s a future for them. Our students are kind of thinking there isn’t. So it makes it much harder to bear even what would otherwise be a small suffering if they really don’t think there’s a point, if they don’t think there’s a future. That’s something that everyone, not just educators, but everyone who is interacting with young people, needs to take seriously.
I don’t have any suggestions for how to make it better. But I do think that with the students I’ve had over the years, they’re definitely getting more pessimistic and more hopeless. And that makes me sad.
This conversation was edited for clarity and length.