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Translation by AB – August 14, 2021
We’re asymptotically approaching a moment where all of humanity may interface with superposed digital experiences in real-time. Our devices will become portals to a persistent world tangential to our own1.
So here comes this “Metaverse” that we will talk about a little here, and that will be the pretext for a contact with Bernard Stiegler, French philosopher of the digital age who disappeared in 2020. Not that Bernard Stiegler’s thought is particularly suitable for us, but his indignation, to say the least, seems to us to be as useful in the face of this Metaverse project as it is in the face of the integral digital government that thrives on what he himself called our “cowardice”.
For once, this exploration goes on the hunt for a buzz word which fame culminates this summer with the interview granted on July 22 to the American magazine The Verge by Mark Zuckerberg2 :
[…] I think over the next five years or so, in this next chapter of our company [ Facebook ], I think we will effectively transition from people seeing us as primarily being a social media company to being a Metaverse company.
“Metaverse” is a word-concept coined in 1992 by the science-fiction writer Neal Stephenson, in the cyberpunk trend born in 1984 with William Gibson and his famous “cyberspace”. This word-concept delimits a meaning that everyone has already recognized: A Metaverse is a virtualized environment, of the type already well known to players of Roblox, Animal Crossing or which the occupants of the late Second Life may remember with nostalgia. But the Metaverse finally realizes IRL (In Real Life) the fusion of our real existence with our digital avatars. Behind this simple, if not simplistic, idea, once again rush the demons of “disruption” denounced by Bernard Stiegler. This concept, launched in the cyberpunk years and now taken up by investors, is emerging once again in the midst of general ignorance: it was neither possible nor necessary to consider, for example, the smartphone, nor to agree together on its uses before it unleashed its power; nor will it be possible or necessary to consider the Metaverse (which, by the way, already exists) before we consume it, or rather, before it consumes us.
Regressive, exclusive, barbaric
What we want to point out about the Metaverse, as it is desired by the “business”, is that it highlights in an extreme and singular way this characteristic of the epoch that we could call the power of the void. Bernard Stiegler uses this other expression which more or less indicates this void: the “absence of epoch”3. This hollow, this excavation that expands for no other reason than the mechanical extraction of an additional piece of the (locally perceived limitless) vein, expands in our collective imagination. It takes shape in the cyberpunk literary genre, which is “a kind of fiction that is incapable of imagining a future that is very different from its present”4 (Adam Curtis and the strange world).
Indeed, we never cease to be amazed at the paucity of Mark Zuckerberg’s “visions”, who seems to know nothing about how they come to him (“[…] frankly, I think that that needs to exist” or even “sometimes when you’re working on long-term projects, it can be a little painful because you realize, “Hey, we want this today””5). What we “want today” can by definition only be indigent and stuffs, so to speak, the epoch with the absence of epoch. We “want” a Metaverse (Zuckerberg), to go into space (Branson, Bezos), on Mars (Musk), to control our thoughts (Musk), to become immortal (Thiel, Page, Brin) … all of these “wants” share the same regressive, exclusive and barbaric character.
On the barbaric character, we follow Stiegler who himself follows and quotes the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk6:
The advance of exceptional beings is due to a vocation to disinhibition that makes its way alone through an active contempt for the containment power constituted by morality and origin – hence the thesis of the inevitable criminality of innovators.
One can argue, but the digital empires conquered by the above-mentioned, and to which Zuckerberg now proposes to secede with the Metaverse, if they were indeed built lawfully, despise a common morality that they have in a way staggered. The “legality” we are talking about is therefore irrelevant. Under the guise of what we have called here on several occasions an “objective convergence of interests” (health, ecology, etc.) they convince us to embark, like Christopher Columbus, on the conquest of new “territories of disinhibition”, whether it be space, Mars, eternal life, dreams or the Metaverse.
But make no mistake: very few of us will be on the trip. On the Santa María, the Pinta and the Niña, places are limited and we will only receive “good kisses”. The exclusive character of the “want it today” is not even concealable anymore and Jeff Bezos, the man who was worth 200 billion dollars, vaguely perceived the problem after his newsworthy escapade at the gates of space7:
In a post-flight press conference on Tuesday, Bezos said the venture had reinforced his commitment to tackling the climate crisis, and using New Shepard as a stepping stone towards colonising space for the benefit of Earth.
Oh well, sorry, we thought it was about developing space tourism… Because Oliver Daemen, an 18-year-old Dutch student and lucky member of the crew, did not get in the rocket with Jeff and his brother to help solve the climate crisis. No, he won his place at the auction, replacing at the last moment the buyer of June, prevented:
Blue Origin has opened sales for space tourism flights but has not set a price or revealed how much Daemen paid. The winning bid in a June auction for the first seat was $28m (£20m), the winner pulling out of Tuesday’s flight because of a “scheduling conflict”.
The exclusive character of the Metaverse, which has nothing so frontal, will appear to us later.
Finally, on the aspect of regression, it will be necessary to take the time to develop what is still only an intuition here and which we will summarize in a few sentences. We must begin by giving credit for great intelligence to these entrepreneurs, in order to better underline that the regressive character of their “dreams” is not self-evident and thus informs us of something. First of all, everything, or almost everything, has been taken from a literature that is already quite old, whereas the context of production of these imaginaries has disappeared, if only in the light of the test now being put on us by climate change and biological collapse… Why not aspire first, by mobilizing these great intelligences, to open the doors of our imagination to our context? The hypothesis is thus the following and it will delight the collapsologists: the emptiness of which we speak, the absence of epoch, is nurtured by the extraction of an anxiety of which we are all affected, even the most powerful among us. To follow them would therefore be “deadly” because it would be, literally, to be in the wrong era.
Power of the void
Having observed that the Metaverse is at least a regressive, exclusive and barbaric wish, one more “disruption”, it remains to understand the extraordinary power that can lead to its realization. We already know the lineaments of it.
Everything there is to know about the Metaverse as it is concretely envisaged, i.e. economically, is explained on the site of the analyst and investor Matthew Ball, in particular in a group of nine articles entitled “The Metaverse Primer”8. Ball clearly explains what needs to be technically accomplished for the Metaverse to gradually take shape. It is essentially a matter of making this virtual space persistent in such a way that each entity, each identity, can deploy its “existence” in it in a continuous, immediate and transparent way. The Metaverse and the real space must “cooperate”, if only because our body is (still) the only proxy capable of accessing any x-verse. It is therefore necessary to develop hardware (virtual reality headsets, haptic gloves, implants, 3D terminals…), a communication infrastructure (very low latency, bandwidth compatible with virtual reality…), and a power capable of working out the “look” of the Metaverse for each person, no matter what is going on at any given time… Of course, it will be necessary to develop norms and standards for interoperability, means of payment, content, services, etc.
All this is quite logical, not very interesting and very similar to the internet and the mobile network. But here is a main difference: internet is like a juxtaposition of artificial organs (that dislocate us – see The Body of René Thom (singularities)); The Metaverse claims to make up our dislocated “I’s” in a physical and technical identity, which therefore supposes a coherent narrative of one’s identity at all times, both physically and technically, and this will require huge technical, and therefore financial, means.
Thus, the Metaverse is already proposed to investors. Matthew Ball has described the playing field perfectly and, logically, he and Roundhill Investments are launching an ETF based on his “Ball Metaverse Index”9 which lists all the companies that contribute to the development of the technical resources mentioned above (hardware, networks, computers, services, etc.): Cloudflare, Nvidia, Unity, Roblox, Tencent, Sea, Snap, etc. Zuckerberg thus invites Facebook to the dance. Let us note that, in a truly historical reversal, it is not technology that calls on finance to deploy itself but finance that calls on technology to subsist.
The power of void is, of course, this “ultracapitalism” identified by the French economist Michel Volle and which obstinately feeds the offspring of the “want it today”. Ultracapitalism has worked wonderfully for the GAFAs with the “indulgence” of the American Government; there is no reason not to put a layer of it on with the Metaverse while the Internet is showing some signs of exhaustion. Let’s note that once again, in this game, Europe, which still resists (a little) to the excavation, believes (a little) in a moral, thinks (a little) that the technique must be assimilated with time, etc., this Europe finds itself quite incapable in front of this power of the void and prepares, for lack of better, to provide the consumers and the small hands of the Metaverse, which will thus be quite exclusive.
Bernard Stiegler endorsed neither the optimism of the technology thurifers, nor the pessimism of the collapsologists, to which his analysis was to lead naturally. These optimistic/pessimistic stances judged “indecent” and “cowardly” by Stiegler, stances that some people designate by the neologism of “affectivism”10, can only be apostatized by this third term: “to be courageous”. What does this mean?
Stiegler’s thought is agitated, fighting, sometimes confused, jargonizing… but, by these very defects, much better than a certain academicism, admirable of precision but impotent11, able to grasp something of the zeitgeist and to understand these famous “practical and intellectual implications of the computerization process” (Michel Volle). But to grasp the zeitgeist is not enough: to tackle it courageously supposes nothing less than to put back on the workbench the very concept of information, technically confiscated by the “Silicon Valley” (a simplification which meaning everyone understands well), to extract it from the economic field of pure calculation (some openings on this theme here: Gilbert Simondon, philosopher of information?). This project is obviously of unprecedented ambition.
Let us specify a little the stake. If, as we recalled with Henri Van Lier (in French: Le « progrès » révélé par la Photographie), the technical phenomenon precedes its semiotic assimilation, the latter must occur in order to make room for technology in culture. However, according to Stiegler, the velocity of disruption no longer allows for “time”. As a culminating example, the velocity of the emergence of an authentic Metaverse, the ideal of information as a pure economy, is like an “escape velocity” that can only be achieved by the fuel of the financial powers mentioned above. We have already observed this “financial velocity” at work with Amazon, Tesla or Facebook… and more generally with the financing of startups that must reach the orbit of these famous “unicorns” (in fact, technological success has only this measure: the billion dollars).
The gigantism of the Metaverse, unprecedented in the history of technology, would lead, this time for good, to the annihilation of our collective capacity to adapt (because, to use our terms from the article on Photography, the human being would be totally integrated into the “black box” and thus quite unable of making anything meaningful). This project, unless it is slowed down, can only fail or lead to a radical Orwellian totalitarianism (at least, as long as the earth’s resources allow to feed this gargantuan Metaverse).
Finally, to be courageous means: to look the epoch in the face, that is to say not to be mistaken about the epoch: the challenges we are facing require anything but the accomplishment of a regressive, exclusive and barbaric “dream” of which we would be the consumers / consumed, and we fully subscribe to Bernard Stiegler’s idea according to whom (we underline) “the moral being of the digital culture to come will be a practitioner, and not a consumer“. But we have to give him time to do so.
1. ↑ Keith / Salad – July 30, 2021 – Are We Already in the Metaverse? (very interesting set of articles on the matter)
2. ↑ Casey Newton / The Verge – July 22, 2021 – MARK IN THE METAVERSE
3. ↑ Bernard Stiegler / Actes Sud – 2018 – Dans la disruption (comment ne pas devenir fou ? – unless otherwise stated, all quotes from Bernard Stiegler are from this book.
4. ↑ Lee Konstantinou / Slate.fr (in French) – 30 janvier 2019 – Pourquoi ne parvient-on pas à dépasser le cyberpunk?
5. ↑ Ibid. 2
6. ↑ Peter Sloterdijk / Fayard – 2006 – Le palais de cristal – “L’avance des êtres exceptionnels est due à une vocation à la désinhibition qui se fait seule son chemin par le biais d’un mépris actif à l’égard de la puissance d’endiguement constituée par la morale et l’origine – de là, la thèse de l’inévitable criminalité des novateurs”.
7. ↑ Richard Luscombe / The Guardian – July 20, 2021 – Jeff Bezos hails ‘best day ever’ after successful Blue Origin space flight
8. ↑ MatthewBall.vc – The Metaverse Primer
9. ↑ Roundhill Investments – July 30, 2021 – The Metaverse ETF
10. ↑ Mathieu Trentesaux / Mumen (in French) – July 8, 2021 – Penser hors de la boîte
11. ↑ Zilsel (in French) – 16 septembre 2017 – Bernard Stiegler : lost in disruption ?