The Ultimate Promise of the Metaverse: Meaning on demand
An exploration on how the Metaverse can enhance the human experience
My last article, ‘The NFT Endgame’, generated quite the polarizing response. It explores how NFTs (i.e. ownership/digital property) will be central to creating a ‘metaverse’ within which people will actually want to live, work, and play. This has since become a widely accepted notion and now everyone and their Aunt Sally is talking about the ‘metaverse’. Some people are fascinated and excited by this potential future, eager for its arrival. Others find it terrifying, fearful of how it might ruin our humanity. Call me biased given my day job, but from my perch, the metaverse and its underlying technology has the potential to address some of the very problems technophobes so fear. This essay attempts to reconcile these two views and explore three ways the convergence of the metaverse’s component technologies can potentially bridge this divide, creating a world that both sides see as a net-positive.
Technology vs. Humanity
Whether we like it or not, it’s becoming clear that humanity is strapped to a rocket ship in the form of exponential technology. Some people view this as the ultimate thrill ride, throwing up their roller coaster hands in sheer glee. These are the folks who mainline all things frontier tech: crypto and self sovereignty, anti-aging and biohacking, AR/VR and the metaverse, AI and conscious robots. But many others are bracing the shoulder straps and screaming in despair. To them, life is short for a reason, money should be tangible, nature is our virtual reality, and the creation of conscious minds via AI should be reserved for ‘God’ (or something of the sort).
One of the inspirations for this essay is a quote by George Lucas in Kevin Kelly’s book, ‘What Technology Wants’. Lucas says, “If you watch the curve of science and everything we know, it shoots up like a rocket. We’re on this rocket and we’re going perfectly vertical into the stars. But the emotional intelligence of humankind is equally if not more important than our intellectual intelligence. We’re just as emotionally illiterate as we were 5,000 years ago; so emotionally our line is completely horizontal. The problem is the horizontal and the vertical are getting farther and farther apart. And as these things grow apart, there’s going to be some kind of consequence to that.”
Edward O. Wilson summarizes this more succinctly, “We have paleothic emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology”.
It’s hard to argue with this reality and the consequences that could ensue if not properly addressed. The past couple years have given us a glimpse into this inherent tension. Social media exasperated paleolithic emotions such as fear (fake news), anger (BLM), and greed (Gamestop mania). The foundation of medieval institutions started to quake (democracy vs. growing political divides, Wall Street vs. Wall Street Bets, US health care vs. COVID/boomers). All the while, our godlike technology continues to accelerate, with (currently) little concern for what lies in its wake. Disruption at all costs is its mantra. Revolution, its raison d’être.
Both sides of this fence can scream and shout all day long. But if we hope to have a sensible conversation, both sides need to agree on at least one fundamental truth; the technology genie is out of the bottle and there’s no turning back.
If we hope to address side effects, this reality must be embraced. Sure, you can go full primitive, hide in the woods, and wax poetic about how unfair and unrighteous the world has become. But you’re better off accepting the realities that lie on the horizon, however seemingly strange some may seem to us today. For those who struggle to grasp this, I like to use the analogy of peasants in the 14th century, pre-Renaissance. All they knew day to day was the act of toiling their land, maintaining their humble abodes, and making sure they don’t piss off the neighbor to the point of a dagger in the back. This was the water they swam in. Imagine trying to explain to them the notion of working for a company, modern housing, or the legal system. We’re now the peasants, except this time, we might live long enough to actually experience the shift. Heck, we’re experiencing it now. For many, social connection and wealth is already more attainable in the virtual world than the physical. Decentralized finance is already eating Wall St. from the inside out. Smart contracts and DAOs (decentralized autonomous organizations) may soon work for us, instead of us working for companies. And people may soon live long enough to re-shape our philosophical notions of careers, marriage, and ultimately, what it means to be human.
By the way, these are not my opinions. These things are already happening today. My favorite anecdote is ‘play-to-earn’ games such as Axie Infinity, a ‘microverse’ game world (subcomponent of the eventual Metaverse) that allows players in countries such as Indonesia to earn far beyond minimum wage. In its wake, DAOs such as Yield Guild Games are arising to accelerate these economies, training players and loaning out in-game assets to jump start their ‘digital careers’ and lower the barrier of entry.
With that backdrop, let’s look at both sides of tech’s polarity.
‘Medium Energy’ = Human Prosperity
On one hand, this future holds the promise of so much good. We’ll get to see our great great grandchildren grow up, experiencing new depths of our lineage, love, mentorship, and legacy. DeFi and ‘play-to-earn’ crypto games will make wealth achievable for anyone with a laptop and WiFi connection, Ivy League connections be damned. Virtual worlds combined with self-sovereign identity will allow society and ‘nation-states’ to be re-designed from first principles (as alluded to here and here by prominent ‘thinker’, Balaji Srinivasan. A must follow on Tiwtter)
On the other hand, data reveals additional truths. According to the UN, more people are dying annually from suicide than natural disasters and conflict. Rates of depression and mental health are rising dramatically (especially amongst youth), perfectly correlated with the rise of social media. Our global consciousness is triggered by news feed algorithms, causing societal ‘flash crashes’ not too dissimilar from the algorithms that run (and also crash) our financial markets (for more on these ramifications, watch this enlightening keynote by Aza Raskin, co-found of Center of Humane Technology, creators of ’The Social Dilemma’). Perhaps the greatest dystopian concern is the ever-increasing wealth gap, with most of the wealth increasingly accruing to the owners of said algorithms or technology platforms, leaving the masses in despair, and eventually, with the advent of AI, out of a traditional job.
As Kelly’s quote alludes, it’s hard to argue against the collision course between tech and the human experience. If we hope to reconcile, we must first embrace the inherent tension in innovation, even the most fundamental. Fire can cook food and burn villages. Language can yield Shakespeare and hate speech. Somewhere in between lies the container for truth, understanding, and peace of mind. This is the case for navigating our internal world (e.g. To know happiness, we must know sadness. To know pleasure, we must know pain. To know friendship or love, we must know loneliness). It’s also the case for navigating our external world (e.g. the third physical law of our universe, “for every action in the universe, there will be an equal and opposite reaction”). Two opposing forces creates equilibrium. Yin and yang. The Tsao’s middle path. You get it. I have a personal motto and reminder for all of this at it relates to the power/necessity of counterbalances. I call it ‘medium energy’.
In short, to ride the coming tidal wave of exponential technology, let’s embrace ‘medium energy’ and find the good in the tension of change. Through an optimistic lens, and with an open mind, I’m confident we can drive the Metaverse towards its ultimate potential; the maximization of prosperity for all of humanity by improving mental wellbeing, economic empowerment, and political freedom.
By mental wellbeing, I mean the discovery of inner satisfaction and sense of self. This paves the path for economic empowerment; the discovery of ones external purpose and the ability to create and earn for oneself (e.g. the creator economy and owning a piece of the internet). The final cornerstone is political/societal freedom; the ability to opt in to the ‘nation state’ (or community) of your choice, in contrast to being assigned an identity and ‘community/culture’ at birth (e.g. here’s a social security number, nationality, off you go!).
This essay focuses on the mental well being piece of this equation. I’ll dive into the economics and political side soon thereafter, pending the outcome of my battles with procrastination and the Instant Gratification Monkey (if you haven’t read this Tim Urban article… one of my favorites of all time. Read it immediately. After this one… of course :-)
“The search is what anyone would undertake if they were not sunk in the everydayness of their own lives. To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be on to something, and not to be on to something is to be in despair.”- Walker Percy
Before we can address tech’s external maladies, we must first battle the internal demons emerging at the individual level. We’ve all seen the stats and trends. Mental health is becoming one of the defining plagues of our time. Many people are walking around in a fog, gripped by existential angst and searching for hope within a tiny rectangle in their pocket. Perhaps the answer to all our problems will arrive in that next text, that next email, that next tweet. Perhaps we’ll wake up and discover riches within Coinbase or Robinhood (Doge to the moon?!). Something, anything that will reaffirm our progress, human connection, or importance. Our favorite apps are a real-time leader board of who (apparently) matters and who doesn’t, acting as lenses of perpetual competition and comparison. Indeed, ‘information technology’ offers hope and opportunity in so many forms. But for many, we’re overly stimulated, overly connected, and drowning in a deluge of (often unnecessary) information.
As a result, technology can cause a form of self-hypnosis; a trance of anxiety and depression, incessant mental loops powered by obsession with self, conceived of made up stories about our individual problems and abilities, or about our futures and perceived pasts. In this state of mind, we become ’sunk in the everydayness’ of our own lives, forgetting who we are, what we’re capable of, and what makes us truly happy. The only remedy is to ‘become aware of the possibility of the search’, aware of that kernel of light and possibility within. I think properly designed and curated immersive experiences in the Metaverse might be able to shine that light.
People think we are becoming slaves to technology, and that the Metaverse will seal our enslavement. While in some respects, yes, we have become enslaved. Losing our iPhone has become as debilitating as losing a limb. But we forget that we are also tech’s creator and its master. We’re the ones designing this technology and the user experiences that many shun. And design has more agency than we tend to give credit. Everything we design is designing us right back. This is the notion of ontological design, the idea that we’re constantly being intermediated and defined by everything around us. Each thing we designed designs us right back e.g. people feeling more confident in uniform, or a well designed work place facilitating a flow state.
The most powerful, and arguably the first technology we created was language. Similar to language, all technology is an invention of our minds. As it instantiates, a new mind emerges through these ontological feedback loops. If design designs, then we have an opportunity to design our own subjectivity, and in turn, better minds for ourselves. Marshall McLewin encapsulates this best by saying, “we build the tools, and the tools build us.” I can’t think of a better tool to design us right back than immersive experiences via AR/VR within the Metaverse. Particularly, ‘peak’ experiences that induce states of awe, understanding, and ultimately, transcendence. Experiences that are proving to combat melancholy and even the worst cases of depression and anxiety.
Depression and anxiety can have many sources. For some, it’s a chemical imbalance. For others, it’s the banality of day to day existence, lacking outlets to escape their (often destructive) habits and routines. For many, it’s disconnection from a sense of community and the transcendent, lacking that feeling of a higher purpose. For centuries, religion was the solution to this need for meaning and purpose. But we now live in a post-religious world (generally speaking… and largely in the West). So how can we fill our lives with the things that have benefited religious lives, such as community and connection to something… beyond. Something of higher power.
I think the key to mental resilience and joy are regular reminders of everything that exceeds us. Things that disintegrate the ego and remind us of the smallness of our everyday lives. Things that remind us we are specks of dust in the cosmos, made of the stars themselves. That we are, as Carl Sagan said, “a way for the cosmos to know itself”. We need daily doses of something similar to the famous ‘overview effect’ that astronauts express when viewing the earth from space. What if the Metaverse could be littered with ‘overview effects’? On-demand experiences that would allow us to feel a connection to the grandness of the universe and the miracle of our own consciousness?
Not to get too deep, dear reader, but sorry, we’re going there… What this might allow us to do is reshape our relationship with the fundamental reality at the basis of all these struggles. The reality of our own death, which Ernest Becker says in his magnum opus, ‘The Denial of Death’, is the ultimate driver of all our behavior, all our triumphs, and all of our ails. There is a podcast between modern day philosophers, Jason Silva and Alain de Botton, that perfectly frames this problem. Highly suggest a listen, it’s magical (link here). I’m going to do my best to summarize the key points.
What Botton discusses is that as a society, we don’t have our higher psychological needs sufficiently in view. What we need, according to Botton, are practices that allow us to ‘meet our own death with less horror’. Towards this end, he discusses how we can’t just put people on the edge of a proverbial cliff to face their mortality, and then say ‘okay, get on with it’. People need a roadmap towards the right experiences, with the right people, followed by proper integration. And currently, as a society, we’re not doing a great job of creating these paths. Our best forms of escape are Netflix, museums, and 5-star hotels. But if you walked in and said “I’m looking for a transcendental experience to reconnect with my soul and reconfigure my vision,” you’d likely be escorted out of the building. Same story if you walked into the Oxford psychology department. Botton goes on to say, “In many contexts, things that are imminently reasonable for human nourishment, and that found a place for thousands of years amidst organized religion, are now deemed close to insanity. We don’t have good places for dealing with mental health. And those that struggle with it are categorized as ‘ill’.
Places. That’s the key word. What if we created ‘virtual places’ of limitless imagination, completely unconstrained by the laws and limits of the physical world? Botton doesn’t touch on the Metaverse, but he does discuss the idea of ’stage designing ecstatic encounters’. However, he alludes to macro level challenge in pulling this off at scale, particularly, something of similar size, scale, and impact as the religions institutions of old. One of those challenges lies in finding and motivating the right people to pull it off. He talks about how on one hand, there are people who know how to organize a movement and deal with bureaucracy. These are the people who know how to build, organize large numbers of people, and raise large sums of money… But most of these people are in a particular camp, with a certain view of life. They are seeking the capitalists dream of making money and doing what’s best for the shareholder, less so creating systems of spiritual wellbeing. Then you have the other camp of people who dream and hold the nourishment of the soul at a premium. These people are driven by a different set of values; the artists, the filmmakers, the authors. They’re the ones with the vision and talent to design these ecstatic encounters. But most lack the ‘practical confidence’ and know how to mobilize such a movement, which is to “marry up the material, procedural, and bureaucratic side of life, with spiritual ambition.
I can hear you ‘burners’ now. ‘But what about Burning Man? This is exactly that!” Indeed! Burning Man certainly accomplishes this vision. Jason Silva says the same. I’ve never been, but those who go claim it’s the ultimate escape. It’s a type of fusion between entrepreneurship and art that Botton imagines. A place where traditional human constructs such as time, values, and culture are thrown to the wind, and modes of existence are reinvented from the ground up, with entrancing music, aesthetic visuals, elevating psychedelics (if you so choose), and human connection. An entirely new reality is created, but with no small effort. Ask anyone who’s been to Burning Man. As much as they praise it, they’ll also admit. It’s a lot of work. It’s also expensive. Very expensive, and only getting more so over time. Very few people can spend $5k — $15k+, take off 1.5 weeks, and get themselves to the desert. Especially many of those who need this most. Botton agrees, this is just the type of thing we need to reset the soul and ‘shake the snow globe’, and a potential blueprint for what is possible. But in all of the modern world, is this really the only event of this magnitude that society is capable of? What we need is 10,000 Burning Man’s! And not just for the well-to-do and tech elites, but something for the average Jane in middle America after a shitty day of work on a Tuesday. A ‘Burning Man’ on demand, if you will.
Flashes of this exist today with mindfulness apps such as Headspace, Calm, and Waking Up. The resurgence of clinical psychedelics is another positive development towards this end. Advancements in pharmacology and neurology are allowing us to harness psychedelics to provide mystical experiences on demand. Experiences that shake people out of their doldrums and heal previously untreatable cases of PTSD, OCD, depression, and anxiety. Even those with a terminal disease, facing imminent death, express a dissolving of their fear of death from these experiences. In this wake, a wave of ‘healers’ has arisen to democratize access to this medicine beyond clinical settings. These are new age ‘shamans’, practitioners of mindfulness and psychedelics such as psilocybin and ayahuasca. These are real world ‘Jedi’s’, banding together to organize retreats, typically along the West Coast or in South America. These retreats attract people from all backgrounds and with intentions of all types. Some are dealing with childhood trauma. Others, the death of a loved one, anxiety about a relationship, fear of a decision. Many go not to heal, but rather to grow, coming from a place of positivity and looking to foster a new idea or potentiality. Most all who attend claim these are most transformative and healing experiences of their lives.
Now these approaches might not be for everyone. But what if, with the click of a button, experiences with similar benefits could be remixed, and perhaps customized to your needs and preferences? What if, when that need arises, we could use AR/VR to easily jump in and out of completely immersive experience like Burning Man in the Metaverse? Virtual ‘places’ rich with human connection, mystical experiences, and ‘techno-Shamans’ to guide you along the way?
I know what you’re thinking. ‘Burning Man already tried this. They created this virtual version and it sucks. Completely virtual places will never be the same!’ I feel the same way, for now… We are in the supper early innings of immersive tech. You might be surprised how good it will be in 10–15 years. That aside, I don’t think the answer necessarily lies in completely virtual worlds. I think the ultimate approach consists of places and communities that blend the best of both the physical and the digital.
To help facilitate access to the ‘ecstatic’, Botton lays out his vision for creating a ‘network’ of communities. Communities that would allow you to more easily live your life in this way. A way that centers around the noetic and the transcendent. He laments about the options that exist today in our modern world, and the limited scope by which many live their life; a standard career, a family with 2.2 children in the suburbs, soirees with neighbors of happenstance. But this approach doesn’t work for many people who want to have their lives guided by certain values and be around a select network of friends. He asks the questions, ‘For these people, where do we go? How do we do this?’ As I’ll touch on this in a later essay about ‘virtual nation states’, but I think Botton would be surprised at the extent to which this is starting to happen digitally within the pre-Metaverse forming around crypto, DAOs, and virtual worlds.
I’m going to fully quote this last bit from Botton. As you’ll see, I think DAOs might be exactly the solution he is looking for. Think of DAOs as a new, internet native ‘firm’ for organizing communities and deploying resources (e.g. capital or talent). Their aim could be towards, well just about anything, such as a product, a cause, an investment. This is the LLC of the future, but without the top down hierarchy of a traditional company, with all decisions being made by a board and executives. Rather, governance in DAOs is bottoms up and decentralized, with voting and decision making powered by token ownership, and resource allocation controlled by code via smart contracts (vs. humans controlled ink on paper contracts).
From Botton, “What if we could hack ways into setting up big solutions to these problems. What if we brought the engines of capitalism, and the disciplines of bureaucracy and commerce to bear on these things. Perhaps a network of temples to replace the religious structures of old; places that we could go to look at the stars and get in touch with our own smallness. What if we could employ artists (like the ones who use to work in the service of religion), and harness their creative powers towards a bigger mission? We could go to the musicians, take their musical genius, and make it in the service of the transcendent to create something that’d rival Bach and Beethoven.”
While not quite as altruistic, we’re already seeing such places arising today around NFTs and DAO communities. The best examples Bored Ape Yacht Club (BAYC) and CabinDAO. These projects that started as purely online communities and are now developing a physical, real-world manifestation. If you don’t know, BAYC is a collection of NFTs, effectively JPEGs of… yep you guessed, it’s literally a bunch of bored apes.
The cheapest ape? Currently a casual 38 ETH (or $114,000 as of this writing). While initially just a mechanism for collecting, flexing, and social signaling, BAYC’s roadmap now includes real world events/festivals and physical ‘places’ that look and feel like a modern day country club. A pseudo SoHo house that only BAYC owners can access, minus the poshness (or not, considering the current value of one Bored Ape). CabinDAO is a bit more of the spirit of this piece. It’s effectively a residency program for artists and creators, funded and operated by a DAO. A place for likeminded individuals who initially meet online, often in ‘metaverse’ type venues, to come together, escape the mundane, and create. Pretty amazing.
AR/VR, Crypto, DAOs, Psychedelics… my how the mind wonders with possibilities? As I write all of this though, I have to pause, step back, and ask myself… Do I sound crazy? Am I reading too many science fiction novels? But then I look around and see seeds of non-fiction all around. I see ProsperDAO starting to form, dedicated towards maximizing prosperity for all of humanity, organizing in-person retreats and aiming to fund creators, practitioners, and activities that can heal. An NFT artist in Australia is combining digital art with music to simulate psychedelic experience. She’s even creating a VR version to really simulate the exact trip that she claims transformed her life. What if instead of profile pic NFTs, ownership of these type of NFTs granted you access to ProsperDAO type places and events? Then you have companies like Neurosity using head-worn devices to induce flow states. Heck, we even have companies like Tripp using VR to recreate psychedelic euphoria, and practitioners exploring the combo of VR with actual psychedelics themselves… Talk about really shaking the proverbial snow globe.
I don’t know how this all comes together quite yet. Who knows if it even really happens. But what I can say for certain, the seeds are being planted. Now we just need the leaders and visionaries to sow this garden and bring it all to life. Perhaps that person is you. Perhaps it’s all of us, chipping in when we can via a DAO. Either way, I’m sure as hell excited to find out. I hope you are too.