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Ghosts in the Metaverse
Will digital spaces like the Metaverse make ghosts of us?
By Chandler Ryd
On November 1, 2021, I walked out of my home office to find my wife curled on the couch with the kind of look that husbands secretly dread: something has upset my wife, and I have no idea what it is.
What could it be? Bad news from her sister? A personal failure? That one song that always makes her cry?
“The metaverse,” she said.
I know the date so specifically because it was the Monday after Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook would rebrand itself to “Meta” in anticipation of the next frontier of the internet—nay, of human experience—The Metaverse. It’s kind of a dumb name, to be frank. But it has some etymological integrity—the prefix “meta” meaning “comprehensive” and “transcending,” as in metaphysics or metaphor. In January 2021, “metaphysics” was a more popular Google search than “metaverse.” After October 28th, Google searches for “meta” increased more than sixfold; for “metaverse,” about twentyfold. Unfortunately, searches for “metaphysics” remain stagnant, and mostly are Philosophy 101 students looking for deals on The Basic Works of Aristotle.
In a video titled “The Metaverse and How We’ll Build It Together,” Mark Zuckerberg spends about an hour and fifteen minutes prognosticating that Meta (the company) will become the lynchpin of the internet, connecting people across the world through virtual reality environments and avatars. Zuckerberg shows off many aspects of Meta: virtual concerts with your favorite musicians, playing basketball through VR with a friend across the country, training to become a surgeon by practicing on a virtual patient. But the section of the video that stood out to me the most was the section about work. The video shows a man pour coffee out of a French press, walk from his kitchen to his home office, sit down at a regular-looking desk and don regular-looking glasses (not the bulky Oculus VR headsets that most people have never used outside of Best Buy demos), and suddenly a virtual office is transposed upon his physical office; with a flick of his finger, he plays an album to set the mood, then a virtual avatar of his coworker walks past his desk, and he lifts his mug in greeting. Moments later, he’s on a call with another coworker, reviewing a 3D architectural rendering of a building like Tony Stark in Iron Man, the coworker with a blue glow around her like the hologram of Princess Leia in Star Wars. The science-fiction comparisons are fitting. Even Meta acknowledges such: all of this is preceded by a warning in small print at the bottom of the screen at the start of the video: “The following presentation includes forward-looking statements about our future business plans and expectations. Actual results may differ materially than those expressed…”
When I asked my wife to elaborate why Zuckerberg’s announcement was so distressing, she said that it sounded like something out of Minority Report or Blade Runner. Like disturbing visions of pop-culture futurists were in fact prophecies and not just hypotheticals, that in the future the virtual world will become more important than the physical, embodied world of dirt, kitchens, baby snuggles, and coffee.
And to my regret, I struggled to relate to her concern. Here my wife was, feeling the weight of a confusing world, and the best I could do was tilt my head and say “Ummmm….”
My relationship with technology is complicated, because, as I alluded at the beginning of this essay, I work from home. I work as a freelance video director and editor, and for forty to fifty hours a week, I am editing videos and talking to clients on Zoom. Filmmaking is both my livelihood and my personal ambition, and I’m glad I can do it while being close to my family. I can work with clients in New York while living in the rural Midwest. I frequently pour myself a cup of coffee in my kitchen and walk into my home office, sit down at my desk, turn on a playlist, and start working. Would it be so bad if my calls took place in a VR conference room instead of on Zoom? Would it be so bad if I wore special glasses instead of looking at a monitor? Would it be so bad if my physical office was a conduit to a virtual office? Would it be so bad if everything I did was tracked and quantified and sold to advertisers? Oh, wait…
My home office is attached to our dining room. Most of the main floor of our house, which was built in 1880, has hardwood flooring that I think is original to the house. My office has much rougher wood, likely pine. I recently learned that in older houses, builders would use cheaper wood to floor the rooms that guests wouldn’t see, like kitchens. Was my office a kitchen a hundred and forty years ago? This question paved the way for more: What did the house look like then? Was our kitchen an addition at some point? If so, who added it, and when? How many generations have been born, lived, and died in our house?
There are other questions that come with an old house, too. Why does the basement keep flooding? Who took that trim off that corner? What is that weird thumping noise? How did that bat get into the ceiling above my office? Why is there a dead deer in my driveway? And what the heck is that thumping noise?
My wife and I love old houses, so we absolutely, 100% brought these questions upon ourselves. But still—how many movies are there where a family moves into an old house, starts hearing strange noises, and before you know it, some demon in a nun costume starts spewing fluids? I haven’t yet seen any demons, and I’m not superstitious in the modern sense of the word (though I do believe in angels and demons and the Holy Spirit), but I’ve been pondering ghosts of the metaphorical variety: the memories of life, death, joy and pain that have been left behind in our house but belong to someone else.
In 2017, I saw a movie called A Ghost Story that blew my mind. And as I think of it now, the film reminds me of one likely problem with the metaverse. In the film, Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara play a couple living in an old house in Texas. Early on, we hear them arguing: she wants to move somewhere else, into a newer apartment in a bigger city, but he just wants to stay. “What is it you like about this house so much?” she asks him. “History,” he replies.
A few days after their conversation, the husband dies in a car accident. But as the film’s title suggests, death is not the end for his character. The husband returns to the house as a ghost—represented on screen simply as a man covered in a white sheet. Most ghost stories are horror stories, but this one is metaphysical; the ghost remains in the house as his wife grieves and eventually moves out, remains when other families move in, remains even after the house is demolished and replaced by a high rise. For reasons revealed later in the film, the ghost can’t—or won’t—leave this place. But he also can’t really be in the place either: to the inhabitants of the house, he is invisible. He has little control over what happens to it. In a word, the ghost is cursed with disembodiment.
I wonder if stepping into a metaverse home office would be like voluntarily accepting that curse. If I enter, I will be stepping into a virtual environment that only exists in ones and zeros, was designed by software developers I will never meet, and can only be changed in ways that the developers and Meta executives have pre-approved. Like the ghost observing his house over the generations, if I walk into the metaverse, I am more of a passive observer of a place than a person living and being in it. A room will only be a backdrop, like the screensaver on my phone. Developers will change it frequently through software updates, so that it always looks new. Advertisements will creep in. We’ve seen this already; it’s how digital technology works. The crucial difference is that the ghost is tied to a physical location because of some deep, instinctual attachment. Do you develop the same memories, affections, and comfort from your computer’s operating system?
According to D Magazine (the D is for Dallas), in an article called “How David Lowery’s Fondness for the M Streets Turned Into A Ghost Story,” Lowery (the director) went through a similar conflict with his wife as the one couple does in the film. His wife wanted to move to Los Angeles after Lowery started making more money from his films; Lowery wanted to stay in their old house in Texas.
“It was a literal transcription of a fight that my wife and I had about where we were going to live,” Lowery said about the scene. “I didn’t want to move, and I was really upset that we were leaving it behind. A lot of the emotions that went into the film were based on my unwillingness to leave Texas.”
The film is about many things—the way grief distorts time, the futility of our desire to be remembered, the danger of clinging to the past—but the image that sticks in my mind as I sit in my office is of the ghost watching other people move into the house he thought was his own.
Our house, which we have owned for less than a year, will likely outlive me. It has outlived many of its previous owners. Though our names are on the deed, the house belongs to the dead, who lived whole lives within these walls, lives that we will never know. This side of heaven, places are more permanent than people.
Which brings me back to the metaverse. The virtual home offices that Mark Zuckerberg shows us have no history. In my house, if I folded a note and stuck it in a crack in my wall, someone a hundred years from now could find it. Evidence of previous owners is in every plastered-over crack and every fleck of paint on the baseboard. Details whisper their history. But in the metaverse, which is only a visual expression of code, the office ceases to exist when I am not in it. There will be millions of nearly identical home offices that will cease to exist when their users die or try something different, or when the developers release a new update. It’s not that virtual things have no stories. There are stories behind every profile picture, every customized avatar, every icon or button, because stories are the byproduct of any human action, like footprints in snow. The difference is that those stories are largely inaccessible to the user; I don’t know why the program was designed the way it was, I just have to use it. And further, virtual actions don’t leave the same impressions on a place—I can’t actually change the program in the same way that I can permanently change my house. And accordingly, a virtual place doesn’t really create the same attachment to memories. This is speculative, of course, but I doubt very much that anyone would be sad to leave a virtual living room in the same way that it is often heart-wrenching to leave a house you’ve lived in your whole life.
Milton’s Satan says upon reaching hell, “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.” Replace “the mind” with “the metaverse” and I think you get a picture of why my wife was so distressed by the metaverse announcement. It’s no coincidence that Satan is also the character that Milton most frequently depicts by himself. The more he tries to make his own reality, the further he gets from God. Getting lost in a world of our own making makes us more lonely. We already know this is true of social media, even though Zuckerberg himself continues to insist it’s all about “bringing the world closer together”—this, according to his own posts on Facebook. It’s ironic that he refers to the metaverse as an “embodied internet” when in fact it will be the opposite—just a convincing illusion.
My point is simple and obvious: physical spaces are better than digital spaces. Digital spaces are useful, but hollow. Physical spaces carry the past with them. The metaverse will bring with it a host of moral quandaries, and this is a relatively small one (if a woman is groped in the metaverse, does it still count?). But it’s a daily quandary that will compound and affect our lives in ways perhaps more significant than the smartphone, and therefore deserves our attention.
If, after reading this, you think one or both of us are romantic curmudgeons waxing poetic about the past, remember that I happily earn my livelihood by sitting at a desk, talking to clients on Zoom, and manipulating pixels by pushing buttons. I recognize that the virtual world we all live in today has brought many good things, and it is the reason I can live in the country while working a big city job. But such changes always come with costs and hard questions. The problem of the metaverse is the same problem of Christopher Nolan’s Inception: Is it worth living in a world that you know is fake? Is it worth the convenience of smoother work calls? Maybe, but it’s certainly not the same as the real thing—and we should be aware of the diference. Because in the metaverse, a place will not outlive me. In fact, it’s not even a place.
Chandler Ryd is a writer, filmmaker, and teacher living in rural Michigan with his wife and son.