In an earlier story, I wrote about ‘digital reality’. Up to recently, I always felt that digital or virtual reality, the metaverse, would be a very poor addition to, let alone, replacement of the other forms of reality, especially personal reality.
Up to recently.
Because recently, I read about professor David Chalmers of NYU. He has a quite radical view on life in the metaverse. In March 2022, he published a book Reality+. He argues that “virtual worlds are not second-class worlds, and that we can live a meaningful life in virtual reality”. Wow! Sounds like The Matrix, right?
Also, Chalmers links the virtual reality theme to a number of fundamental philosophical questions.
It made me think.
Today’s virtual reality is clumsy. Current VR glasses, goggles and headsets are too heavy, unpractical, you just don’t want to use them. Yet, as always in technology, it starts clumsy, then big companies begin to invest, and when the market is ready it … suddenly is here.
Eg. many people think the iPhone ‘suddenly happened’ as a stroke of genius by Steve Jobs. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, there have been many predecessors, such as the Nokia Communicator, the HP IPAQ, the Palm Z22 and others. Jobs’ stroke of genius was that he launched the more user-friendly iPhone 3G at the right time (fast enough 3G wireless internet available) bringing a number of features (phone, music, internet) together in one device. It took at least 15 years between the launch of the first predecessors and the actual iPhone 3G launch in 2008. (Remember, the 2007 iPhone 2G was more or less a failure and rapidly replaced by the much better iPhone 3G.)
The same will happen with virtual reality and the metaverse. At first – which is now – it will be clumsy. Today, we have these stupid Oculus and many other VR goggles, we have Second Life, SimCity, Overwatch and so many other ‘partial metaverses’, we have NFT’s just launched. And, it may take another 15 years or so before we will see the ‘iPhone 3G equivalent’ of the metaverse, bringing a useful set of currently separate features together. (And probably, it will not be owned by Meta (Facebook), but by a company that does not yet exist today.)
In other words, technology will not be the reason why it would not come to fruition. Savvy techies will find ways to replace the current clumsy VR goggles. So-called BMI’s, Brain-Machine-Interfaces are a good candidate. Yes, implanting chips in your brain, that connect your brain seamlessly to the virtual world. (Which will be a predecessor or early variant of our ‘new brain’, that I wrote about earlier.)
So, the real barrier for breakthrough of virtual reality in the metaverse is user adoption. And business practice learns that it takes three conditions to be fulfilled:
- Value – There must be a tangible value for the users to start using it: what pain is relieved, what gain is created
- Ease – It must be easy to access and use the metaverse, sort of natural, eg. as a next step of your BMI connected smartphone
- Herd – For mass-adoption there must be a group of peers who also use it, usually resulting from early adopter groups
I have no doubt, that in the course of the next 15 years, these conditions will be met.
So, in time, it will happen.
But what I find more interesting are the philosophical questions about the virtual reality. Is virtual reality a ‘real’ reality? How does it relate to (as defined in an earlier story) universal, scientific, group and personal realities? Can we be sure that what we now call reality isn’t a virtual reality already (like in The Matrix)? Can you have a good life in virtual reality? And of course, the one million dollar question:
Can virtual reality one day fully replace ‘real’ reality? Will ‘we’ move to the virtual reality? And what would that mean for ‘us’, for consciousness? What is ‘us’ then?
Can we start living in virtual reality? Will it be a gradual process or a big bang zero-to-one step? Is the virtual reality the answer to Fermi’s paradox: have more intelligent living beings in the universe already made the move towards the virtual world? Is that why we never get any sign of (intelligent) life from outer space? Because the intelligent species all live in the virtual reality. And will we organize things in the virtual reality in such a way, that we will live in a state of permanent orgasm?
Or, as Mark Rijmenam, author of the book “Step Into The Metaverse” and metaverse evangelist, recently put it: “In the metaverse you can be who you want to be, create what you want, where you want, for whom you want, and how you want.”
I don’t know. I have not even a clue.
One fundamental problem that first will need to be solved is the following. Today, the virtual reality – eg. the world of Overwatch – is placed as bits and bytes on a server in the cloud. If someone switches off the server, the virtual reality of eg. Overwatch is dead. And if the server and data disk are deleted, scrapped, Overwatch does not exist anymore. The point being: the virtual reality really is a physical reality (ones of 5V and zero’s of 0V in a piece of silicon), that is observed by us, humans, through our eyes and ears, mainly, and transformed by our brain into a fantasy world that may seem very real.
In other words, the virtual reality is not a reality in itself, it does not have an independent basis of existence. So, it is fundamentally different from the universal reality. Just like the scientific, group and personal realities it is a reality in our brain, in our fantasy, in our thoughts. And the difference between esp. scientific, group and personal realities is, that those three are direct reflections from universal reality. Virtual reality isn’t. Virtual reality is a projection from zeros and ones on a piece of silicon on a server and data disk in the cloud, that are a reflection from universal reality.
In other words, for virtual reality to have an independent right to exist, or an independent existence, it will have to be moved away from the silicon zeros and ones and moved to … yes … to what?
Well, face the brutal facts. That is not going to happen. So, virtual reality will always be superposed on a physical silicon layer. Then, what is the virtual reality that we experience? That is a pattern of brain cells and connections created by the imagery, video and sounds that we experience while observing the virtual reality. In this sense, virtual reality is noting more than personal and group reality resulting from visual and auditive observations and experiences in virtual reality.
The other point is about consciousness. This is much more a neuroscientific issue. The fundamental question here is whether consciousness can exist without brain cells and connections. Is there a ‘self’ without a brain? Does the self survive when our body dies and sort of fly around in … a metaphysical (virtual?) world? That is an age old philosophical question. (Some people, though, do think it will be possible to “download our mind into a new body or even into a computer or the cloud“.)
So, to conclude, will the metaverse bring a new reality, the virtual reality? Yes. Is this virtual reality really a new reality? No. It is merely an addition to our personal and group realities, mostly, burnt into our brain, when experienced long and intensively enough. Actually, it is the same dynamic as experiencing a piece of art, beit visual art or music, that you may observe frequently, but never will really own and have physically with you to touch and hold.
Can the virtual reality become dominant in our life and thinking? Can we believe it is ‘true’? Yes, just like wishful thinking can, just like psychiatric diseases such as schizophrenia can, just like advertising campaigns can, just like political propaganda can, just like group think can, just like … etc. Our reality, most likely nothing to do with universal reality.
So, is David Chalmers right when he says that we can live a meaningful life in virtual reality? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense of personal reality: as long as you are truly convinced that it is true, it is your personal reality; just like some Republicans in the USA ‘know’ that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. No, in the sense that, once someone pulls the plug from the server and data disk in the cloud that carries the zeros and ones that constitute your virtual dream girl life companion, she will definitively and absolutely be gone … and never, ever come back, except in your dreams — just like your deceased father or mother.