Madame Bovary meets the metaverse

Madame Bovary meets the metaverse

In Gustave Flaubert’s famous novel, Madame Bovary, the heroine loses all grip on reality through the excessive reading of cheap romance novels. One wonders if Mark Zuckerberg may have the book, even if it does not appear on the reading list he shares with his ever-smaller group of fans. What is clear is that Zuckerberg seems to be prescribing us a heavy dose of bovarysme with his reach for the metaverse.

Madame Bovary takes arsenic when reality catches up with her, and she dies an agonising death. Surely, this is not what Facebook wants for us, yet a Meta metaverse will, in effect, turn many into Madame Bovarys on steroids. In quite a few possible scenarios of the future they may never have to face reality again. But the metaverse can, of course, offer an agonising virtual death should that be the desire, and, in another one-upmanship on Flaubert, such a death can be followed by glorious virtual rebirth. What is there not to like? That is, of course, the rub.

Albert Fourié, La Mort de Madame Bovary (Credit: Lisa Lc, Creative Commons — CC BY-SA 4.0)

Already ten years ago Minecraft showed us how addictive virtual worlds can be. The metaverse will be sophistication beyond belief in comparison. It will be able to suck you in because it offers attractions in so many ways, including, of course, virtual, unencumbered, zipless sex, air travel without security checks, food without calories! The explosion of Netflix during the pandemic makes it clear that many would have been overjoyed with overcoming restrictions and risk by withdrawing to the virtual world of the metaverse.

In science, one fantastic solution to a number of dilemmas of quantum mechanics has been the idea that every time several solutions exist each one continues as a reality in a separate universe. In one universe Schroedinger’s cat continues living, in another it is dead. That is not just the metaverse but the multiverse. It is not for nothing called the many worlds theory, because if it is correct (and few serious physicists discount the possibility entirely) then we have an almost infinite number of universes out there.

Even Facebook will not give us an infinite number of virtual universes, of course, yet we are certainly moving towards many worlds — although they will all be virtual. Each of us may inhabit our own digital universe, made just for us, to our specification and embodying all our wishes and none of our fears — unless you like fear, that is. Billions of virtual, parallel universes, courtesy of Meta!

You may ask whether this is so bad in the final analysis. After all, what we will experience in our own virtual universes might become really close to what we experience in our current reality. And isn’t imagination the highest achievement of humankind — and this just a further add-on? If robots and AI will take care of all human needs in the future is virtual life not the next logical step?

God, let us hope not! Despite all the fake news and alternative realities peddled by the Trumpists, many of us remain wedded to reality, sorry, to real reality. It may sound corny to talk about the human soul but I, for one, am not convinced that I will be a real human being if I do not embrace actual reality as the core of my existence.

But Zuckerberg and Madame Bovary have thrown down the gauntlet. Zuckerberg teases us with the social ease, the attraction of meeting the avatars of our actual distant friends, relatives and colleagues at a click of a button. However, when that blurring of reality starts there is but a short distance to the fictional taking over entirely; social media turning anti-social.

It is true to say that much of our reality is already mediated: we talk on the phone, we do videoconferences, we look lovingly at photos or a sweet letter. And it makes emotional sense because we can correlate with an underlying reality. When we fight Zuckerberg and the compulsive quality of the metaverse, as we should, we must do so because we want to make sure that reality is always our starting point and our final destination. What is proposed is not all bad, just as the romance novels of Madame Bovary were not all bad. The risk to humankind is in the excess and this we must resist as individuals and as a human community. If not, real arsenic might start to look as appealing to us as it eventually did to Madame Bovary!

(This post is inspired by the essay Virtual Life in Marco Aliberti’s and my upcoming book, The Optional Society. It comes out on 19 Nov on Ex Tuto (https://lnkd.in/dAxW2J-k))

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