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))

Richer than the law permits?

Inspired by my upcoming book, The Optional Society, with Marco Aliberti (Ex Tuto):

 

‘You can never be too rich or too thin’ was the statement of the late Duchess of Windsor. Both assumptions are wrong. The latter is disproven by anorexia, the first by Amazon and brethren.

Let us stay on ‘too rich’. The value of Amazon has almost doubled over the 15 months of the corona crisis. It currently stands at 1.6 trillion dollars and will not shrink hereafter! The activities of Amazon not only deepen – they broaden. This is a natural consequence of economic theory. The abundance of capital must be allocated and there are only two choices: to give back to shareholders or to deploy to new activities. Giving back to the owners is pusillanimous and hence the quest for new fields of business activity is mostly preferred. Where banks use other people’s money for other people’s activities, mega-firms use their own money for their own activities. Their incredible wealth means that there is almost no entry threshold for these firms to enter new fields. Their acumen in managing a new type of activity must not pass the crucible of third party capital allocation like start-ups. Mega-firms become planned economy instruments, albeit not of the communist type. Managers need not consider the general good of society. This may be conducive for efficiency but is a far cry from Adam Smith and liberal economics.

The general good is in this model supposed to be taken care of by the political decision makers, and by and large they have so far had the tools, but not always the ability, to exercise the function. But imagine Amazon at three times its current size. It will have branched into currency, health care, security, education, and deeper into news and entertainment. It will have reached such compact power that no state will have the de facto ability to rein it in. But not only that. Companies like Amazon will increasingly replace the state by providing most of what the state currently offers or ensures: retirement benefits (as a financial institution and as large-scale employer), policing, health care and hospitals, funding of new medicines, going to the Moon, you name it! All the while, the human factor in economic activity will become more and more irrelevant because of automation and AI. Wealth will therefore inevitably amass with the owners of the means of production.

What we are experiencing, and will so even more in the future, is that authority  increasingly moves from the state to private actors like Amazon. The state will become ever more emasculated and will ultimately not be able to fulfil its role of ensuring fairness and solidarity in society.

In order to avoid such an outcome in the incredibly wealthy world we are moving towards, we have to ask ourselves the impossible question: should it become illegal to become too rich? Should a company with a market value of a trillion dollars or more be deprived of the option to further expand – and hence be forced to return excess capital to shareholders, who would then have to find other vehicles for investment?

There is an antitrust logic in this, although such a proposal goes far further than just regulating monopolistic activity. Capital itself becomes the regulated object.

If we do not start to entertain this question we will, knowingly, have sacrificed the state and its benefits on the altar of an Adam Smith who, being a moralist as well as an economist, would never have imagined that his liberal economics could be taken to advocate such an illiberal result.

But in the interest of full disclosure it should also be said that where this regulatory screw ends is with the question whether personal wealth should have a limit also. When Jeff Bezos becomes a trillionaire must he be forced to give back to the society that enabled him all the further wealth beyond that measly first trillion?

The Wounds That We Carry

Life is a bruiser; exacts its price for living.

The young girl falls and hurts her knee,

gets up in tears, yet floats away on lightest feet – all pain so readily forgotten.

Forgetfulness of hurt gets harder as we age; petrification of the self sneaks up on us unnoticed.

The broken heart, the friendship lost, ambition unfulfilled, stay with us as mementos vitae.

Poor Nietzsche had a lot to say on pain and personality:

what does not break you makes you stronger; full natures will recuperate and brush aside.

This may be so, although the issue is, in truth, what strength should serve?

Eliminating pain is not the only aim and worship of the frightful scars should not be entertained.

Becoming strong enough to not be strong, to that we must aspire!

To smell the rain worm’s summer paradise you need the nose’s softest flesh!

Unclenching the Handshake in Space

Human exploration of outer space is currently being upended in a fashion unheard of during the last more than forty years. Russia’s declaration a few weeks ago that it will leave the International Space Station in 2025 and the successful launch of the core module of a new Chinese space station (Tianhe, Harmony of the Heavens) a week later are gauntlets thrown at the feet of NASA and the West. As space activities are a bellwether of international relations in general there is reason to worry what these developments mean in the long run and for peaceful relations on Earth. As if to underscore the putative challenge, China this week became the second nation to successfully land a rover on Mars. 

The close link between what happens in outer space and what happens on Earth is well documented. The iconic meeting of an Apollo and a Soyuz capsule 200 kilometers above Earth in 1975 allowed cosmonaut Alexei Leonov and astronaut Thomas Stafford to make the handshake that demonstrated in a most powerful way that terrestrial détente was a reality.

Ever since, human spaceflight has, with ups and downs, been a domain for cooperation between the US and Russia/the Soviet Union. It signalled that, although there was frequent tension on Earth, cooperation between the two was still possible in the right circumstances.

The pinnacle of cooperation in outer space has for more than 20 years been the International Space Station (ISS), which joins together not only the US and Russia, but also the European Space Agency with its 22 member states, Japan and Canada. The ISS is admittedly becoming long in the tooth and very expensive to operate, but has been kept alive not only because no replacement was forthcoming, but also because of its strong international symbolism.

The decision of Russia to abandon its part of the ISS in 2025 and its intention to build its own national space station are momentous news, demonstrating not only how strained relations between the US and Russia have become, but also the evergreen adage that my enemy’s enemy is my friend. This is so, because China is waiting in the wings as an attractive partner for Russia.

The US and Russia are the traditional superpowers in outer space, of course, but have been joined by a China that has a wildly ambitious and highly successful space programme of it own. Thus China wants to put humans back on the Moon, allegedly in the first half of the 2030ies. 

The Chinese leadership clearly sees successful space exploration as important not only for its standing vis-á-vis the Chinese people, but for pressing its claims for a seat at the top table of the international system.

In pursuit of international recognition, for a long time China wanted to cooperate with the five partners of the ISS on space stations, only to have the door slammed in its face time after time, mainly by the US. In the end, China gave up on pursuing such cooperation. and hence China is now well on its way to create a space station of its own, and will likely succeed within the next couple years, and long before Russia. The launch of Tianhe provides China with the centrepiece around which its station will be built.

The plans of the West, promulgated by NASA, are to create a new space station orbiting not the Earth but the Moon. This station is an integral part of NASA’s project for reconquering the Moon. The highly tenuous schedule is for a launch of ‘Gateway’ in 2024. China is, as always, not part of the endeavour, and Russia declined last year.

All this sets the scene for a new space race! Russia and China are not natural friends but are forced into the arms of each other by the ‘my enemy’s enemy’ logic. Russia and China have already signed a Memorandum of Understanding to cooperate on a future lunar base, and given the recent Russian history of being unable to fund grand space ambitions it would hardly be surprising if also space stations would become part of the equation.

In other words, a tragedy is taking form. As a stripped-down illustration of how international relations work, human exploration of outer space shows that fronts are hardening even in an area that withstood the tragic shadow-boxing in Syria and the confrontations in Crimea and Ukraine. What outer space as a bellwether makes clear is that our world is fragmenting – differently than in the past that is true – yet perhaps as fundamentally as during the Cold War. Sadly, there is no assurance that the war will remain cold this time around. Hence, we must demand true statesmanship of our leaders. One first step in that direction would be for them to figure out a way to reintroduce broad-based cooperation in the exploration of outer space. That must include China! Going to the Moon again, and from there to Mars, should be humanity’s challenge, not that of competing states.

In September 1963, President Kennedy suggested in a remarkable and daring speech to the UN General Assembly that the race to the Moon be turned into a joint effort of humankind. Two months later he was killed and with him, so it seemed, his dream. Yet, Apollo and Soyuz and thereafter the ISS ultimately made Kennedy’s vision come true. It is in the strong interest of us all to make sure that this vision is kept alive even now so that hands can continue to be shaken in outer space!

Poverty and Choice

Self-interest and altruism lead to same results more often than we assume. Because we have not internalised this basic truth we frequently go wrong. Exhibit A in this respect is the Trump administration with its religion of America First. Did that bring America happiness? I think not. 

Fortunately, we are now in a new era. Yet, we continue making the mistake. The competition for vaccines between countries is Exhibit B. Not only are we getting suboptimal results when we compete in the way we do in the rich world, but by leaving the developing world high and dry we are not only inhuman but also undercutting our own efforts. Leaving India and Africa as labs for the corona virus to establish new variants that can defeat our warp speed vaccines is hardly a great idea even if looked at purely from the egoistic perspective.

What we are doing in this situation, as in so many others, is that we are leveraging our wealth of options against the dearth of options of the developing world. The downside of having few options is that you have few possibilities to improve your lot. But a downside of having many options is that that you have a good chance of exercising them wrongly. Given a choice, you would certainly always go with having many options despite the exposure to own stupidity in exercising them. Nevertheless, what is poorly understood is that to achieve best results and most happiness there should be a reasonable balance of options access, be it within a country or between countries. Imbalance is not only a source of tension, but undermines the power of the options of the privileged. There is no point in being able to buy a Bentley if not enough people have the option of buying cars so that proper roads can be built.

Very often the rich and the poor do not compete for the same resources, of course. The poor are nevertheless left in dire straits because of our ignorance, arrogance, neglect. They are left destitute because the rich do not understand that it is in their interest to lift the poor out poverty. It is a wry old Marxist insight that the bourgeoisie is better off with a robust underclass that can produce and consume. Although the recent wealth of the West can be ascribed largely to the empowerment of the lower middle class, the working class, we are racing headlong for disaster because we have again forgotten this truth. The current gaping inequality is testament to our forgetfulness.

Ethical behaviour should be an imperative, but it is shocking that we also ignore a most fundamental win-win. With the number of options increasing exponentially in virtually every domain of human endeavour we risk creating a much larger and more desperate proletariat if we do not make sure that everybody has both the means and the capability to exploit all that choice. 

The idea of a universal basic income has a lot of wind in its sails – hot on the heels of the first inadvertent experiments in this direction in the United States, where coronavirus stimulus cheques were sent to a very broad swath of the population. Universal basic income may not be the only way to ensure that all have the means to benefit from the options revolution, but it is certainly one way, particularly if we are able to achieve such universal basic income on a truly universal scale, that is, in all countries. When the objection comes up in response that this is unaffordable the bourgeoisie should remember the usefulness for capitalism of the above Marxist insight.

As to the capability to benefit from the mass of options, the only way forward is, of course, much better education, both within the rich world and without. Elites have been very complacent in this regard for half a century. They assumed that the education task was achieved with the right to go to school. However, the next step should have been to introduce a process of continuing improvement of the quality of teaching. The rich have, of course, achieved this for themselves but have left the poor to sink. The desolate state of many underprivileged schools has been an important driver of inequality, and will continue being so unless something is done. That ‘something’ should include the revival to former glory of the social status of teachers in the rich world. Accordingly, the starvation wages paid to the teachers of our children at their most impressionable age must become a thing of the past. The professors of Stanford should perhaps be paid less, the teachers in poor East Palo Alto certainly more. 

In the developing world the remedies in this respect are more complicated, yet the optional society has shown how new tools are invented when compelling educational needs so dictate. Zoom teaching is now commonplace in the West because of corona.  If we would understand the needs of developing countries as being equally compelling, the world could, without being patronising, put the same creative mechanisms to use in order to meet their requirements.  Think about the potential of digital avatars as teaching buddies to help overcome teacher shortages.  The result of such efforts would be that we would turn the deprived into effective participants in society. That is not only right but also our self-interest!

Solitude

‘This is a lonely time’ is a statement that rolls off the tongue easily at the Christmas of a corona-ravaged year.

We reach out by Zoom and see loved ones, yet we are more alone than we ever were since humankind’s early days. Not even village life or the office offer proximity. The plague, arguably, and cataclysmic wars did not bring physical distance in the way we experience it now. War encompassed the gravest horrors, camps, trenches, yet alone was not the problem.

What we forget at our peril is the difference between solitude and loneliness. You can be abjectly lonely in a crowd, and you can be alone and feel companionship. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote movingly about a nearness to his fiancee and his loved ones although he was waiting for death alone in his cell during Nazism.

There is no denying that the face-to-face with the Other is essential for understanding the Other, and that most of our personal treasures are those that we have laughed about, cried about, lived through, together with other human beings. And evidently there is currently a hiatus on much of this joint experiencing. Yet, that does not mean that loneliness must be the result!

Now is a time for appreciating those already collected treasures of life with others; for feeling the nearness of the spirit of togetherness that is imprinted in our hearts. Ibsen said: eternally owned is but what’s lost. That sounds depressing but is not. We own forever that which has happened in our lives, and Kierkegaard was wrong when he suggested that the past is of no relevance. Our past is also our present and the nearness to others that you can and should feel even when they are not present is made possible by a shared past. So let this Yuletide be the time when you are near your loved ones, not only by technical means, but because your mind and feeling let you travel to them with an intensity that only heart can bring!

Island Self

With horizons closing in on us

we will return to village living –

the siren song of solitude will cast its spell from there.

The inner exile may repulse at first

but offers comfort and conceit to those of introvert persuasion. 

:

And, in the end, a virtual world, a world without the Other, will let you be the centre of your self-created universe,

a firmament beholden just to you.

Yet, an accomplished life is surely one where solipsism does not rule,

in which you feel that you are truly just an island in the stream,

in which you understand, with heart and mind, that the bell that tolls does so not just for you!

The Other

When tragedy is big enough

the numbers numb.

A million dead cannot be mourned

– in singularity   –

My God! there were so many.

 

‘It is what it is’ makes no allowance

for reflection or regret;

it adds indignity to ignorance,

and gives the lie to a most basic truth:

that other lives have value – same as yours!

 

Such statement from the one who took a sacred oath

is wrapped in our failure

to pierce the veil of the preposterous;

gains credibility because we see one tear, but not the many.

So our heads, with all their calculation, must tell us that a million deaths are each a tragedy,

and that the anger and demands must capture that which our hearts can never hold – the suffering of multitudes, each Other being one like us.

Star Wars Are Coming to a Theatre Not Near You!

Another piece on the weaponisation of outer space:

Fantasy films often stay fantasy. Not so with the Star War series. For a long time, military men and military-orientated politicians have striven to let reality catch up with imagination. Conflicts on Earth should also play out in space is the thinking.

 It started in earnest with Ronald Reagan and his ultimately aborted Star Defence Initiative, and was revived by President Trump with all his talk of outer space as just another war fighting domain and his subsequent creation of a Space Force as a separate arm of the US armed forces. Recently, Russia entered the game in a most serious fashion when it tested a space-to-space weapon, that is, a weapon placed in space and targeting satellites. These days we hear a lot about the race to Mars, but the emerging arms race in outer space is of far greater import.

 It is, in fact, hard to overstate the significance of Russia’s move. There will be no stopping Trump trying to trump Russia, and China will then follow. Unless something is done, space will soon be brimming with weapons, and ultimately war in outer space will become inevitable. Because war in space will create masses of debris, moving at a speed of up to 18,000 miles an hour, many of the best orbits for human activity will become useless because satellites will be hit by these objects moving at higher than bullet speed. Elon Musk’s upcoming Starlink telecoms constellation providing connectivity across the globe will bleed and we can forget other symbols of human imagination come true, such as the International Space Station. Many satellites helping us to understand the climate of Earth will be threatened. Space activities are also a 400 billion dollars business, and both weaponisation and actual war in outer space will have a highly negative effect.

 It is not that space has been entirely untouched by weapons until now. Anti-satellite weapons fired from Earth or an aircraft exist and have been tested – with much debris created. This is bad enough, but weapons in outer space itself will take conflict to a completely new level.

 Perhaps we should not be concerned if those with weapons ambitions would only mess up outer space for themselves, but outer space is the province of all humankind according to the Outer Space Treaty, and as outer space has no borders any war there will ruin space for all nations. Debris will go everywhere.

It is probably not too late to stop the weaponisation of outer space. But stopping it will require determined opposition from citizens across the world. Civil society must demand from governments that they take forceful steps to avoid an arms race in outer space. At a time with so many other crises this will not be easy. Yet, when it is done citizens will find that many nations have absolutely no short- or long-term interest in the weaponisation of outer space. Only, leaders must be woken from their Sleeping Beauty dreams. This is the challenge! But in the end you want Star Wars in a theatre near you, not star wars far away and real!

Good Heavens, the Heavens Are Under Attack

Recent news reports tell us that Russia has just tested a space-to-space weapon. So, a weapon fired from one space object against another. This is a nightmare scenario for all people cherishing outer space as a place dedicated to peaceful use. But not only that. In fact, it jeopardises the interest of all human beings, because outer space belongs to us all.

 Many discussions have taken place over the years about weapons in outer space, and fantasies like Reagan’s aborted Strategic Defence Initiative were put forward. However, discussions have intensified in the recent past, with bold and silly proclamations by President Trump about outer space as just another war-fighting domain and the creation of a ‘Space Force’ as a separate arm of the US military.

 Until now, actual weapons related to outer space were limited to anti-satellite weapons launched from Earth or from an aircraft but targeting satellites in outer space. This is bad enough – and they were only tested. But space-to space weapons are an enormous escalation. Weapons in outer space itself will ensure that, indeed, outer space becomes a battlefield, with the consequence that the resulting masses of debris will make a number of important orbits useless for telecom and Earth Observation satellites.  When the shooting starts, Elon Musk’s upcoming Starlink telecoms constellation will bleed and we can wave goodbye to the International Space Station or a possible successor.

 Now, you could argue that as long as warring nations only make outer space useless for themselves then it is essentially the normal terrestrial war mode. However, because the destruction of just one satellite creates thousands of pieces of debris moving at up to 18,000 miles an hour, large parts of space will become unavailable to all nations when war in space breaks out. And there will be long-term detriment as well because debris stays in space for many years. All this runs counter to outer space being a province of all humankind as defined by the generally accepted Outer Space Treaty of 1967.  Hence, war in outer space must be avoided. Placing weapons there in best Star Wars fashion will achieve the opposite.

 That the Russian test has opened a fast track to make the province of all humankind an illusion is not only folly but means that transactional cost will go up now. Because space operators will try even more to harden their space hardware to mitigate the consequences of ultimate space warfare. We then enter the ‘screw-without-an-end’ scenario that we know all too well from arms races on Earth. Destructive ability will be sought countered by protective measures, only to trigger new destructive abilities, and so forth.  All the while, those nations with no military ambitions in outer space will suffer and be sucked in.

 It is easy to be cynical and conclude that the world will just take its evil turn, and that there is nothing we can do about it. But such defeatism is not warranted. As citizens we must protest what are in reality attacks on the shared province of humankind and insist that our governments resist the weaponisation of outer space. The lack of popular and political attention to the issue is the greatest ally of those wanting to mess up space.

 When we speak up against the weaponisation of outer space, we will find that there is far more support for keeping outer space as a domain for peaceful use than meets the eye. A large number of nations has absolutely no interest in conflicts in outer space, but they must be woken from their Sleeping Beauty dreams! They must be brought to realise what a mortal threat to their short and long term interests the latest developments portend. That is our task as citizens!