This recent article on the long history of the “Metaverse” reminded me of a commencement speech that the late, great author David Foster Wallace delivered at Kenyon College in 2005. It went something like this: One morning, an older fish was swimming past two younger fish. “Morning, boys,” the older fish nodded, “how’s the water today?” The two young fish pleasantly swam on for a while until one finally paused and asked the other: “What the hell is water?”
Now, this might be the jumping off point where I make an analogy to the Metaverse and wisely explain what water is to younger fish. We’ve been collectively talking about “Cyberspace” since the eighties in one form or another, and it’s currently the subject of best-selling books and the daily grist of newly minted experts on LinkedIn and Twitter.
But this isn’t that kind of a post.
You see, the Metaverse is simply a metaphor for the inexorable change that always occurs when we create new tools that extend our physical or mental faculties through a technological medium.
As Marshall McLuhan aptly described in “The Medium is the Message,” this was true of the invention of writing, the wheel, the printing press, radio, television, and the computer.
While the hardware may change in each instance, the human questions have remained the same. What is gained, what is lost, and who are the “winners?”
Much like fish, we don’t really pay attention to the changes in our media ecology until they affect us in some undeniable way.
The reason that the metaphor of the Metaverse resonates so strongly now, I believe, is that the pace of change in our media and the attendant shift in our senses is increasing at an ever-accelerating pace. As we move faster up the slope of technical innovation, the water is heating up and it’s hard to ignore.
Neil Postman, a spiritual successor to McLuhan, created another clever metaphor that captures the point succinctly:
“We might say that a technology is to a medium as the brain is to the mind. Like the brain, technology is a physical apparatus. Like the mind, a medium is a use to which a physical apparatus is put. A technology becomes a medium as it employs a particular symbolic code, as it finds its place in a particular social setting, as it insinuates itself into economic and political contexts. A technology, in other words, is merely a machine. A medium is the social and intellectual environment a machine creates.”
Revolutions in media work us over in imperceptible ways (the medium is also the “massage”). And it isn’t until one medium becomes obsolete and the content of the next that we recognize its full import. This is true with respect to Legacy Media and the Internet, and I suspect will be true with the reconfiguration of incentives and relationships that comes next in the power dynamics of the “Metaverse.”
So here we are today, fish swirling in a vortex of effects caused by algorithms, mobile computing, and decentralization. We’re all becoming wiser while something is profoundly changing in the way that we relate to one another.
Looking to the past to make sense of the present is not only necessary to discern the effects of our currently shifting, invisible media environment, but a reminder that there is always something larger and more encompassing to describe where we are and where we are going.
In other words, the human questions prevail over the technical, and they are timeless.