Aldous Huxley was right, even from the perspective of ninety years ago. He understood how governments work, and Brave New World was a masterpiece delineating his perceptions. In his fictional realm, soma was the drug of choice, a heavy-duty hallucinogen with no adverse side effects, save that some people desired to disappear permanently into imaginary worlds. The government in Huxley’s world actively encouraged the use of soma, within reason, as long as the population remained productive. With millions of people zoned out at any given time, it was assured that no significant number would ever discover what was behind the curtain. As one leader put it:
You can’t make flivvers without steel-and you can’t make tragedies without social instability. The world’s stable now. People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can’t get. They’re well off; they’re safe; they’re never ill; they’re not afraid of death; they’re blissfully ignorant of passion and old age; they’re plagued with no mothers or fathers; they’ve got no wives, or children, or lovers to feel strongly about; they’re so conditioned that they practically can’t help behaving as they ought to behave. And if anything should go wrong, there’s soma.
Here in the third decade of the 21st century, we’re well beyond bread and circuses, but just to stick with those two essentials for a moment, consider that in any urban center, and in many/most exurbs, one can have almost any type of food delivered to the door in the space of an hour. Or, to cook one’s own food, groceries are guaranteed to be on the doorstep within two hours of any area served by Walmart or by Amazon’s Whole Foods. It’s like magic. Big game this afternoon? Just call up this morning and get enough pizza, wings, egg rolls, soup, rigatoni, and soft drinks to serve an army, with no effort except putting a number into the phone and placing the order. How cool, right? For those who can afford it, anyway. Is this convenience wrong, per se? Of course not. But in a sense, it does placate and assuage anxiety about accessing and preparing food; it’s a placebo. We don’t even have to think about where the food comes from, or the effort involved to get it to us.
As for circuses, we can have them 24/7, in any form we wish, everything from Marvel movies to porn to every sport known to man, at the click of a remote. We can afford ourselves a surfeit of indulgence from the comfort of our couches. There’s no longer the need to get up and leave the TV, just to have another choice of amusement (leaving aside the millennia when carving a stick or throwing a ball were about the limits of entertainment). It’s all in one place. And it doesn’t even have to be real anymore. During the Olympics, as just one example, there was some banter between a couple of the commentators as to which parts of the closing ceremonies in the Chinese national stadium were actually happening in the material plane and which were only projected effects. While the entire display was fantastic and extravagant, and I was drawn in by it, still….I found it vaguely disturbing that it wasn’t immediately obvious which things were real and which weren’t. Probably to anyone under 50, it doesn’t matter: it’s all good, and is simply to be watched and enjoyed.
Likewise, computers and the internet. We can take virtual tours of the Louvre and the Hermitage, day or night. Remotely view the artifacts of the Smithsonian. Hear almost any book read aloud. Inspect King Tut’s golden mask without getting on a plane. Solve mysteries via interactive programs accessible with any computer. Miraculous, to those of us who were alive before the Age of Computers. Those of us of a certain age occasionally still pause in awe. Those who were born after the advent of Windows and cellphones simply take it all for granted. And therein lies the hazard, I think.
Until recently, perhaps the most well-known instance of total-escape fantasizing involved Star Trek: The Next Generation, which, along with other franchises, had its holodeck, used for various purposes, from de-stressing to training. There were several memorable episodes featuring that virtual reality utility, which provided complete immersion in a given pre-programmed, computer-generated scenario. My point here, though, is that the holodeck was a specific place on the ship, and fantasies were only enacted in that space. The rest of the ship was for living, working, research, crew facilities, and so on. In other words, reality prevailed, except for limited time periods in a prescribed location. Sailing around in far galaxies, interacting with aliens, was serious business!
In the last decade or so, however, virtual reality has become big business, progressing in tandem with artificial intelligence. VR headsets began as clunky, less-than-optimal pieces of equipment, and were prohibitively expensive. Now, they’re much more streamlined and less bulky, with the technology having advanced by at least an order of magnitude. I hadn’t really paid much attention to this tech niche, being a fervent proponent of reality, but when I discovered that Mark Zuckerberg has gotten into the act, and that he wants to give the whole world access to non-stop fantasies, that concerns me. We’re talking soma here, a potentially fatal addiction to an item that doesn’t even have to be requisitioned or regulated. At a projected $200 to $400 per VR headset, anyone who can afford a cell phone can live in a made-up world during every spare waking moment. Emeritus computer science professor Ron Baecker published a pair of articles in December titled, “What Is Zuckerberg’s Metaverse, and Do We Want It?” and, “I Do not Want Mark’s Metaverse.” His thoughts took my initial concern and ratcheted it up geometrically. Baecker quotes Zuckerberg from a talk he gave on the metaverse: “The next platform and medium will be even more immersive, an embodied internet where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it…the metaverse.… you’re going to be able to do almost anything you can imagine, get together with friends and family, work, learn, play, shop, create as well as entirely new categories that don’t really fit how we think about computers or phones today…” On the face of it, Zuckerberg’s description sounds quite benign, I admit. It’s just fun, a readily available way to connect with friends and family, design your living room, try out new purchases before buying, and a million other things. Baecker’s initial response to Zuckerberg’s comments, especially those to the effect that using metaverse translates to less screen time, is, “This is about getting more people into Meta, and about getting them to spend more time in the metaverse, because that’s the only way [Zuckerberg] can sustain the growth [his] shareholders expect…” True enough. That’s obviously Zuck’s immediate goal, and he’ll score untold billions from creating the ability to enter and sustain imaginary existences, even if his exorbitant claims for metaverse aren’t altogether feasible with existing technology. Yet.
So it appears we’re embarking on a new type of entertainment. Whereas humans have seen things in their minds’ eyes since the dawn of our species, now we’ll be able to make them appear out of thin air. Or, at least, our minds will think so. As down-to-earth as I am, as firmly anchored to reality as I’ve always been, the thought of being able to explore, say, 18th-century London very much appeals to me. Or to descend with Bob Ballard to view the remains of the Titanic; I can think of any number of fantastical journeys. Such rewarding experiences would have to be doled out like a miser’s coins, lest one be so captivated as to be unable to leave the metaverse. We think children watch too much TV and too many videos now; the metaverse would permanently enslave them, with no hope of getting them outdoors to play. Again, therein is the danger. Huxley told how a world government handed out free soma to keep the population under control. Even the only person in the story to resist the drug eventually capitulated. Zuckerberg is merely (?) out to rake in as much money as he can get his sticky fingers on. What of leaders who wanted to quell rebellion? How easy to take Zuck’s metaverse and make it a tool for subjugation. Just give a VR headset to every citizen, make sure all could access the metaverse, then….sit back and wait for the silence on the streets.