Facebook’s latest project, the metaverse, promises a future of virtual realities and experiences beyond the constraints of the physical world. But a thought experiment by Robert Nozick provides a cautionary tale for why we should be wary of stepping into simulated realities. Living a virtual life, no matter how full of novel experiences, success, and pleasure, is not as fulfilling as it might sound. And even if we occasionally like to give in to the allure of fantasy, we should be cautious about entering a universe curated by a company accused of putting profits over the wellbeing of its users. The metaverse might be the ultimate distraction machine, from the company’s troubles and from what we most care about, writes Peter West.
If you’ve been living in the real world for the last week or so, you’ll no doubt be aware that Facebook (now ‘Meta’) CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been making a lot of noise about something he calls the ‘metaverse’. By employing supposedly cutting edge virtual reality technology, Zuckerberg believes that the metaverse will be “the successor to mobile internet” and will allow people, wherever they are in the world, “to feel present – like we’re right there with people no matter how far apart we actually are”. What Zuckerberg wants us to believe is that the future will be one in which we can all inhabit a virtual universe beyond the real world; where we are not confined by the particularities (geographical, but perhaps also financial, physical, or professional) of the lives we currently live.
There are of course the usual concerns to do with the Facebook corporation (now re-branded “Meta”). The various legal battles it is currently caught up in, the echoes of privacy violations, whether by design or accident, as well as the recent whistle-blower revelations that Facebook puts “astronomical profits before people” and has very little concern for the well-being of users, should make us all wary . The timing of the rebranding and the pivoting to a technology that has in fact existed for many years are signs of a company trying to run away from its problems and ensure profitability forever more. But aside from these glaring questions over the nature and incentive of anything that comes out of 1 Hacker Way, Menlo Park, California there is another, perhaps more existential, kind of concern that Zuckerberg’s plans for the metaverse raise. Should we want to spend time in a virtual world that is like the real one, but not quite?
The experience machine can be programmed to make you feel you are living the life of a great novelist, one full of fulfilling relationships, or one full of hedonistic extravagance.
In Anarchy, State and Utopia (published in 1974), the philosopher Robert Nozick asks us to imagine that we have the opportunity to plug ourselves into an ‘experience machine’. This involves placing yourself in a tank run by scientists who are able to stimulate your brain in such a way that, as far as you are concerned, you are having the most wonderful experiences. The experience machine can be programmed to make you feel you are living the life of a great novelist, one full of fulfilling relationships, or one full of hedonistic extravagance.
The Facebook metaverse would appear to be a kind of experience machine. It is unclear as yet what life in the metaverse will look like, but it seems unlikely that we will be able to live whatever kind of life we want to live. What’s more, in Nozick’s thought experiment, anyone plugged into the experience machine is unaware that their experiences aren’t real. Nonetheless, Zuckerberg is promising to give us the chance to have certain experiences virtually that we cannot have in real life (such as ‘being with’ far-away loved ones) so some analogies with the experience machine stand.
Nozick believed that the natural, intuitive response to an invitation to spend one’s life hooked to the experience machine is “No”. He offers three reasons why, despite the superficial appeal of living out experiences of our wildest dreams, most of us would turn down the opportunity to spend a lifetime in the experience machine. First, he argues, “we want to do certain things, and not just have the experience of doing them” (1974, 43). In other words, if I am someone who wants to write a great work of fiction then, Nozick argues, I want to actually do it and not just have a simulated experience of doing it.
Even Zuckerberg himself seems to acknowledge that an experience in the metaverse would not be an actual experience.
Second, Nozick explains that when we say we want to be a particular kind of person, we are expressing a desire to actually be that person. Someone who plugged into the experience machine, despite the simulated life they perceive themselves to be living, would in fact be, as Nozick puts it, “Someone floating in a tank”. You might think you are the type of person who writes great fiction, but you would, in actual fact, be the type of person who does nothing at all, who just floats in a tank in a lab. It seems unlikely that this is the kind of person many people hope to be.
Finally, Nozick argues that “plugging into an experience machine limits us to a man-made reality, to a world no deeper or more important than that which people can construct” (1974, 43). Nozick’s point is that there is something less valuable or meaningful about living in a simulated reality, determined by the whims of another person. The real world, Nozick seems to think, is of more intrinsic value than any simulated reality – even if the experiences it offers are less enjoyable.
If Nozick is right, our desire to be closer to loved ones, is not going to be satisfied by just feeling like we’re closer to them (without actually being closer).
All three of Nozick’s claims should make us question our willingness to follow Zuckerberg into the metaverse. First, even Zuckerberg himself seems to acknowledge that an experience in the metaverse would not be an actual experience. In his own words, the metaverse can make us “feel present – like we’re right there with people no matter how far apart we actually are”. If Nozick is right, our desire to be closer to loved ones, is not going to be satisfied by just feeling like we’re closer to them (without actually being closer). No doubt many of us experienced something like this when attempting to ‘be’ with loved ones, over zoom or on the phone, during recent lockdowns.
Second, as much as we might wish for it to be so, a virtual (or ‘meta’) life is not in fact our life. In an episode of the US comedy It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, ‘the gang’ find that it is much easier to be successful in an online second life than it is in the real world. But the reality of their situation, that their online personas are not them, is brought crashing down around them when one member of the group decides to delete their accounts. Similarly, Nozick would argue, the discrepancy between yourself and your simulated self means that you cannot change who you are just by cultivating a certain kind of online life. This sentiment might seem jarring to a generation used to cultivating a carefully crafted online personality. But many of us will also be acutely aware that there is a discrepancy between the ‘person’ on show to the world online and our real selves.
If it is true that Zuckerberg and his team care more about profit than people, we should seriously question whether we want to become part of a simulated universe they have designed.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly given the controversies surrounding Zuckerberg, plugging oneself into the metaverse would involve plugging into “a world no deeper or more important than that which people can construct”. The people in question, in the case of the metaverse, are Facebook people. If it is true that Zuckerberg and his team care more about profit than people, we should seriously question whether we want to become part of a simulated universe they have designed. Zuckerberg’s rhetoric certainly suggests that the aim of the metaverse will be to bring us joy. But it might well be the case that this is not the aim of Zuckerberg’s metaverse at all. After all, how many of us seriously enjoy most (if any) of our online experiences even today?
At the heart of this discussion is the distinction between what is real and what is virtual. Nozick seems to think, first, that this is a very clear-cut distinction and, second, that this distinction is very important to us – that is shapes our values and our views on what makes life meaningful. On the first point, it seems possible (if not totally plausible) that if the metaverse lives up to the hype we might begin to question the distinction between what the real and the virtual. If it seems real, one might argue, then who’s to say it isn’t?
Even if the metaverse doesn’t persuade us to let go of the distinction between the real and the virtual, does that distinction matter to us as much as Nozick thinks? Researchers have attempted to empirically test Nozick’s hypothesis with the results suggesting even if people are disinclined to plug themselves into an experience machine, it might not be because they think real life is more valuable that a simulated one. It might, for example, because we don’t now want to ‘give up’ on a life we’ve been working hard at.  Given that Nozick was writing in a pre-internet age and that by now we are all more accustomed to outsourcing aspects of our life to online platforms, perhaps there are other reasons why his hypothesis will not withstand scrutiny.
Facebook’s ability to distract us and hijack our attention is well documented, and there’s a danger that an even more enticing digital landscape could end up being even more distracting, to the detriment of our mental and indeed physical health.
However, we should not forget that the metaverse is not a neutral virtual reality – it is a platform that is carefully curated (and promoted) by a private company. We might enjoy blurring the lines between what is real and what isn’t, indulging ourselves with hypothetical scenarios and imagining our lives were different. But that ‘blurring’ can engender risks we shouldn’t ignore. Facebook’s ability to distract us and hijack our attention is well documented, and there’s a danger that an even more enticing digital landscape could end up being even more distracting, to the detriment of our mental and indeed physical health. What’s more, even without virtual reality technology, the internet already has the ability to render the line between truth and falsity unclear, or even to invert the spectrum entirely. And, we should not forget that in many instances Facebook has been at the heart of this (think, most recently, of all the groups dedicated to vaccine misinformation). There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with indulging in the fantasy of ‘other worlds’, but when they are controlled by a private company, driven by motives that often don’t align with our own interests, we should think very carefully about entering them. In other words, we ought to think twice before plugging into Zuckerberg’s experience machine: the metaverse.[i