via todd richmond – you may want to read this piece first
I will admit that I’m a sucker for a good animated series. Perhaps it goes back to growing up as part of the “TV generation”, but animation allows the creatives to do things otherwise difficult with traditional human actors. Writers can explore highly existential topics, and with good artists, voice actors and direction, can present that exploration in an approachable and entertaining format – particularly when the setting is speculative, other-worldly, or just plain weird.
The idea of pondering the future and the role of humans and society is certainly nothing new. Both fictional and philosophical writings have inspired and shaped society for centuries. But screen culture gave those mental and psychological adventures a new medium not only for exposition, but reflection and iteration as well. Serialized animation is a subset of the broader screen language real estate, but holds some of the most interesting and engaging models for exploring the meaning of life at the intersection of technology and society.
All of this as setup to talk about the metaverse. The metaverse is our future, but also is our present and some of our past depending on how you define it. Some take a very narrow scoping to focus on Virtual Reality (VR) in immersive spaces. I’d like to take a broader approach, as I think that VR will be a piece of the puzzle but not the entire picture. With that:
metaverse – a persistent digital environment, informed by physical-world sensors, that people can enter, assume a persona (or multiple personas), interact with others, have affordances and agency, and can leave.
This definition focuses on digital, and hinges on the yin to digital’s yang – analog. Humans are physical entities. They eat food, occupy physical space, and have interactions with a physical environment. The analog world abides the laws of physics (mostly Newtonian though Quantum is another topic to discuss), and as my friend Arch (a retired First Sergeant) used to say, “stupid hurts” in the analog world.
Once humans began to interact with digital capabilities, the world profoundly changed. Yes, the analog world had/has representation (paintings, photographs, sculpture), organization/storage (card catalogs, boxes, buildings), long-distance communications (telegraph, radio, telephone), and transportation. But with analog, all of those things are finite. For instance I can only make so many physical copies of an object – limited by raw materials and/or demand and/or storage. But once things began to be represented by zeros and ones (the conceptual heart of digital), the limitations change or disappear. For instance, replication of a song recording by analog means resulted in loss of fidelity with each generation. But if the music was turned into a digital representation, it could be copied infinitely, limited only by energy and storage (which eventually became not very limiting).
Returning to our definition of the metaverse – a persistent digital environment where humans have affordances and agency – we can now see that the metaverse actually isn’t completely new. The internet is our first robust example, with a variety of sub-examples (e.g. MMOGs). People transact business via digital orders and payments. People work via digital affordances. Online communities abound and are persistent, driven by analog humans who adopt an avatar/persona. And perhaps most importantly – the internet has many examples of the metaverse resulting in a dynamic where actions a person takes in virtual space could have repercussions in the analog world.
So what’s the big deal? If the internet has already created a metaverse in which we frolic, why did Facebook change their name and how will the future metaverse change things? A couple of factors in play:
- increased immersion. This is where VR and Augmented Reality (AR – to a somewhat lesser extent) come into play. Since the Greeks created the proscenium arch, most of our curated experiences have been within a screen boundary. Humans have evolved a variety of narrative tools and techniques to create stories and experiences that appear within that border. VR essentially removes that boundary, so the synthetic environment, driven by digital, now is no longer held within limited real estate. The user also gains a new sense of agency. With a movie, the director has chosen all of the points of view. In an immersive environment, the end user gets to choose where and when to look. That can be great for the end user, but less-great for those that create content due to mixed user agency (more here).
- increased interconnectedness. The current internet has connected us in ways we never imagined. If twenty years ago someone said that your life would revolve around a small wireless phone the size of a candy bar, most would laugh. But here we are. The future metaverse seeks to connect everything to everything. This is part of the promise (and peril) of the Internet of Things (IoT). Everything can report to everything else which is great for those that collect data, but the promise that more information improves situational awareness has yet to be realized (cognitive overload is a thing). We’re seeing the beginnings of hyper-connectedness with home devices and wearables. The metaverse will be in-part driven by all these devices and their data – a confluence of IoT, Artificial Intelligence, and networks of networks.
- increased persistence. While certain internet sites have shown longevity, most have changed significantly over their lifetime or disappeared into the ether. The future metaverse will still struggle with rate of change, stagnation, and inconsistency, but one goal is to enable persistence of certain content, capabilities, and interactions, while lowering the friction of certain interactions (e.g. making purchases). Creators of the metaverse want users to come back, and want to enable a rich set of affordances that mimics the analog world (which I find problematic – more here and here) as well as interactions that could only exist in a persistent digital world. This is where the metaverse gets exciting – I can fly, time travel, and be in multiple places at once. But this is where it also gets weird, particularly the time travel and multiple places at once as humans remain analog and situated in a relatively linear time and space. For time travel, many movies and shows have tackled the topic, with Futurama (another animated series) having my favorite examples, e.g. The Late Philip J. Fry episode. Side note: Futurama has some other brain busters.
Multiple places at once – which brings us (finally!) to the reference in the title. What does Rick and Morty have to do with this? For those that don’t know, Rick and Morty is an animated series that follows the exploits of Rick Sanchez (smartest person in the universe) and his grandson Morty (not the smartest person in the universe). Rick has perfected a portal gun that allows him to move seamlessly between different realities. This works roughly on the premise of the multiverse as suggested by quantum mechanics and Everett. Since Rick and Morty now has a huge cult following, there are myriad pieces written dissecting various bits of the show (e.g. an interesting one on existentialism).
Fart jokes and some NSFW bits aside, at the heart of the Rick and Morty narrative canon is the idea of the multiverse. That the reality we find ourselves in at the moment is just one of an infinite number happening at the same time. We just happen to be tuned into the one where you’re reading this right now. But in another universe there is a version of you outside playing saxophone. And another where you were never born. You get the idea. While fiction – particularly animated fiction – gets to play fast and loose with scientific rigor, continuity and canon, some writers and shows take their craft seriously and use the narrative arcs as ways to plumb the depths of the human condition. The writers of Rick and Morty often not only strike comedy gold, but expose the raw nerves that life inflames, and gets us to simultaneously give up and nurture hope.
Lest this just seem like a Rick and Morty fan blog, the point of this piece is that the future metaverse – the persistent digital environment that will become a bigger part of our lives – will create opportunities, challenges, and threats. While technology companies will drive the development of the zeros and ones, what the experiences, engagements, and interactions are like need to be informed beyond just big tech. Creating a metaverse that honors equity and diversity, that is inclusive, intelligent, and enables growth, and most of all – allows us to maintain (and ideally improve) our humanity – these need to be explicit goals. When profit is a major motivation, those values often end up as lip service, taking a back seat to year-over-year growth numbers, advertising dollars, etc.
And by the way, the metaverse will require a rethink of public policy – both within the metaverse and at the interface of metaverse and analog world. More on that in another piece.
This isn’t to say that tech companies are evil. At this point they are a necessity for modern life. But they are companies – not friends or family (though our acquaintances or relatives may work there). Recognize them for what they are, the value they bring, and the costs they incur. But as humanity moves deeper into the digital epoch, we need to be thinking more about what digital means for humanity. And in this case, the metaverse creates a de facto multiverse, where humans can jump from reality to reality and be in multiple places at once. The writers of Rick and Morty, along with many creatives who came before them, have thought about and reified the deeper meanings of these existential questions. While Rick Sanchez tends towards nihilism, he also illustrates that healthy skepticism is a feature, not a bug. And Marty’s naïveté often is his Achilles heel, but retaining some wild-eyed wonder at our world – both the analog and digital forms, is part of how we find and create meaning. So perhaps that balance between the hopeless and the hopeful needs to be found and embraced.
Whether we engage in the process or not, the metaverse is here and is going to get bigger and weirder for humans. There isn’t a blueprint for it, and on many levels we’re moving into uncharted waters. It’ll take more than just the tech sector to sort things out. If we want it to not suck, we need to get input from not only tech and the hard sciences, but also social sciences, humanities, and the arts. In other words, all walks of life and all perspectives and angles are necessary to move towards a more inclusive and equitable hybrid analog/digital world we call the metaverse.
To paraphrase Rick Sanchez, “Sometimes tech is more art than tech, Morty. Lots of people don’t get that.”