In case you havent been tuned in lately, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg says he intends to develop an “embodied” experience within his Horizons platform – what many are calling the metaverse. This is web 3.0, an all-immersive internet where you can plug in and, if you prefer, never leave (as Zuckerberg stated in a 2021 interview). Horizons Workrooms is an immersive tele-conferencing platform which is Facebook’s 3D challenge to Zoom. Using this program, users morph into their avatar equivalents by wearing an Oculus VR helmet, and interacting within a virtual office space. Mark Zuckerberg sees Horizon Workrooms as potentially launching us into a utopian future. He says:
Five years from now, people will be able to live where they want and work from wherever they want but feel present when they do it.[i]
But how will this embodiment, this feeling of “presence” as Zuckerberg calls it, be achieved? And is Zuckerberg even talking about the same thing that I am when I refer to embodiment and presence? Zuckerberg points to developments in the sophistication of “hand interaction” technology on Horizons, but his sensory “touch” technology appears to lag well behind the vision of generating the “feeling of being present,” as he puts it.
A question I am led to ask is whether in some hypothetical near-to-medium-term future (within, say, 20 years) it will be possible to immerse humans in a virtual reality while retaining our embodied presence, our integrated intelligence, and the connection with our Authentic Selves? If this can be achieved, the loss of embodied wisdom that I am concerned about may be able to be averted, in part or in whole.
It is hard to know the precise answers to these questions at this point in time, but I will outline several issues of concern.
In Futures Studies there is a long and storied history of “scenario work,” but I shall not burden you, the reader with that. You might like to check out Steve Tighe’s book Rethinking Strategy if you are interested in deeper exploration.[ii] Meanwhile, here are several principles that futurists like to keep in mind when developing scenarios.
- They are NOT predictions. Instead the purpose is to enable foresight & intelligent planning.
- Scenarios can represent both possible & probable images of the future.
- They can help us prepare for outliers and alternative futures, not merely business-as-usual futures.
- They can help broaden and deepen our thinking.
- They can help initiate reflection about what futures are preferable.
- They can help us to clearly identify & avoid undesirable futures.
- They can help us to get a diversity of stakeholders involved in planning our futures.
Most of us will tend to posit predictable images of the future if we are asked or required to do so: flying cars, a faster internet, virtual reality, genetically engineered babies; or perhaps dystopias like the world being overrun by AI or robots, environmental Armageddon or nuclear war. These kinds of futures are well covered in science fiction as well as by poplar discussions in the media, so we are very familiar with them.
Yet it is very important not to limit our thinking to what is currently acceptable or in vogue, nor to simply extrapolate from present trends. It is tempting to avoid reflecting on futures that are less fashionable or those deemed implausible. But as Steve Tighe points out, past human activities, policies & language may now be considered by many as unacceptable or even absurd. Think of doctors promoting cigarettes, not washing hands or letting blood…
Tighe writes that if past behaviours and cultures appear ridiculous to us now…
…then we may assume that people in the future will view many aspects of our current behaviour as equally ridiculous. Therefore, looking forward, we must accept that many aspects of the future may appear ridiculous from the context of today. The learning for participants (of scenario planning) is that they should include plausible stretch and novelty in their scenarios[D1] .
Embodiment and VR Immersion in the Metaverse
The kind of scenario process I use below is sometimes called the “two factors” method. It takes a particular problem or situation and juxtaposes two relevant & impactful factors that are associated with that situation, producing four distinct scenarios. Ideally, one factor should have high impact (relevance) and a high level of certainty; while the other should have high impact but with less certainty. In the following four scenarios, I juxtapose “degree of embodiment” (horizontal axis) and “degree of immersion in virtual reality” (vertical axis).
Here “embodiment” entails a strong connection with bodily intuitions and integrated intelligence. This suggests a greater possibility for healthy expression of the Authentic Self. In line with my methodology, I give each of the four scenarios a memorable name. You will note that I present brief, general descriptions of each scenario rather than delve into detail. The purpose here is not to outline definitive expressions of each possible future, but to provide a simple descriptive framework which can assist in discussions and analyses as we plan for the future.
Scenario 1: Snow Crash Wonderland
High VR immersion/low embodiment.
Current probability (twenty years): moderate to high.
These are the dystopian futures that concern most people when they envision a dark future with an all-immersive web. The ultimate dark destination is Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash metaverse (the book where the term comes from); or the Matrix, where people are trapped in virtual space, exploited by the machines – and they don’t even know it.
We aren’t there yet, but in the meantime, and while we are waiting for AI to steal our souls, we can entertain (quite literally) the idea of various Money & Machines Futures where we spend most of our time on the internet, becoming highly dissociated from the body, and from our integrated intelligence and our Authentic Selves.
Here introspection diminishes, while our experience becomes dominated by exteroception – the outward gaze – not at nature or the real world, but at artificial environments generated by Big Tech or whatever paymasters push the system’s agenda. Some form of capitalism remains, and the system is gamed and monitised to fill the pockets of the rich and powerful. Meditation, mindfulness, healing & spirituality are devalued or ignored. We become empty.
The dominant way of knowing in Snow Crash Wonderland is most likely a kind of disembodied satiation of base senses – Neil Postman’s “amused to death.” There are high levels of online addiction, including consumption of gaming, porn, cat videos and mindless “scrolling.” Rationality remains, but becomes deeply distorted in the absence of intuitive wisdom and the effective erasure of independent thinking and alternative worldviews. In other words, reason becomes servant to a pathological system.
The governance of this dystopian future is authoritarian or covertly controlling, with high levels of censorship. Online content (effectively “the world”) is heavily mediated by algorithms which are secreted from the public domain. Confusion abounds, along with a strange sense that something is terribly wrong. But don’t really know what is going on.
Scenario 2: Brady Bunch Brunches
Low VR immersion/low embodiment.
Current probability (twenty years): low to moderate
This scenario is not so much back to the future as back to the past. Here, perhaps after ongoing bad experiences with online worlds, we have decided that the internet just isn’t worth it. So we unplug from the web. But this is no deep future, as it is dominated by exteroception, while self-reflection and mindfulness are considered to be of little value.
This possible future is really a throwback to the past, a bit like the 70s TV show The Brady Bunch, which featured an impossibly gentile, sanitised world where we never really saw anything inside the characters. They simply lived out their family-centred existence. Mr Brady went to work at the office, while Mrs Brady stayed at home and looked after the house and kids. Everything was incredibly nice. A bit like a Sunday brunch with the Bradys.
The Brady Bunch Brunches scenario is a bit like the Snow Crash Wonderland scenario without the internet. It is more embodied than the latter, but only because we remain in the real world. It most likely remains a capitalist system driven by the profit model. An overlap with the values of scenario 1 includes that it remains largely disconnected from nature and the body, and from spirit. Few people are actually present. Given that this scenario represents the future, much entertainment occurs away from the (forbidden) metaverse, perhaps on TVs, computers and mobile devices. An extreme form of this scenario would see great restrictions on screen time, or a complete ban.
Waking time may be spent working, with family, playing and exercising. The estrangement from the psyche means that addictions proliferate offline, including porn, alcohol, tobacco, drugs and promiscuity. In the more liberal expression of this scenario, online life is permitted, but is heavily controlled by algorithms. The most likely form of governance is soft authoritarian.
Scenario 3: Back to the Body
Low VR immersion/high embodiment
Current probability (twenty years): low to moderate
Back to the Body is a utopian representation of the future driven by a spiritual renaissance. Increasing awareness of the problems associated with spending too much time online, in front of screens or wearing VR glasses has led to a backlash against the metaverse. Whole communities and nations reject it, and strongly regulate its use. Information systems return to real-world (hard-copy) or 2D online mode. Society slows down, and populations live mostly in embodied presence.
Scientific breakthroughs in understanding the importance of embodied presence and integrated intelligence have lead to a mass spiritual awakening. Both classical & mundane intuition proliferate, alongside somatic awareness. A deep future of empowered Authentic Selves flourishes. There is a return to appreciating nature, and a marked decline in the desire to spend time online and in states of amused distraction. Community and family time are appreciated, and untreated trauma and addiction decline.
The Back to the Body scenario features a society which values introspection and mindfulness. Work and career are developed according to the needs of the Authentic Self, while the profit motive is downplayed or eliminated from society. Meditation, healing & spirituality are deeply valued, alongside compassion, equality, and justice.
Most waking time is spent in real world: working, with family, playing and exercising. Wise action proliferates, and decision-making, career, and policies are informed by integrated intelligence. This, in its ideal, is an open society with limited censorship, and all algorithms are open source. There is some regulation, but not authoritarianism.
And yet in such a scenario we throw out the baby with the bathwater. We lose the potential benefits of exploring expansive online worlds. It would also appear to be an unfeasible future. Stopping everyone from developing online systems would likely require heavy regulation, creating a potential self-contradiction. We are an inquisitive species, so the metaverse would likely go underground.
Scenario 4: The Mindful Metaverse
High VR Immersion/high embodiment
Current probability (20 years): moderate
The Mindful Metaverse is a deep future which honours our embodied, Authentic Selves and the human spirit, while also permitting a healthy engagement in online and virtual reality spaces. This could be deemed a utopian future, but I also believe that it a possible one.
As with the Back to the Body scenario, this future represents a spiritual renaissance, most likely driven by scientific breakthroughs in the understanding of the non-local nature of mind and our deep connection with nature, the cosmos and each other. Classical & mundane intuition flourish within our strong connection to the body. Our embedded online experience is facilitated by technologies which allow us to retain our vital connection to the body and integrated intelligence. This is possible because those who design these systems are aware of the requirements of the Authentic Self and choose to respect those. Digital intelligence is honoured and encouraged, and the open society permits the public perusal of its metaverse’s source code.
Scientific rationality and much of the enlightenment’s knowledge is also honoured and retained, taking its place in our cognitive expression alongside intuitive ways of knowing and being. The capacity for deep introspection remains because of the connection with the somatic body. Human beings balance time in virtual worlds with time spent in real world environments and in nature. Our social and legal systems honour the need for compassion, equality and social justice. Society slows down, and our education and learning systems encourage awareness of online disorders and addictions. We also teach for the five pillars of the Authentic Self, most notably embodied presence and digital intelligence. Vocational guidance emphasises practical personal futures aligned with the Authentic Self and which also serve the greater needs of society.
The biggest uncertainty with the Mindful Metaverse is how far into virtual reality we can go and still retain an authentically human experience and while retaining our integrated intelligence. Further, if we get lost in a Snow Crash Wonderland future, we may find that we are so far removed from the wisdom of embodied presence that we may struggle to make it back to create a more balanced future.
These are merely four scenarios depicting four possible futures of the metaverse and their relationship to embodiment. Many other scenarios of the metaverse are possible if we juxtapose other factors with increasingly immersive virtual worlds.
[ii] Tighe, Steve (2019). Rethinking Strategy. Milton, Queensland: Wiley & Sons.