Metaverse and Reality in Silicon Valley
“What if we saw attention in the same way that we saw air or water, as a valuable resource that we hold in common? Perhaps, if we could envision an ‘attentional commons,’ then we could figure out how to protect it.”
That Matthew Crawford quote appears in an entry titled “Notes from the Metaverse,” from L. M. Sacasas’ newsletter The Convivial Society. I am reading it in a room in Northern California, in Silicon Valley, where right now water reserves are extremely low and the air quality ranges from moderate to very unhealthy from day to day, as fires rage in various parts of the state. So I do see attention in the same way that I see air and water—depleted, polluted, wasted by some people, while some struggle to protect it.
The metaverse, of course, doesn’t have its own air or water. To dwell in the metaverse, we still need the resources of the real world.
As Sacasas explains, unpacking and clarifying objections that lead some to be metaverse-averse, “[i]n the more cheery promotional narratives, the metaverse will unite various disparate elements of our digital lives into a seamless shared reality accessed through VR goggles or AR apps.” (For more on what the metaverse promises—or threatens—see Fiona McEvoy’s “Now You Need to Know What a Metaverse Is—6 Reasons to Listen Up.”) But our need for clean air and water is itself an answer to a claim made by Marc Andreesen (as quoted by Sacasas), that for “the vast majority of humanity… their online world is, or will be, immeasurably richer and more fulfilling than most of the physical and social environment around them in the quote-unquote real world”—and to his call for the building of “online worlds that make life and work and love wonderful for everyone, no matter what level of reality deprivation they find themselves in.”
The reality is that the metaverse cannot exist if “reality deprivation” includes lack of clean air and water, and of the space and ability to decide on what (or whom) one wants to focus one’s attention. And as with clean air and water, also, and other resources, the depletion of attention negatively impacts some people more than others.
In Silicon Valley, the covid pandemic has only exacerbated what was already a striking level of income inequality. According to a recent report by the nonprofit Joint Venture Silicon Valley, income inequality here
has grown twice as quickly as the rest of the state and nation over the past 10 years. The top 16 percent of Silicon Valley households hold 81% of the region’s wealth but the bottom 53% hold 2%. Nearly one out of five Silicon Valley households have no savings, which makes it more difficult to buy food or care for family members during the pandemic.
No online world will make “life and work and love wonderful” for people who can’t feed or house their family (never mind buy VR sets). We can’t allow ourselves to be distracted by talk of the coming metaverse and fail to pay attention to the hereverse.
“Attention must be paid,” perhaps the most iconic phrase from Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman, rings loudly in this context. “[H]e’s a human being,” says the wife about the titular character, “and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid.”
By whom? By the “attentional commons,” Crawford might answer. If we saw at least part of our attention “in the same way that we saw air or water, as a valuable resource that we hold in common,” might we direct it, also, more carefully?
Sacasas also quotes Hannah Arendt, who wrote that “[o]nly the experience of sharing a common human world with others who look at it from different perspectives can enable us to see reality in the round and to develop a shared common sense.” Sacasas builds on that, arguing that
the metaverse would do for common sense, as Arendt understands it, what enclosure did to the commons. Having our perception of the world increasingly mediated by proprietary technologies that immerse us in ever more sophisticated realms of digital simulacra is a way of surrendering the experience of a shared reality with others.
In our current shared reality, the bottom 53% of households in Silicon Valley hold 2% of the wealth and don’t dream of the metaverse. Attention must be paid. As it turns out, time and the opportunity to pay attention, and to decide to what and to whom to pay attention, are among the conditions required for the common good.