Is it a source of liberation or a force of captivity?
By Rasheed Rabbi
Capturing the imagination of enjoying an immersive and interactive digital experience, the Metaverse has lately become the buzzword on almost everyone’s lips. The idiom is not new. However, its vision and ongoing development were reoriented on Oct. 29, 2021, when Mark Zuckerberg renamed Facebook as Meta and outlined his futuristic vision with a formalized focus on the Metaverse. Other tech giants and even small companies have confirmed a shared interest and their biggest investments, projecting a potential market value of $15 to $30 trillion, almost 493 times the growth for the total market capitalization of metaverse-related stocks.
Such an enormous enterprise and bulk investments for Metaverse, proclaiming to build the new “base of human life,” won’t disappear in the short term. Rather, we are to get entrapped into its lasting consequences, about which many religious communities have already expressed deep concerns. A realistic approach to address those concerns is not to bluntly dismiss such a laborious and high-budget concept that may cast criticism on faith communities’ reservation in adopting technology. Instead, we need to claim our portion of ownership to set the parameters for it. Instead of sitting back and just inheriting its estranged reality, which lacks the flexibility of adjusting it to our personal space, sharing concerns early on would increase the possibility of shaping a more inclusive Metaverse for everyone.
“Metaverse” is a compound word: meta (after or beyond) and universe. It first appeared in Neal Stephenson’s novel “Snow Crush” (1992), in which the author looked for a “universe” with the meta-meanings of things. He imagined a dystopian future in which human beings inhabit a conceptual reality built on the virtual world. Since then, what has been drawing dramatic attention, particularly in cyber technology, is the keywork “meta,” which leaves a vast leeway for individuals and technology practitioners to adopt the idea, yet adjust and even alter it within their personalized context. Integrating this idea within the contemporary hype of the IT industry, however, doesn’t fulfill the original vision. Exploring the background of this catchphrase will give us a deeper understanding of its meaning and origin.
Tracing the Longing for the Metaverse beyond “Snow Crash” to Plato’s Cave
Being tired of his outside world, Stephenson posited an alternative virtual world. Such a longing to find a solace outside of a hectic world is eternal. A similar quest can also be found in Vernor Vinge’s “True Names” (1981) and in a series of William Gibson novels from the 1980s. If we dig deeper, they all owe a debt to Morton Heilig’s 1962 Sensorama machine.We can go even further back, all the way to Plato’s shadows on a cave wall around 375 bce (https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/technology/brace-for-impact-it-s-time-to-usher-in-the-metaverse/ar-AATIvCy).
Plato’s “The Republic” presents an allegory of prisoners chained to the wall of a cave with an outlet above it for the light to enter. They watch the shadows projected from behind them by puppeteers passing objects in front of a fire. Having been imprisoned since birth, they consider the shadows to be true reality, even competing to predict which ones will come next. Due to divine intervention and knowledge acquisition, a few of them become “chosen prisoners” who question the competition’s utility and eventually escape the cave.
Similarly, virtual users sit in a metaphorical cave, experiencing 2D/3D shadows on the digital walls. Tech giants are working like puppeteers to present more elaborate and precise appearances of the “shadows,” reflecting minute bits and pieces of our human body. Like the prisoners, the metaverse users care less about their locations or circumstances; the former care about the shadows on the walls, whereas the latter care about the simulation composed around them. As a result, given that the true reality and source of light remain unknown, the prisoners cannot distinguish the shadow of real reality from mock reality. This is also the case with virtual reality.
However, none of the authors and philosophers from Plato to Stephenson looked for a way to escape into a shadow reality. Rather, they appropriated Plato’s strategy of becoming a “chosen prisoner” and worked out personal escapes from their respective caves. In contrast to this liberating concept, the Metaverse adds degrees of suspended reality and increases the sense of allurement by the shadow – generated by commercial interest, of course. Even worse, this allure of the Metaverse compels participants to freely make a choice and then sit back, relax and live in their chosen illusion. In short, to chain themselves further to the solipsism of their own minds. This defeats the purpose of Plato’s allegory, which is a story of the soul’s exile from the captivity of material affairs to shed light on humans’ true emancipation.
The soul’s emancipation, as per Plato’s allegory, emphasizes the two-phased elevation of one’s mind: understanding the shadows’ hollowness and the quest for the meta world, the source of true reality. Initially, the Sun outside may be painful to the prisoners’ eyes, but over time they become accustomed to it, can understand the “true” forms, shapes and reality, and become truly free. Similarly, the early Metaverse was meant to optimize our understanding of captivated lives to conquer the cave’s dogma and draw us into a more fluid, dynamic and inclusive relationship of life with the invisible world. Sadly, the contemporary Metaverse, as it is developing now, shows more similarities to the cave than to true reality.
Reimagining Plato’s Cave to the Prophet’s Cave of Hira
Plato’s views resonate with Islam’s view of soul and its goal of freeing it. To stress the urgency of looking beyond the visible world, Rumi says “this world is a dream, but only a sleeper considers it real,” based on the authentic hadith that “the world is a prison for the believers and a paradise for non-believers” (“Sahih Muslim” 2956). Understanding the context of prison within the purely earthly commitments that leave no gratification for souls is crucial for Muslims to hold on to Islam amidst worldly temptation.
Shihabuddin Suhrawardi (d. 1191), the Shaykh al-Ishraq or the master of the philosophy of illumination, shared a similar inspiration in his philosophical and mystical fable, the allegory of the western exile (alghurba al-gharbiyya). He even provided a detailed ontology of the two worlds: the material world akin to a cave and prison of the soul, known as the world of bodily form (alam al-nasit), and an immaterial world as a locus of light, knowledge and perfection, often known as the “world of the image” or “form” (‘alam al-mithal or ‘alam al-muthul). He stressed that being accustomed to the cave symbolizes those souls deceived by the material sensible world, attachment to which hinders us from seeing our gradual agreement to being enslaved. Unshackling these captivities requires embarking on an inner journey to explore the underlying form by detaching us from material bondage and freeing us from these chains of materialism.
Closer reflection on the outer forms produces a greater understanding of their shallowness, and thereby increases our quest for freedom from the contingent world’s domain of shadows. The prisoners require education and knowledge to begin this quest. In contrast to that liberating vision, the freedom being espoused by the Metaverse is a freedom from material existence to its shadow. Some social media take a further step and trap human beings to the shadows of their own minds. All these virtual bubbles merely act as a version of Plato’s cave, and the Metaverse helps make that cave a reality in which we would live happily. But in reality, we would be living in the shadows.
Such a twist in “looking beyond the horizon” that the Metaverse advocates calls for our greater attention, not only to identify its depravity but also the vital points of deviation, where its original vision can be reinforced. The Metaverse could be the unified body of knowledge that triggers frequent leaps beyond the projected shadows of material reality to the immaterial universe. It should be the place to which we can retreat to step out of our normal mode of existence and reflect upon our lives and gain more clarity on life’s real objectives.
To that end, envisioning of the Metaverse as our personal “Hira” wouldn’t be too much of a leap (https://mvslim.com/why-platonic-philosophy-can-help-us-understand-islam). Often compared to a “chosen prisoner” by divine power, Prophet Muhammad (salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) received his first revelation during his annual Ramadan retreat. Instead of meditating on worldly affairs, he was staging the gateway for his soul’s freedom. The first revealed word – “Read” – also alludes to a sacred emphasis on seeking knowledge and uplifting one’s intellectual capacity to God in order to include Him in the anthropology of one’s soul and worldly activities. At first the light of the truth struck the Prophet with many difficulties, but he persevered in his quest. Similarly, while the shattering moment of learning true reality might be difficult, remaining focused on that vision will open up new horizons beyond the binary bytes of the simulated Metaverse to unleash the soul’s liberation.
Rasheed Rabbi, an IT professional who earned an MA in religious studies (2016) from Hartford Seminary and is pursuing a Doctor of Ministry from Boston University, is also founder of e-Dawah (www.edawah.net) and secretary of the Association of Muslim Scientists, Engineers & Technology Professionals. He serves as a khateeb and Friday prayer leader at the ADAMS Center and a certified Muslim chaplain at iNova Fairfax, iNova Loudoun and Virginia’s Alexandria and Loudoun Adult Detention Centers.
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