The metaverse, Kant, and the two realities of 2050
Updated: Jul 15
Rolling out of bed, Alysha wakes up in her shoddy, cramped New York apartment in 2050. She yawns and rubs her eyes, aching with screen fatigue. Realizing the time, she swears and slips on her prized possession from her bedside table, the “Oculus 4 Max.”
Sensing her eye movement, which darts to the bottom left of her field of view, the computer puts her in the meeting waiting room with thirty seconds to spare.
An advertisement pops up for a plaid, business casual suit. A style that she particularly likes. She buys it for $15, but declines to “add makeup,” and instead, chooses one of her own avatar’s presets.
She’s not made of money, after all.
The outfit and makeup are added to her avatar with two seconds to spare.
After the drab meeting, she wants to log off and enjoy a meal with her cat. Before she can, Janice approaches her in a private group. She joins a small group of interns, apparently selected for this casual luncheon because of their high-performance
A glance shows how expensive Janice’s suit is: $1,500. Alysha has opted to hide how much her own plaid suit costs, but Janice’s is on display for anyone whose eye tracker lingers on her clothing for more than 300 milliseconds. Alysha pulls her eyes away, knowing if she stares for too long, it would pull up a full-fledged advertisement.
Nervous to casually meet with a high-level manager with a select group of interns, she accepts Janice’s invitation to lunch.
She doesn’t hear her hungry cat meowing for lunch.
As a student of Western philosophy, I study fundamental questions like “What does it mean to exist?” When considering the ethics of technology, those questions quickly come into sharp focus.
Different fields of philosophy focus on various subjects. Cutting-edge philosophy of the mind works on the problem of artificial general intelligence (AGI). Cosmology unfolds questions about the nature of time and relativity. Philosophy of mind attempts to bridge the gap between neuroscience and consciousness.
Another common pursuit in philosophy is known as the history of philosophy, which studies the thinkers who have impacted the trajectory of humanity. Perhaps the most popular subject of study is the critical German philosopher, Immanuel Kant.
Kant’s name is ubiquitous in modern philosophy. Though himself an Enlightenment thinker, his philosophy subsequently ushered in German Idealism which brought the Enlightenment crashing to the ground. He also provided the first example of truly “critical” philosophy, which would provide the foundation for Critical Theory in the mid-20th century.
Kant’s works were complex and sophisticated. For every eleven philosophers, there are twelve interpretations of his works.
I believe that Kant’s understanding of the world led to the grounding beliefs that gave rise to the Metaverse.
On Janice’s suggestion, the group collectively orders lunch from the French restaurant Nouvelle, whose main courses cost $50. She puts her icon on “bathroom,” but instead opens another window to cancel the delivery and get refunded.
Pretending to eat, with a fake image of food in front of her, she ignores her hunger but doesn’t want to miss a second of time with Janice.
When work hours resume, she’s abruptly transported to her office.
If she takes off her headset for more than three minutes, or outside of preset breaks, she’ll be flagged for inefficiency. In the hyper-competitive atmosphere, she can’t give an inch of ground to her peers.
She spares a quick few seconds for ordering McDonald’s, which will deliver to her via drone by the time her fifteen-minute break rolls around.
She feels the ache in her back from sitting weirdly, so with her McDonald’s burger, she pops a hydrocodone. Instead of taking off her Oculus 4.0 Max (her virtual office requires 3.0 Pro or greater), she starts scrolling through TikTok.
She gets a ping from WhatsApp but notices that it’s only Li, a guy she met online last month. The Oculus reads her facial expressions and correctly interprets her feelings as “mild annoyance.”
Since she keeps her status live, Li can see she’s on her break, but luckily the Oculus can fake her texting patterns very accurately. So, an AI automatically responds on her behalf with small talk to keep him occupied.
Li was fantastic at virtual sex, so she didn’t want to completely ignore him. She just wasn’t in the mood to chit-chat right now.
Immanuel Kant categorized the world into the “noumenal” and “phenomenal.” The noumenal refers to things “as they are,” whereas the phenomenal refers to how things appear to us.
He believed that noumenal things, how things really are, cannot be known.
Think about it: maybe all of your senses are constantly being fooled, and your coffee mug is actually a book. How could you possibly be certain otherwise?
Rene Descartes provided this line of skepticism a century before Kant, but Kant created a fully formed metaphysic and epistemology from that line of thinking.
(You can see why philosophers started having more “existential crises” after Kant.)
Even space and time themselves were part of a matrix of interpretations, according to Kant. They were not “real” in and of themselves, they were “in the eyes of the beholder,” so to speak.
But Kant also thought that, as humans, we must believe certain things without knowledge of them, even though we aren’t logically or evidentially certain of them. Some of these include “free will exists,” “God exists,” and the coffee mug before me truly is.
Thinkers who came after Kant wrestled with this and many interpret his nuanced framework in different ways, but the main point is this: for the first time, a philosopher had argued that we can only be certain of what’s "in" our minds. For Kant, interpretation is the source of knowledge and truth, not the “thing itself.”
Naturally, this is a simplification that leaves much out. But from this point on, philosophers began to put more and more emphasis on personal experience and subjectivity.
In 2050, there are two economies. One is the global, “traditional” economy, the other is the virtual economy. The two run parallel to one another but rarely cross. If crimes are committed only in the Metaverse, the punishments are dealt with only in that realm as well.
There are two governments. One is regulated by a special committee of the United Nations, which is collectively ruled and organized by all countries with substantial usage of the Metaverse.
Several developing countries like Venezuela are now just as powerful in this special committee as the first-world countries. Their opportunistic gambles early on in the explosion of the Metaverse, grinding out work from their citizens and accumulating virtual wealth, certainly paid off.
Other countries like China stalwartly prohibit their citizens from entering the Metaverse for too long. Each citizen can only log on for four hours per week, though millions try to cheat the system. China hopes to gain power through its focus on the “traditional” world economy and by gaining leverage through its growing physical military presence.
Alysha didn’t dwell on the evolving geo-political world too much. She worked for a company that operated exclusively within the Metaverse (though rumors circulated that the higher-ups worked in physical space, in-person).
She received a small stipend of traditional money, but most of her salary went towards virtual currency. Most companies, even ones like McDonald’s, accepted both kinds of payment.
German Idealism took hold of Western philosophy and led to the mass influx of creative exploration through the arts. This era became known as the Romantic Era.
The optimism of this era, which emphasized humanity “making itself” and the notion of self-creation, crumbled to bloody dust when World War I and then World War II ravaged the world. Then, pessimistic modernist writers, sprinkled with “absurdists,” took the forefront.
Philosophy became focused on analytical problems, diving deeper and deeper into linguistics. A whole new swath of thinkers then took purported postmodernism, which asserted with force that, since language communicates our ideas of truth, and language can change, truth itself must shift along with it.
At the end of the day, with Kant’s emphasis on the subjective framework for reality, it’s no wonder that people intuitively pursue another world in virtual reality, where the object is fabricated and our perception is malleable.
A metaphysic which holds that reality that is founded in the subject alone will ultimately lead to a mass virtual reality. This already shows hints in the introduction of screens and endless Zoom calls. Because, fundamentally, as long as our perception of reality is upheld, there’s no difference between whether it's objectively real (at least, under this Kantian worldview).
Why not experience flying through the stars in a VR headset?
Why not own a massive mansion floating in the clouds?
Why not be a robot with a green visor?
Those Metaverse items exist just as much as our perception of my “real world” house.
That’s the kicker though: I can’t say “real world,” because there is no “real” world (or at least, we can’t know if there is), our perception is what makes up the “real” world to begin with.
For anyone wanting to avoid a future with two worlds or even the dystopian introduction of only one universal virtual world, they will have to fight against an embedded, hardwired worldview that our knowledge of reality is virtual anyway.
Alysha’s life feels torn between virtual and traditional reality; she struggles with one foot in each life. She must make sacrifices to live nearly fully in the Metaverse.
Her parents and brother can’t seem to keep up with the times or simply don’t want to. They refuse to do a virtual gathering during the holidays. It costs $1,000 for a plane ticket, but nothing at all to join the Metaverse—it’s so unfair for them to make her come to them!
This year, she may not join her family for holidays at all. Her therapist has told her to draw healthy boundaries, and they are clearly blackmailing her with their ideology. So, this year, she’ll put her foot down and simply not join at Christmas.
In the back of her mind, she feels something tugging. Even though this decision seems small, she feels as though this moment will commit her one way or the other.
She and her whole generation must plant a flag on one side.
I’m not arguing that Kant would approve of virtual reality. His arguments have expanded far beyond his intentions. With his unprecedented influence on modern thinking, however, his philosophy gave us space to accept a world of VR.
We must decide now, will we accept Kant’s position and its consequences?
Will we return to objective, doctrinal religion?
Will we return to an emphasis on realism and rationalism?
Ultimately, we must answer: where does truth come from?
Only then can we unlock the Metaverse crisis of our age.
Only then can we solve the fundamental problem of Mark Zuckerberg’s reality, because the current trajectory of culture and technology will catapult us into a dual world of virtual reality and traditional reality, even more so than we already are.