The metaverse and the next pandemic

In Reality+ David Chalmers suggests we might spend the next pandemic distracting ourselves in immersive virtual worlds which are indistinguishable from the non-virtual worlds. Real worlds with real experiences and real objects which should in principle be seen as in no way inferior to the material world. There’s a degree of equivocation involved in how he frames this in an introduction littered with caveats. It’s not obvious that a virtual world indistinguishable from the real world is possible, nor that it could be scaled to mass participation within planetary boundaries. In this sense his claims are about the postulated end point to this technology while also corralling the disappointing reality of the current metaverse within their remit; refusing to draw a boundary around the technological object leave his philosophical claims with a loose and slippery quality to them.

It leaves me cautious of his project of technophilosophy (using technology to ask traditional philosophical questions) as opposed to the philosophy of technology (asking philosophical questions about technology) because it takes an empirical reference which it refuses to define in a consistent or systematic way. It’s exactly this paradoxical coupling of hard nosed analyticity and gaping methodological blindspots which drove me away from analytic philosophy in the first place.

However I do feel his possibly throw away reference to the next pandemic is important. I’ve started to feel life has returned to normal in recent months, possibly rendering me an outlier in a country where covid denialism has been promulgated from on high for at least a year. But this deepens my sense of living in a state of exception for almost two years, experiencing the flow of time in terms of a chronic interruption which precluded major decisions unless they were mandated by immediate necessity.

Assuming this is not an exceptional experience, it leaves me with the expectation that the next pandemic will be experienced as even more disruptive and traumatic as a consequence of the barely processed outgrowths of Covid-19. This underscores its significance as a social event: while we would rarely think of future catastrophes as a salient factor in the diffusion of new technology, it’s easy to imagine how the coincidence of next generation virtual reality emerging within a few years of the next pandemic could lead to massive uptake of a new system. Imagine the rapid growth of Zoom in 2020 but with a next generation headset that saves an ailing Meta. Given the accelerating rate of zoonotic transmission and the fact it’s not beyond the realms of possibility the next pandemic is already here, I feel it’s something worth reflecting on.

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