Even as the “meta-verse” looms, we maintain some intuitive admission of this fact. And we can see it in some of the nonprofits we care about or support.
Our community food banks do important work, but they are also importantly located—that is, they are close to us. Our churches we attend and support are near our homes. We may be involved in clubs or community organizations that are tied to our place.
But our connections to our places—the importance of our places—face a new threat from the metaverse.
We might call our present situation the “meta-moment.” In this meta-moment, broad coalitions of society are encouraging and buying a technology that is destroying place to pave the way for a limitless virtual experience.
This destruction raises all sorts of questions for nonprofits, for donors, and for the future of our civil society.
Why should donors support those nonprofits which only do work in the old, worn-out reality, the reality of embodied things in physical spaces? Isn’t the future of human culture and charity—the next big thing—in this new, exciting reality of virtual objects in limitless space? places?
What does our world look like if the charitable sector is torn between embodied reality and virtual reality? Might nonprofits be uniquely positioned to be enduring champions of physical reality in this “meta-moment”?
New technology is cool. We love to clamor for all the thrilling possibilities—the innovation, exploration, and invention—of technology. Yet the roar of clamor often drowns out (or condemns) the voices of hesitation, dismissing them as foolish opinions of old-fashioned, crotchety, and even bigoted Debbie Downers. Patience, we are told, is not a virtue of Progress.
And so it is no surprise that the private sector has rushed to embrace virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR) technology, bravely led by Zuckerberg’s re-branded “Meta” and Niantic, which recently raised $300 million to begin building a video game-esque “real-world metaverse.”
More surprising is that the world which does exist to pause, critique, and explore—academia—has failed to hit the brakes. On the contrary, leading universities are already implementing VR/AR in their daily operations, admittedly an easy step to take following years (!) of Zoom lectures. So in Zuckerbergian fashion, Jeremy Bailenson, a communications professor at Stanford University, is pioneering the “metaclassroom.” He’s one of the first teachers to conduct a class set entirely in virtual reality, appropriately entitled “Virtual People.”
Bailenson is also the founding director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab, whose “Dangerous, Impossible, Counterproductive, and Expensive” (D.I.C.E.) model is being used as the foundation for his virtual reality class. The D.I.C.E. approach neatly expresses everything the metaverse is attempting to do. Using the new model, students in Bailenson’s class will be provided the rare opportunity to be taught things that are deemed either too dangerous, too unproductive, too expensive, or downright impossible for the students’ present reality.
Making the impossible possible: this is what metaverse enthusiasts seek. Indeed, the metaverse’s greatest project—and its greatest allure—is the destruction of spatial limitation and, by consequence, social limitation. It breathes life into the chief activity of social media, that is, “connecting” people across the world, instantaneously and at will.
This desire for online connection—we may call it online society—is probably on its own just fine. But its tendency to overrun civil society is dangerous. In the relentless pursuit for connection to people, users of social media risk losing their connection to place. And there’s the rub: what is a person without a place?
In the not-too-distant future, VR/AR technology will up the ante, providing a more dramatic connection to people at the expense of both places and things. One’s chair (bought from a neighborhood garage sale) or table (gifted by a friend) or iced tea (made with Grandma’s special recipe) will be replaced by any chair, any setting, and any beverage. These things will be achieved not through specific moments or people, but through the raw act of willing. Perhaps a virtual beach chair around a virtual fire with virtual margaritas will do—all of course in the virtual “company” of one’s friends.
Herein lies the powerful logic of the metaverse. VR/AR technology exists to create human relationships unbound by limits of space and matter. So when we wince at ranking places and things above human beings, the metaverse winces along with us. What matters most, we agree, is people! What then could be problematic with a technology which allows us to transcend both places and things for the sake of interpersonal relationship, human bonding, and lasting friendship?
It is this attractive appeal which makes the metaverse so resistant to critique or caution, for either approach must begin with the idea that perhaps places and things matter a great deal and should not be wholly sacrificed on the altar of “interpersonal connection.”
The failure of the private and academic sectors leaves to nonprofits the duty of defending places.
As the metaverse continues to be marketed as the “future” of human society, the kind of relationships made possible by VR/AR must be weighed against the disconnection which will inevitably follow: the estrangement of man from his physical location, his physical community, and, finally, from his physical universe.
Nonprofits must seize the “meta-moment” and reject its “innovations.” They must defend physical reality and physical community. As more businesses connect consumers to wackier universes, and as more universities catapult students into more exciting realities, charitable organizations must uphold their role as steadfast connector of man with fellow man, of Samaritan with his neighbor. Nonprofits are uniquely equipped for this role because their business is in encouraging and cultivating the spirit of charity. And the act of charity is at bottom an historical act: a particular deed done for a particular person at a particular time.
Charity resists the urge to rip people from places because it demands material circumstances be acknowledged. It may be that our neighbors will opt to “upgrade” realities, choosing virtual, placeless community over physical reality, ignoring the material problems of their nonvirtual life. The rest of us, though, will be left to deal with the only reality we’ve ever known: the one in which the poor still lack, the sick still suffer, and the sorrowful still grieve.
To defend physical reality is to assert its exclusivity. A rediscovery of what makes the physical world beautiful, important, and, ultimately, irreplaceable is the first step. Our years-long familiarity with virtual community caused by the pandemic will make this task difficult, but for those who care deeply about living in a free nation—indeed, in a free reality—it is as worthy a task as it is urgent.