Do you have this alarming feeling, right now, that everything is suddenly, quickly falling apart?
At the same time, does everything feel so strange less real for you, as if modern life was just one big bogus act – a performative parade of political spin, slogans, social media campaigns, mock outrage and points scored by a little culture war?
These two things are linked. As a company, we’ve spent years building an elaborate pyramid scheme of virtual realities – from cryptocurrencies to social media influencers to startups that only outdo each other by posting eye-popping losses every year – all at the expense of the real world. And now, in 2022, reality finally catches up with us.
The word “virtual” first appeared in the 14th century. It was not until the 15th century, however, that it took on something like its current meaning: “to be something of essence or effect, but not really or in fact”. These first origins should immediately disabuse us of the idea that the “virtual” has anything to do with modern technology. Something is “virtual” on the basis of its psychological effect alone, and a “virtual reality” is simply any imaginary world with its own internal rules and expectations.
All games involve virtual realities. Novels too. The same goes for the experience of sitting on the subway, sending WhatsApp messages to your friends – your mind as much “inside” the group chat as the physical space of the train.
Virtual realities are therefore as old as humanity – or at least as old as children who play pretend. But where modern technology has has made the difference in recent years is to present us with a vast semi-permanent network of virtual worlds. Social media, 24/7 news, online pornography, instant messaging, emails, always there in the background, overlapping and interconnecting, so we can often go whole days without really going out of his labyrinth. If, that is to say, we really escape it mentally.
And all of this has led, in recent decades, to the emergence of a singularly modern form of collective madness: what I call “hyper-virtualism”. It’s just when the virtual realms we inhabit start to feel more real and normal than the real thing – when the fantasy worlds start to feel like the default, and the physical world starts to feel like the derivative. The telltale sign of hyper-virtualism is when we expect that by managing things in virtual worlds, we will end up changing things in the real world as well.
We all suffer from hyper-virtualism of one kind or another. We believe our social media personas are truly our personalities; that online activism will really change the world (that black square profile pictures will really stop police brutality in the United States, or that police talk on Twitter will really end racism). We believe that good poll numbers and headlines are really all that matters to a political party’s fortunes (and, by extension, the nation’s fortunes); that cryptocurrencies truly have a mysterious and enduring source of value outside of the material resources that underpin fiat currencies. Add to that the belief that the metaverse, play-to-earn games, and NFTs will somehow create a second virtual economy on top of the physical one, rather than just displacing some money from the luxury analog market into the luxury digital market. .
Perhaps the web’s most significant contribution to hyper-virtualism is something we hardly think about today: the time we now spend immersed in various forms of text.
In 1990, the average person spent between one and two hours a day reading and writing. By 2012, thanks to the internet and various forms of messaging, that had already reached something like five hours a day (and of course, for many people, much more). That’s a third of our waking life – more time than we spend on anything other than sleeping.
While much of our experience of reality passes through the prism of text, we come to imagine that the words on our screens – emails, text exchanges, news sites, Twitter feeds – are sort of the real world itself. In other words, we transform the real world into a simplified virtual world in our heads, a world that can be engaged and manipulated by text alone. To use Marshall McLuhan’s jargon, we confuse the medium, the text, with the message: reality.
The effect of all this on a person’s psychology is subtle. Obviously, no one literally believes that there is no physical reality beyond their screens. But hyper-virtualism has a warping effect, whereby different aspects of our experience are sorted into a sort of hierarchy of reality. As writer Duncan Reyburn puts it, those parts of our lives that lie outside the virtual realm are, in a sense, increasingly “assumed to have no real reality’. Replicate this distortion in the minds of billions of people around the world and associate it, historically speaking, with relative material comforts, political stability and an extremely complex globalized trade network – so that we forget how we depend on a few fragile physical resources. facts – and our collective expectations, stripped of their short-term responsibility for the truth, begin to drift further and further from reality.
The warning signs have piled up. Take the infamous Fyre Festival in 2017, apparently founded on the premise that social media influencers could substitute for the hard work of organizing a physical event for flesh-and-blood humans. Or the recent “shock” realization that Bitcoin depends on huge servers – with huge environmental costs. Or the disastrous evacuation of the United States from Afghanistan, which stubbornly refused to follow the narrative of the White House social media interns.
The pandemic, of course, has only made matters worse – bringing about a spasm of fantasies about metaverses, crypto-utopias, virtual real estate and computer games for winning. But eventually, as Reyburn writes, “reality will tear things apart so that great systematists realize this simple fact: the system is not reality.” And so we come to 2022: the year in which the real fought back.
The virtual is collapsing everywhere. Earlier this month, we witnessed the “shock” collapse of the FTX exchange, wiping out $183 billion from an already collapsing cryptocurrency market. The internal currency of Axie Infinity, a game that would allow people around the world to “play to win”, has lost 92% of its value.
The NFT market is in freefall – a ‘Bored Ape’ image Justin Bieber bought for £1.06million in January is now worth just £60,000 (who would have thought a profile picture could lose steam? value ?). Meta squandered £65billion and laid off 11,000 staff, despite the much-heralded arrival of the legs.
Deliveroo, Spotify and Uber are all hemorrhaging money as it becomes increasingly clear that their business models are based on nothing but speculation and blind hope. Even the very infrastructure of the Internet is being questioned: online advertising, the quasi-physical reality on which so many virtual worlds ultimately depend, looks more and more like a sham.
We are also witnessing the collapse of hyper-virtualism in the “real” world. In politics, we’ve seen the bizarre budget of Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng: an economic plan apparently designed and proposed for a fantasy world in which the markets really like huge bets delivered with a “fuck you” attitude. Suddenly everyone seems to have noticed that the infrastructure has collapsed as we focused on the culture wars. The trains, it turns out, won’t fix themselves. Young people will never stop wanting houses. Cancer won’t just wait until a more opportune time. Contrary to the predictions of multi-millionaires, owning nothing is unlikely to make us happy.
In America, several cities have tried to cut police numbers (following social media campaigns to defund the cops), with the surprising result of an increase in crime. Everyone on Twitter has, yet again, been wrong about America’s midterms – not least the Republicans who tried and failed to’same‘ their path to electoral success. And, as I write, Qataris are burning $220 billion – 15 times more than any other World Cup – dressing up in the respectability of a famous event. All this while fans are spending over £160 to stay in a ‘village’ of austere rows of gazebos, with no official figures on how many temps have died for the privilege.
It would be absurd to attribute all this solely to hyper-virtualism. Indeed, it would be, in its own way, a form of hyper-virtualism to assume that everything that happens in the world can be explained by an autonomous system. But it would be equally absurd to think that our immersion in an ever-expanding network of self-reinforcing virtual worlds has anything to do with it.
So what comes next? Only a fool would try to predict the details. Hopefully, however, as we collectively sober up from our battle with hyper-virtualism, we’ll see a broad return to basic physical concerns. It means politicians realizing they can’t spin or memorize their way to success, that infrastructure, public services and growth come first. It will mean a shift, on the left, away from identity politics and back to simple class-based economic arguments. It will mean that our Silicon Valley overlords will realize that physical innovations – nuclear fusion, Hyperloop, graphene – can transform lives more than virtual ones.
This is just the beginning, but there has been one crucial indicator over the past two years that change is already underway. During the pandemic, unexpectedly, social media engagement actually began to decline, and it has continued to decline ever since. Who would have guessed? Maybe we are all slowly starting to wake up.