“So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”
— 2 Corinthians 4:18
Every simulation frays at the edges. In the genre-defining movie The Matrix, this idea is visibly taken to the extreme with the introduction of the woman in the red dress. To the inhabitants inside the Matrix’s virtual world, the woman is a tool to subtly persuade Neo, the unplugged protagonist, that anyone can turn into Agent Smith, a tool wielded by the Matrix. If one isn’t careful, they too can end up as agents of the Matrix, serving the powers that be in utter ignorance.
That scene percolates in my mind as I successively encounter two types of people: Those who think that the world will return to a steady state of affairs and those who are aware that this year is a turning point, much like 1524, 1618, 1789, or 1914.
And unsurprisingly, the former persona, likely a member of the esteemed Twitterati or academic intelligentsia, opines that we should transform laid-off retail workers into computer programmers. Only someone wildly divorced from the nuts and bolts of innovation could make such a claim – even the best computer code can’t sustain a crumbling economy.
Maybe these ludicrous suggestions are what we should expect from western leaders who have removed themselves from the plight of the working class; they have no answers, so any considerations they offer are naturally contrived. Indeed, they’re false idols.
However, there are far fewer people outside of our hollowed-out Matrix who know that a new path is required if we don’t want society to resemble a nocturnal Black Mirror episode: One where there is no upward mobility nor any hope of success outside the narrow confines of creating an enterprise software company or a hedge fund. What could this new vision be?
In my piece, The Third Industrial Revolution, I made the case that the best solution could very well be a full re-haul of America’s physical infrastructure – we’ve built great cities before like Chicago, from zero to hundreds of thousands of inhabitants, in 30 years. Can we do the same now – is it time for a new society?
The path we’re on, neatly assembling virtual realities for all, is nothing short of a nightmare. We must shoot a lead bullet, aimed squarely at bankrupt ideologies: It’s time for a change.
“When some dream only of transforming the world, others, regarding it as having disappeared, dream only of obliterating its traces.”
— Jean Baudrillard
It’s a startling fact that once workers leave the labor force, they likely never return. Where do they go? This year has seen the Cambrian explosion of virtual worlds, the metaverse as a service. Despite my experience in the space, I find myself wary of the Pandora’s box we’ve unlocked.
When do the meandering paths of meaningless fun and abject nihilism converge?
As we ponder the premise of virtual worlds, one has to wonder whether games like Animal Crossing and companies like Roblox are the building blocks for the new economy. With reality mauled beyond repair, virtual communities have led the great awakening within video games, so much so that people have started to rebuild modern life and all its pleasures with marriage, nightclubs, and talk shows inside of games and simulations.
“Finding a venue for a date can be stressful, and perhaps doubly so during lockdown. But New York-based social media manager Christine Davitt found when connecting with a partner she met on Tinder, Animal Crossing was the perfect low-pressure place to get to know one another…
“It felt liberating to be able to ‘sit’ on a bench together gazing at the moon, to ‘run’ around after each other and chase butterflies, to go ‘fishing’ together behind their house,” she said. “It just felt more real.”
Davitt is not alone – a number of people have been using the platform for dates, one couple used it as a wedding venue, and another user tweeted an Animal Crossing proposal last week.”
This effect is compounded when we look at the impact of these worlds on future generations. Will kids today see this change as merely a minor aberration or a better path for them to follow: Don’t build anything with atoms because it's too difficult or complex.
Of course, if we live inside virtual worlds, the nefarious consequences of asteroid attacks, rampant global warming, racism, and the innumerable perils of human existence cannot affect us. Yet, destruction of these servers or the energy supply would cause the simulation to crumble. Each civilization is doomed to repeat only what it knows – the metaverse models the societies we inhabit, so why should we expect a more enviable outcome?
As an alternate example, Roblox is the cream of the IPO crop. Its growth since 2006 has been nothing short of exemplary, largely inspired by Roblox Studio, letting anyone generate their own games.
While Roblox operates some of the strictest guidelines of any video game manufacturer, it’s still not perfect on user safety (an issue with moderation as a field in general). One of the pitfalls of allowing anyone to make a game is that eventually a few people discover a cheat code and operate at the farthest edges – often, the charade is never discovered – resulting in boorish situations such as 13 year olds spending time in BDSM dungeons.
Sadly, this exemplifies my concern with these platforms. Adolescents collectively spend billions of hours a year in these environments; these games will only get more engaging and virtual economies will only get more interesting. Arguably, they’re already a better place to spend one’s time than anything the outside world can begin to offer. One has the chance to make thousands of dollars a month as a teenager in Roblox, much better than working minimum wage at Home Depot.
However, I don’t think we should give up nor tell future generations that living in VR is acceptable. Reality has real issues – decaying infrastructure and critically important industries, untold levels of depression and rampant homelessness in major American cities – that demand our attention and unless we come to decisive conclusions about them, Animal Crossing and Roblox are nothing more than gleeful distractions.
And, as I came to this realization, I personally quit building the metaverse at my previous job in order to focus on building the universe.
I was uncertain that we were creating a world that future generations would be proud to live in. More likely, historians of this period would be flabbergasted at our stunning levels of escapism.
I’m not inclined to believe in hard determinism – civilizations don’t have a set path they’re destined to follow. Their rise nor their crumble aren’t preordained. We definitely have the agency to spend our lives on projects we believe are vital. Most assuredly, we think 2020 will be remembered for its chaos. But, chaos brings clarity.
To this end, my friend Dryden Brown and I are proud to announce Praxis: A new society that supports ambitious founders, creators, and pioneers in discovering and executing on the most ambitious projects they can imagine, while working together towards a shared vision for the future.
Ultimately, we’ve lost the future because we’ve lost our common cause. If we can return to a society based on shared values, we can converge on a vision for the future. Modern transportation. Modular construction. Innovative governance. Decentralized currency. Default healthy food, exercise in nature, human interaction, and ownership. If we share this vision for the future, we may be able to build it.
Today, we must build the future our values demand.
Most dread aging; we seek eternal life. Most gaze passively at the stars; we design the machinery of exploration. Most hope purpose finds them; we live with purpose every day.
2020 won't just be remembered for its dark moments. With courage, vision, and faith in the frontier, we can ensure that 2020 is remembered as a turning point:
The inception of a new golden age.