Reality and the Metaverse In a virtual universe designed by humans, humans know it all. The beauty of the real universe is that, the more we learn, the more we realise the vastness of our ignorance.

This segment is inspired by two superb newsletters that dropped earlier this week. So before I go any further, hats off to Mike Sowden of Everything Is Amazing and to Nikita Petrov of Psychopolitica.

Todays newsletter is about the stories we tell each other about current affairs — popularly known as ‘the news’.

First up: the Metaverse.

Did you see this? If not, I’ll let Mike Sowden do the dirty work of introducing you to what can only be credibly comprehended as the feverish gibberings of Mark Zuckerberg in the afterglow of a wet dream:

A few days ago, Facebook’s parent company (also called Facebook) changed its name to Meta, and Mark Zuckerberg released a video outlining his vision for what he calls the Metaverse: a seamless network of virtual experiences that’ll try to create the perpetual illusion you’re “inside” the Internet while you’re online.

The Metaverse is full of ideas like virtual businesses running on Zuckerberg-owned cryptocurrency, cartoon avatars slightly more handsome than you, virtual screens that float in front of your face and augmented reality glasses.

Zuckerberg reckons this Metaverse is about 10-15 years away.

You can take your pick, but, for me, the most chilling part of Zuckerberg’s 75-minute presentation video is where he tawddles about privacy:

Privacy and safety need to be built into the Metaverse from day one. You’ll get to decide when you want to be with other people, when you want to block someone from appearing in your space — or when you want to take a break and teleport to a private bubble to be alone.

Because god forbid that you’d want to ever actually leave the Metaverse. After all, inside your own private bubble, no one can hear you scream.

The beauty of ignorance

I don’t know how you learned about Zuckerberg’s Metaverse announcement (maybe it’s from me, right now — the honour!), but I’m glad I got the news from Mike Sowden because, for a newsletter with the title Everything Is Amazing, the Metaverse comes as an existential threat.

It’s not just that a Zuckerberg-designed virtual reality is a terrifyingly advertising-strewn prospect, it’s that it will be bounded by human limitation in a way that reality reality is not.

In a virtual universe designed by humans, by definition, humans know everything. The beauty of the real universe is that, the more we learn, the more we realise the vastness of our ignorance.

I’ll leave you with Mike’s beautiful conclusion:

Virtual worlds are most definitely designed by humans. This means they’re limited to what the human imagination is capable of cooking up, and the human-made computing hardware that can make it happen. In every way, a virtual world is anthropocentric. It’s by, & for, human beings.

The actual world, on the other hand, has a wonderful and occasionally disturbing tendency to ignore our wishes and surprise us in its unfathomable complexity, boundless novelty and awe-inspiring beauty. It is a mystery that we will never get to the bottom of, and most days, that’s kinda why life is worth living.

REALITY: The antidote

The antidote to the Metaverse, as Mike Sowden suggests, is reality. But perhaps not the REALITY of Nikita Petrov, author of the Psychopolitica newsletter.

Petrov’s REALITY is a work-in-progress YouTube show in which the most outrageous news stories of the day are read out in a dispassionate voice by an alien Bodhisattva journalist.

REALITY’s first story is about a German YouTuber, extremely popular with teenagers, who has inspired what psychiatrists are calling the world’s first ever mass sociogenic illness induced and spread by social media alone.

Jan Zimmermann, the YouTuber in question, launched their channel in February 2019. According to psychiatrists at Hanover Medical School, Zimmermann’s videos are peppered with ‘countless number of movements, vocalizations, words, phrases, and bizarre behaviours’ that he claims are tics caused by Tourette syndrome.

The only issue is that these tics are only stereotyped ‘mimics’ of symptoms that ‘lay people typically associate with Tourette syndrome’.

Yet Zimmermann’s atypical behaviour is being copied by teenagers in Germany, UK, US, Denmark, France, and Canada, making it an illness seemingly induced by the viewing of entertaining YouTube videos.

Flying sharks and stress relief

This is how the Hanover psychiatrists introduce the new illness:

Affected teenagers present with similar or identical functional “Tourette-like” behaviours, which can be clearly differentiated from tics in Tourette syndrome.

These teenagers basically start acting up when confronted with disfavoured tasks like schoolwork.

All patients presented with nearly identical movements and vocalizations that not only resemble Jan Zimmermann’s symptoms, but partly are exactly the same such as shouting the German words … “Du bist häßlich” (English: you are ugly), and “Fliegende Haie” (English: flying sharks) as well as bizarre and complex behaviours such as throwing pens at school and dishes at home, and crushing eggs in the kitchen.

Meanwhile, the Tourette-like behaviours mysteriously disappear when the teenagers are engaged in more pleasurable tasks. Like watching YouTube videos, maybe…

But why?

According to the Hanover psychiatrists, these behavioural tics are a response to societal stress:

They can be viewed as the 21th century expression of a culture-bound stress reaction of our post-modern society emphasizing the uniqueness of individuals and valuing their alleged exceptionality, thus promoting attention-seeking behaviours and aggravating the permanent identity crisis of modern man.

It’s weird. It’s REALITY.

You can read more about Petrov’s plans for Reality over on their Psychopolitica Substack.

These stories are all very interesting, but what’s the point?

Good question. This segment has two points. The first point is that I heard the news of both the Metaverse announcement and the new social media-induced functional Tourette syndrome contagion from non-traditional news sources.

This made me reflect on the stories we tell each other about current affairs (AKA ‘the news’).

I’ve chosen to trust these two writers with telling me their news stories and both arrived directly into my inbox. I’ve been subscribed to Psychopolitica for over a year now, whereas this was my first edition of Everything Is Amazing.

Mike Sowden’s story, about technology in the shadow of climate change, is a desperate appeal to fall in love with reality reality again — before it’s too late.

Broadly speaking, Nikita Petrov’s REALITY is a satire on newscasting, but the story he’s chosen to read is a dispassionate account of what can happen (functional Tourette syndrome) when we mistake artifice (the YouTube storytelling of Jan Zimmermann) for reality.

Stories — whether wittingly or unwittingly — teach us lessons and both of these are lessons worth learning and re-learning.

I’ve been following my no news diet for five years now and these are the questions I ask myself on the regular:

  • Who are you letting tell you the news? Are these active or passive choices? Signing up to the newsletter of a trusted writer: active. Listening to the 5-minute news segments that appear between songs on a radio station: passive.
  • What kind of stories are they telling? You can even pin down the genre: is this a horror story? A thriller? A rom-com? A tragedy? A farce?
  • What lessons are you learning? This might take some digging because, as Nikita Petrov shows us, the storytelling of journalism is often concealed behind a supposedly dispassionate delivery.
  • How do you feel afterwards? Do you feel empowered? Do you feel alienated?

That’s the first point of this segment. The second point is simply to say thank you for allowing me the privilege of telling you the news today.