The Metaverse is About Running Away

Image by 0fjd125gk87 from Pixabay

Sure it is you think, play some games in the metaverse, go to some “live” concerts and wander around. It’s an escape of the daily drudgery or when we just want a distraction for a while. It is. Also, it’s more than that. It could actually be a reflection of the very ancient ways humans played with societies and politics, going back thousands of years. Those who are driving the idea of the metaverse, who deeply believe in its potential, are but a small sliver of society, and it has nothing to do with technology.

It has to do with our desire, a need, to run away from today’s world. Precisely because we have nowhere to physically run away to anymore. We used to have lots of space to run away. And we ran away a lot. Now we don’t have that space. Running away is a key human survival trait. This is what is actually most important about the metaverse as an idea. Why?

It’s debatable that the metaverse will truly come into existence, now or in the foreseeable future. Today there are many types of mini-metaverses if you will. Platforms like Roblox, Decentraland or Viverse among many others. You can access them through any screen and of course, VR goggles. It’s a mess. That’s okay. It’s early days. But current iterations of the metaverse are not what people actually want. They want something else.

How we’re talking about the metaverse as a concept, is what is more telling on a sociocultural level. Meta (Facebook) is not working on this project to advance human society, they’re doing it because they want to create a market they can capitalize on. Nothing at all wrong with that.

It’s the conversations outside of Meta and VC firms like Andreeson-Horowitz that are more important and interesting. Meta, Roblox, Decentraland, their view is strictly capitalist. That’s not wrong, but it’s singular and it’s not what most view as the purpose of the metaverse. And it’s why we’re having those conversations.

Human societies have a very long record, and habit, of running away from the societies they build. We’ve also had many different ways of dealing with those in power. For most of us today, the frame of reference is the system arising out of Western European thinking and colonization. That system however, is only one in a long line and is actually very short running in terms of human history.

If we look further back, we see that for millennia, humans played at politics, cultures and social systems as far back as our hunter-gatherer days. We’ve tended to think of more ancient societies as not very smart and simplistic. Just wandering about eating berries and nuts, having babies and not doing much else. The truth is exactly the opposite. They were very sophisticated, philosophical and played a lot with politics and power structures.

In many Native American societies, as just one example, they had complex ways of how power was shared and governed. The Wendat, for example, had different chiefs for different roles. The War Chief only had power to conduct warfare, beyond that, he had no power. They also had an elaborate constitutional structure. Many Native American societies also had complex systems where women had significant power and influence and they had complex economic systems and very different views on property (arguably much better than today’s systems.)

Hot topics of what people want the metaverse to be, not Roblox or Meta idea, but those of the broader public, talk of equality, democracy, fair compensation, property, the division of labour and the ability to create and even systems of governance.

They’re talking about issues they don’t feel they have the agency to change in the real world. So the metaverse becomes a new “place” in which to find that agency. So they’re running away. Fighting, in terms of revolution, is not seen as desirable. The majority of humans prefer to avoid societal conflicts and wars. Contrary to popular belief, humans prefer trade and co-existence over war.

Today, we don’t have anywhere to run away to in terms of physical space. If Americans, Swedes, South Africans, decide they don’t like their society and system of governance, they can’t just pick up and wander off to settle some new land and try over again. There’s no more land to do that. The world is full of nation-states. Antarctica isn’t, but it’s a wee bit chilly and there’s no trees to build shelters and fire. And no berries to pick.

How humans create societies is all in our heads. Systems and structures of governance, nation-state boundaries, all these things only exist in our heads. The metaverse exists only in our heads. But it is the only place, right now, that we can go and create, play, with new ideas. It is a thought experiment.

Perhaps in time, when the technology advances enough, we will go to Mars and other planets. Earth has pretty much reached its capacity to support humanity at its current size. It has definitely reached its capacity in terms of space for humans to freely wander around and build new societies. It is part of the reason there is so much conflict over how to run our world today. Social media have played a key role in us realizing this.

Whether or not an actual, overarching metaverse that allows connection with all the other metaverses comes to exist is important in terms of our future sociocultural systems. It is in direct conflict with today’s Western European, capitalist model. It will, and already does, have capitalist models at work and that’s quite alright. But the discussions people are having are more about a vision for a future world operating system. A place to play and experiment, like we’ve done for many thousands of years.

We are running towards the metaverse because it’s a biological imperative and sociocultural survival trait.



Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Digital Anthropologist | Chief Innovation Officer | I'm in WIRED, Forbes & National Geographic etc.