Ever since humanity achieved consciousness, it’s pined to travel through space and time — to beam up as in “Star Trek” and accomplish an earthly presence after death. The metaverse, touted by Mark Zuckerberg and others, could deliver much of that by bringing together virtual reality, augmented reality, artificial intelligence, robotics and the internet.
Virtual reality can be a delightful diversion — guiding our avatars and characters whose identities we appropriate through fantasy adventures and intellectual pursuits. But when we work, play and shop, Zoom and video games and online marketplaces are incomplete substitutes for being able to send visual cues, exert physically and touch and smell the merchandise.
In the metaverse, comfortable glasses or contact lenses and haptic devices will replace clunky goggles and wands. Realistic digital replicas of ourselves become the avatar, and we will grimace or smile to our neighbor, taste the cooking at Williams Sonoma and walk down the aisle at the opera to steal a glance at the pit orchestra.
You won’t get to sing with the chorus, because these will be interactions with real personalities with distinctive abilities as you live in two — perhaps several — places at once.
BMW and Nvidia have created a digital twin of an entire factory. Engineers from multiple locations can place their presence, through motion capture suits, into the digital twin to rearrange the factory floor and replicate the physical motions of workers to optimally configure machinery to produce a vehicle.
Hologram-like projections of deceased singers Maria Callas and Roy Orbison have performed on stage. Researchers and entrepreneurs are exploring how digital versions of people can be kept alive after death and learning from new experiences.
Wouldn’t it be great to have Daniel Webster broker compromises among warring factions in Congress or your grandmother to read to your children?
More tempting is the potential to fully replicate our physical characteristics and personalities to participate at metaverse meetings and produce a work product, while we lie on the beach or tour Paris. Soon this may not be science fiction but should be pursued with caution.
My intellect as an economist and columnist is more than the simple sum of classes attended, books read and work experience. It’s all informed by what I have encountered walking through life. It includes all the thoughts I have turned in my mind but not shared with others.
To replicate ourselves, we need a complete digital record of our lives — all that we see, do, say and ponder. That is something we are very close to being able to create through our constant digital companions, smartphones and direct interface between our senses and brains and those devices.
The zillions of computing power and computer memory necessary to accomplish our digital duals won’t be free, but just as we use social media and surf the web without charge, Facebook, Google and others may be happy to enable us if we let them ride along to record our lives with us. And in the bargain market, monetarize and manipulate who and what we are.
Think it’s far-fetched? Consider how the Chinese government increasingly tracks its citizens to ferret out dissident words and actions, or how the ads that match our interests pop up on our screens as we shop online. Modern fascism is all about personality and behavioral control — conformity of thought, word and deed.
The iron pentagon of intolerance — Black Lives Matter, the radical feminist and LGBTQ movements, labor unions, disaffected academics and the mainstream media — are bullying businesses, universities and cultural institutions to establish diversity, equity and inclusion programs.
In the Soviet Union, every Red Army unit, industrial and agricultural operation and youth and cultural organization had a commissar who monitored personnel to ensure ideological conformity. Now we have DEI officers to enforce political correctness.
Don’t believe in the wage gap, you’re a misogynist. Don’t support gay marriage, you’re a homophobe. Don’t support President Biden’s Build Back Better, you’re a racist.
It is increasingly routine for universities to require from job applicants diversity, equity and inclusion statements.
Get with the program or starve. Or if you are a public intellectual, get canceled by the media.
With digital duals, the jackboot of progressive oppression won’t need those mini-inquisitions — they can just go to Mr. Zuckerberg’s database of dissident conduct.
Consider how Facebook, Twitter and others censor conservative speech, can you imagine what they would do with our digital duals?
Human beings by necessity are social creatures — we thrive in groups and perish alone — but our communities should not steal our independent beings.
That’s something democracy protects but liberals abhor, and technologists have been happy to enable that intolerance.
• Peter Morici is an economist and emeritus business professor at the University of Maryland, and a national columnist.