The Lord God said, “It is not good for man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). No one likes to be alone. It is in our nature to be with people . . . sometimes. Even introverts need good company every now and then. The internet has made possible so many ways of connecting with people near and far, but we should never substitute online presence for real, embodied presence. It goes against our nature and well-being.
Many people have felt the difference between these two forms of presence during COVID, prompting people to find new ways of having community. But what kind of community? Virtual community or community with the bodily presence of others? Social media titans such as Mark Zuckerberg would like us to think that there’s no difference between the two, even suggesting that online, “virtual” worlds might be the better choice. This is the hype of companies striving to get us to use their platforms in order to tap into the inevitable metaverse. But before subscribing and plugging into this matrix, we would do well to read Hubert Dreyfus’ On the Internet.
Dreyfus foresaw the dangerous implications of living online, warning us not to neglect communities of bodily presence (simply being with each other) that are essential to the good life. While Dreyfus presents his ideas in secular garb, they are very close to the primordial truths expressed in Genesis. In a way, all humans remember Adam’s wonder at Eve (his companion) who is “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” as a recognition of the importance of bodily presence for spiritual union. And while Dreyfus would have surely smirked at this comparison (he was an atheist), Christians can, in the light of faith, better explain the importance of the body for human flourishing, recalling not only Adam but God’s way of communicating himself in the New Adam, incorporating us into his Body (the Church) where we find the source and summit of our life in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Reflection on such mysteries of the faith will equip us to better expose the crafty lies these serpentine tech giants hiss to us, eager to convince us to eat of the counterfeit communities sprouting upon the branches of the not-real. But such fruit will open further possibilities of falling away from the real and loving presence of those around us, particularly practicing the presence of God.
One year before COVID broke out, Word on Fire asked if I could write a book review for its digital age issue of the Evangelization & Culture journal. I chose to review Hubert Dreyfus’ book. While the book was a bit dated, I thought this wise phenomenologist, who was a thorn in the flesh of the early AI community, might have something interesting to say about virtual reality. When COVID hit and the world went into lockdown, I realized the importance of Dreyfus’ book and why everyone ought to read it before completely losing ourselves online. I don’t think we’re in Ready Player One yet, but I wonder how far we are from that dystopia. On the Internet is a humane work, pointing out the value of the relationships given in the world right in front of you. We must all learn how to be in this world, and Dreyfus can be our guide.
On the Internet is not long. Its five chapters cover how Google created a useful search engine; tele-education, telecommunications, and telepresence; anonymity and nihilism; virtual social worlds; and the constitutive elements of a meaningful life. Though in some ways a bit dated, Dreyfus’ analysis feels even fresher today given recent developments in virtual reality (metaverse) and the “new normal” of ethereal relationships under COVID.
The last chapter, “Virtual Embodiment: Myths of Meaning in Second Life,” is the most important for our purposes. Dreyfus offers an existential critique of life online and why the richness of human life cannot be replicated there, unwittingly painting the most compelling pictures of why human flourishing is found in a body like the Church.
The metaverse is a new and improved version of Second Life (created in 2003), a three-dimensional virtual environment one can log in to from home. The selling of real estate, business ventures, even “evangelization”were already being done on Second Life, so metaverse is nothing new under the sun. Dreyfus’ existentialist critique of Second Life just as well applies to the metaverse. Like the famous South Park “Make Love, Not Warcraft” episode’s parody of the idea that things like love and self-sacrifice can occur on something like the metaverse, Dreyfus argues that the metaverse lacks the “contagion of moods” that human bodily presence makes possible and that, in turn, create the memorable and meaningful experiences that make life worth living. He even cites the Eucharist as an example of a focal event that gives life meaning.
I wish he would have developed this, because the Eucharist, God’s chosen way of dwelling with us in his Church, is the best judgment of virtual reality. As seen in salvation history, God comes to us as a lover, the Bridegroom, meeting his Bride in the flesh. The Eucharist is a foretaste of that nuptial union, the fullness of presence, that today’s Adam continues to long for. Insofar as the metaverse takes people away from embodied experiences that anticipate such union, it is not good for us. Dreyfus makes that case very well.
I write this from Poland, having just returned from Eucharistic Adoration, and it occurs to me that in Christ I find what the metaverse cannot give: communion. As my colleague Andrew Petiprin has argued, insofar as the metaverse offers us community without communion, it is diabolical, a counterfeit Church. And we all need to do a better job of forming an embodied community within the Church, becoming better brothers and sisters in Christ. That way, the temptation to even plug into the metaverse would be absent. I am grateful for the internet letting me continue to cultivate the relationships I have whether I am in Europe or the United States, because being in communication with our loved ones is good, and I value the internet as a means to that end. But being together with our loved ones is even better.
Marketers of the metaverse seem to suggest that the virtual community online is an end in itself. It’s nice to have a book like Dreyfus’ to make that clear. “It is not good for man to be alone,”and that the virtual community that the metaverse affords is no Eve. It would be a pity for Christ to return only to find his Bride fully plugged in, with headset on, virtually missing his arrival.