Confronting the Megaverse

When I started teaching cultural and media studies over 20 years ago, all paths of enquiry seemed to lead to Jürgen Habermas.    His concept of the public sphere was repeatedly cited in relation to the development of the worldwide web.  Just as, in Habermas’ account, the London coffee houses of the early 18th century provided a meeting place where are people of rank but below nobility could meet to discuss public affairs, the web was going to provide a public sphere for everybody who had am internet connection.  There was concern then, as now, for the millions who lacked such a connection; but the apparent democracy of the web, where every individual could use their mouse and keyboard to have their say, was widely predicted to promise a new age in human communication and understanding.

Today we are offered the Metaverse.   I suspect that most people are unsure what this means but it is clearly “meta” – beyond the everyday material world.  It is a market of the digital realm, resembling children’s Roblox, where anything can be created and traded as an NFT (non fungible token).   A metaverse mega yacht that has recently sold for $650,000 is the most expensive NFT yet sold in The Sandbox virtual world.  This is not a universe of public debate, but a digital market for rich players where even the currency exists only online, in “blockchain” technology.  What has happened to that idealistic vision of worldwide communication over the worldwide web?

I first realised that there was something wrong with this application of Habermas’ vision when I was coaching a dissertation student who was related to the royal family.   She was determined to deal with the intrusion of the press and media into the monarchy, and proposed to construct a set of rules of engagement. Discussing with her that such rules would work, if at all, only with certain sections of the “quality” press, I realised that Habermas’  concept was of a bourgeois public sphere that no longer existed in its imagined form.  The public and the press of the late 1990s were very different from Joseph Addison and The Spectator.   

This was before social media.  Today, most people in developed countries have immediate access via their phones to an effectively unregulated sphere of information and entertainment where almost anything can be published and consumed, and where “bourgeois” rules of conduct and responsibility do not operate.   Everybody with an Internet connection can participate, but the Web does not present a public sphere for reasoned debate. 

From 1949 until 1987, the US Federal Communications Commission’s Fairness Doctrine required broadcasters to identify and cover issues of public importance and to give airtime to opposing views. Reagan’s revocation of the Fairness Doctrine in 1989 allowed news stations to construct news and comment in line with the assumed preferences of their audiences (and financial backers).  It is often argued that this led to the current polarisation of US news media.  However, the Fairness Doctrine applied only to broadcast licences; it would not have impeded the development of cable channels such as CNN and Fox News, nor social media. 

In his novel 1984, George Orwell projected a media universe where reality and truth have lost meaning.  He imagined ubiquitous television screens that cocooned the citizens of the megastates Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia in a fake reality.  The difference between Orwell’s forecast and our present reality is not that one illusory worldview is transmitted but that various proponents of the culture wars, each with their own political and financial allegiances, mount a co-dependent spectacle of opposition.  Division, as one US commentator remarked, is a good business plan.   Our metaverse of countless cable channels and social media is a product of the money and power that maintain the people of Planet Earth in confusion and ignorance. 

This metaverse of disinformation is not merely technologically but historically and culturally determined.  Despite the rhetoric of “one nation under God”, the US has for nearly two centuries projected two cultural universes.  After the Civil War, a large minority did not accept that all men and women were truly created equal. Jim Crow laws designed to disenfranchise and remove political and economic gains made by black people were enforced until the mid 1960s.   And racial hate was not resolved by the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  Affronted by the ascendancy of a Black man to the office of President, white supremacist voters elected Donald Trump as Obama’s successor.  Today, in a remarkable realisation of Orwell’s forecast, a majority of Republican voters live in a metaverse as insubstantial as the Sandbox but maintained by Fox News, Newsmax and the echo chamber of social media. They do not believe that Trump lost the 2020 election.  And legislators in numerous states are realising the intention of the illusion by changing voting laws to further disenfranchise Black and other “minority” voters.  

Pandemics and climate change make disregard and perversion of the truth increasingly dangerous.  The human world of Planet Earth will come to an end if Habermas’ vision of an informed public sphere cannot be realised.   Investors in the Metaverse may, as The Baffler suggests, buy up fake land and fake homes that exist only within energy-guzzling servers stored in a desert air-conditioned warehouse.   The people of the threatened human world need to learn and discuss truthful information about the real state of things.  

Trump Republicans are recreating George Orwell’s 1984

140 House Republicans have demonstrated their continued support for the former president and his lie that the 2020 election was rigged. Some have gone further along the path of perfidy and have stated that the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021 didn’t happen, that the rioters were merely tourists walking through the hallways. In the words of commentators working for CNN (but not Fox News or NewsMax), they are rewriting history. “The Rewriting of History” is a phrase from George Orwell’s 1984. In Orwell’s prophetic novel, written in 1948, the Party (IngSoc) rule Oceania, a landmass including what are now the United States and the United Kingdom (the latter satirically renamed Airstrip 1). They constantly alter news broadcasts, media reports and historical records to support the current version of truth. They survey the people through ubiquitous television screens. Most citizens submit to the domination of their leader, Big Brother, and the authoritarian militia that stamp out any rebellious elements. O’Brien, the senior functionary who captures and tortures Winston Smith, the protagonist of the novel, tells him that the reality of 1984 is a boot stamping on a human face, forever. This is the reality imagined by the mob who stormed the Capitol.

The terror of 1984 is not just the torture: the cage of starved rats that will devour Winston if he does not comply. Eventually, Winston gives in and agrees that he loves Big Brother. He is defeated. But the greater terror is of a world where people voluntarily give up their freedom because of fear. You can see the fear in the faces of the Republican representatives as they deny the truth.

Trump is Big Brother. He has an uncanny attraction to millions who cannot bear their individual lives and would rather join with him in an inchoate, ignorant, violent mass of “us” against “them”, “them” being liberals, Blacks, Democrats and others who, they believe, would take way their primal American freedoms. He is kept in place, six months after he lost the office of president, by an oligarchical media who, for financial and ideological reasons, perpetuate the big lie – that Trump really won the 2020 election.

In Orwell’s novel, the combination of state and ideological power maintains the status quo. In the USA today, Trump Republicans are a minority, but they are convinced they are right. Their identity and security lie in their certainty that they are the winners and that with Trump they will finally gain liberty. The opposite, of course, is the case.

The Age of Anxiety

The phrase “Age of Anxiety” has been around for a while.  The title of Auden’s 1947 poem is much better known than the poem itself, and even Jamie Cullum’s song was written before the advent of the pandemic.  But we are now in a new age of widespread distress.

Many writers have tried to describe the feeling of general anxiety about one’s being-in-the-world.  Emile Durkheim coined the term anomie to describe the loss of common norms and values that accompany social dislocation.  John Bowlby argued that disturbed children lack a sense of a secure base. A sense of ontological insecurity must underlie the anxiety of those who devote themselves to “strong” leaders who they believe will help and protect them.  George Orwell’s Big Brother was a satirical yet foreboding invention.   Hannah Arendt wrote about Nazi totalitarianism: “In an ever changing, incomprehensible world, the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and nothing was true.” But this is not true only of the “masses”. The spectacle of Rudy Giuliani sweating with anxiety in his devotion to Trump is a sad contrast to the man who gained appreciation for his leadership of New York after 9/11.

Meanwhile, the actual pandemic, and attempts to manage it, have severely disrupted and curtailed social life.   Defending ourselves against an invisible viral enemy that can strike at any time, we isolate from each other.  Everyday companionship can be gained, if at all, only through a phone or computer screen.  Household income falls, or even ceases.  The lives of millions of people without secure accommodation, heating or food become even more precarious. 

The pandemic, like the fear of totalitarianism, is destructive of all living together. Fortunately, the discovery of a vaccine, and the election of Biden, signal a respite in anxiety.  But recent events in the US and UK have shown that authoritarianism was not buried in the history of the 1930s but is immanent in an apparent democracy.  This plague, wrote Albert Camus, never dies.  “It waits patiently in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers for the day when it will once again rouse its rats and send them to die in some well-contented city.”