Anthropologist Lisa Messeri on the ‘metaverse’ and other digital worlds
Yale anthropologist Lisa Messeri paid close attention last fall when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg shared his plans to invest billions into creating the “metaverse,” an immersive, digital world that he claims is humanity’s “next frontier.”
Messeri studies the places where technology and science are produced and how scientists and engineers build new worlds through their research and innovations. Her current research focuses on the virtual reality (VR) industry, which produces some of the technology that is seen as central to the metaverse. She worries that Zuckerberg’s metaverse will do more harm than good.
“In Zuckerberg’s hands the vision of sociality, community, and experience existing on this frontier will be devastatingly limited …,” she wrote in an essay published in Wired that placed the tech titan’s vision in historical and cultural context.
Messeri’s first book, “Placing Outer Space: An Earthly Ethnography of Other Worlds,” explored the ways planetary scientists transform the void of space into a cosmos populated with worlds that ignite people’s imaginations. Her next book will examine the people, places, and fantasies shaping VR and its simulated worlds.
Students have embraced Messeri’s anthropological approach to science and technology. She is a 2021 recipient of the Poorvu Family Fund for Academic Innovation award, which recognizes excellence in innovative teaching among Yale’s junior faculty.
Messeri, an assistant professor of anthropology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, recently spoke to Yale News about her teaching, research, and skepticism of Zuckerberg’s metaverse vision. The interview has been edited and condensed.
First, congratulations on winning the Poorvu prize. What do you most enjoy about teaching?
Lisa Messeri: Teaching undergraduates is an extraordinary opportunity to engage with young, eager thinkers. They’re creative. They’re optimistic about technology and, yet, intuitively aware of some of the big problems about which those of us in technology studies are most concerned. It’s exciting to inhabit their more optimistic space. I also like watching students become more mature thinkers as they encounter new material throughout the semester.
You teach an undergraduate seminar titled “Technology and Culture.” What ground do you cover?
Messeri: We start with the ways in which technology affects our understanding of ourselves. Then we zoom out a little bit to think about technology’s role in shaping the communities in which we live. Next, we switch over to thinking about the virtual spaces that we occupy, and we try to understand the distinction between the physical world and the virtual world and how that divide is increasingly less obvious.
This semester, in consultation with my teaching fellow Michelle Venetucci — a graduate student in anthropology — we included a unit on Silicon Valley, discussing its history and contemporary critiques of the tech industry. We hope to dispel myths about technological progress and reach a more fine-tuned understanding of the harms that the Valley propagates. If we can better understand the harms, then maybe we can better see our way toward a better future.
What sorts of myths do you discuss?
Messeri: There are a lot of them. One is the myth that technology is apolitical. It’s not. It embodies the values and perspectives of those who create it. We also try to demystify the idea that simply building a new technology creates a better world. Why have we allowed ourselves to believe this? Why does creating new human resources software, for example, necessarily make the world a better place? There certainly are technologies that can improve the world, but there’s nothing inherent in new technology that makes the world better.
How did you become interested in studying VR?
Messeri: I started thinking about VR in 2015. At that point, I was wrapping up my first book, which focused on outer space and the planetary scientists and astronomers searching for distant planets. That book asked whether the idea of “place,” which we often think of as intimate, personal, and community-based, scales up to the planetary. Can our notion of place be transported to planets that exist far outside our solar system?
Academics tend to try to find through lines between our projects. I might have been expected to do another book on outer space, but I wanted to challenge myself a little bit more and I was still very intrigued about this concept of place. What I really wanted was to study another kind of science or technology that would allow me to continue asking, “How does science and technology change what it means to be somewhere?” VR seemed to directly implicate that question.
What’s something you’ve learned about the VR industry that surprised you?
Messeri: I became intrigued by the fact that so much of the conversation around VR was happening in Los Angeles, not Silicon Valley. I spent 2018 in Los Angeles doing ethnographic fieldwork. I affiliated as closely as possible with different communities of innovators, engineers, scientists, and researchers. I found a few enterprises, including a startup company, a large Hollywood post-production studio, and a university lab, that welcomed me through their doors, allowed me to peek over people’s shoulders, and contribute to their work where I could.
The book will explore what we learn about technology when we study it from a different place — Los Angeles, as opposed to Silicon Valley — that has a slightly different set of cultural norms and local attitudes about technology. Tech becomes this local concept. Not only does the book examine how virtual reality is making us think about what it means to be somewhere, and what it means to be human, but it’s also about how a geographic location structures our understandings of technology and what that technology then, in turn, does in the world.
Mark Zuckerberg has made headlines with his plans to build “the metaverse.” What is the metaverse?
Messeri: When Zuckerberg uses the term, he’s imagining a world in which we’re somehow all equipped with a digital layer, whether it’s through glasses or contact lenses or something else, that provides access to a landscape that seamlessly integrates the physical and digital for social purposes. Currently, wearing a VR headset fully immerses the wearer into a virtual world, but there also is blended or augmented reality (AR) that overlays the virtual world onto the physical world. The Pokemon Go gaming app was one of the first and most successful augmented reality experiences. Using your smartphone, you activated an augmented reality where Pokemon characters were overlaid onto the physical world around you.
To Zuckerberg, the metaverse is this seamlessly integrated VR/AR landscape that also includes collaborating and socializing with other people inhabiting this metaverse. But beyond Zuckerberg, what “the metaverse” means is still being debated. It mostly exists now as a marketing and branding idea.
What concerns you about Zuckerberg’s plans?
Messeri: When Zuckerberg talks about the metaverse, he’s laying out a vision for how humans are going to relate to each other and socialize in the future. And given how much money he’s willing to invest in this concept, we ought to be nervous. It’s unsettling for one individual to have so much dominion over this technology. What does Zuckerberg know about human connection? He’s an engineer. He’s a great coder. Clearly, he’s a shrewd businessman. Time and again, he has demonstrated that he has little true sense of what it means to be social and to build community.
Consider that Facebook originated as an incredibly obnoxious “hot or not” site where guys could rate whether women were attractive or unattractive. Is that his idea of what it means to be social? I’m sure he’s matured, but we should be nervous about the prospect of his company dominating the metaverse because it will be his model of human sociality that gets baked into the code, the infrastructure, and the platform.
Can the world benefit from VR/AR technology?
Messeri: My research focuses on projects intended to do good, specifically a subset of VR experiences designed to create empathy in people wearing the headsets. The underpinning idea is that you can virtually embody someone else and by doing so, learn about someone who is different from you and become a better person. So, as a white woman, I can do a VR experience and have insight into what it’s like to be a Black man; or as a rich person, what it’s like to be poor, et cetera. As you might imagine, the racial, gender, economic, and ableist assumptions in these experiences are potentially problematic. I began my research skeptical of these experiences despite their good intentions. Can you really become more empathetic simply by putting on a VR headset and having an isolated experience?
Over the course of my research, I didn’t necessarily become any more comfortable with such claims. I think that a lot of these empathy experiences remove you from the very people who you’re seeking to better understand. As I teach my undergraduate students, a technology alone — even one as exciting as VR — cannot fix societal problems. That said, there are potentially beneficial uses for VR. It certainly can be an effective educational tool, but only if it is used within a community, not as a replacement for one. If a Yale professor can use a VR headset to better illustrate a point in class and use that experience to engage with students on a deeper level, then that’s a great use of the technology. It’s really a question of whether VR and technology in general replaces the need for human contact or, more preferably, supplements it.