Topic: TechnologyMemory Loss and the Metaverse

From gaming to virtual museum tours to Google Earth, the use of interactive digital spaces to record places, store information and build online worlds is well-established. But the metaverse is now recording real spaces and vanishing places. Nicholas Pritchard examines what museums and photographic records do to our sense of the world – and questions whether commercial cloud spaces are the right next step for our cultural and ecological memories.

By Nicholas Pritchard

Here are some things I want to see again: tussled fields on the road to Liverpool, a bed of hyacinths at the side of my parents’ house, the colour of your eyelids when you raise your face to the sky and close your eyes in a habitable world (which I think is called a cadmium red). All of these are being carted away by ghostly curators. ‘They are not finished’, I want to say. ‘They’d only just started. Leave them living where they are.’ But they are gone by the time I return. As the climate crisis cements into everyday life, the places we love are becoming more transient.

The vanishing world has led to new and strange forms of memorialization. Of these, Tuvalu’s plan to digitize its islands through the metaverse is perhaps the most well-known. The Pacific nation aims to transfer its entire governmental apparatus onto the web in anticipation of the rising sea levels that are making the islands unhabitable. The plans also include recreating the islands in the metaverse, where an audience will be able to ‘visit’ the lost nation in virtual reality. From what is available to view at the moment, the audience will be able to navigate a simulacrum of the islands in three dimensions, similar to a video game.

There are tensions and paradoxes at the centre of virtual projects to memorialize a vanishing world. Using virtual reality in this way brings, like a network of stale relationships, a politics of memory rooted in the cultural forms it has inherited. For now, I want to consider how the metaverse emerges and diverges from its relationship with museums and photography, and how this leads to new forms of ecological memory.

At first glance, the ‘saving’ of physical space in the metaverse is closely related to the museum, where an audience occupies a specific site to view artefacts. Early public museums typically organized their objects into categories corresponding to how knowledge was, and in many cases still is, produced. For example, the Natural History Museum in London separates exhibits by species or material (mammal or mineral, for instance). Similarly, the British Museum separates artefacts according to the place and time they were made, regardless of the use of the objects themselves. This represents a way of understanding the world where species and cultures, considered distinct categories, seldom interact.

This represents a way of understanding the world where species and cultures, considered distinct categories, seldom interact

This method of displaying artefacts has been transposed into the virtual world by the National Museum of Natural History in Paris. An audience can inhabit a cabinet of curiosities where specimens – koalas, sea turtles, and water flies – are separated from the web of life to appear suspended in a kind of matrix. In other words, in museums, pieces of the world become isolated from the ecological web that has made them possible.

This will be even more pronounced in the virtual world. When I visit a physical museum I remain aware of a world outside of the exhibits. Inside an exhibition I am physically aware of the ecological history that has gone into the formation of the building, for example. If I look through a window, I can see the weather. I become aware of the water cycles of the weather, and people and creatures living in and around the museum. I am aware of existing in an ecologically connected, and consequently political, world.

In museums, pieces of the world become isolated from the ecological web that has made them possible

The sensation of being part of an interrelated world is encouraged by the design of most physical museums. The first public museum, the Louvre, was born during the French Revolution to democratize access to knowledge. The upshot was that citizens became physically involved in the politics of memory. Through a spiral staircase that isolates exhibition spaces, Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim emphasizes intuition and feeling rather than reason, allowing visitors to navigate the museum for themselves, drawing whatever connections between exhibits they can muster through the movement of their bodies. This led to a new way of seeing museums, and in a typically postmodern fashion, the museum became an artefact in and of itself. The recent refurbishment of the Ashmolean in Oxford is a good example, where the design hints towards the provenance of the museum’s artefacts; Elias Ashmole’s original collection sits in the ‘foundations’ of the structure from which later acquisitions spiral upwards through the upper floors, as if through time.

However the metaverse, when used as a museum, is very different. Much of this comes down to its separation from time. In the physical world, I exist as a person conscious of the past and desiring or fretful looking forward. I live, in other words, at the meeting place of history and the future. In Edmund Husserl’s phrase, ‘endlessly becoming and having become in time.’ But the disembodied self that is ‘present’ in the metaverse is divorced from time, separated from the potential for political change. The audience has a peculiar feeling of being dead. This is particularly pronounced in VR experiences when we are asked to navigate the world with a pair of virtual hands which are essentially immobile. The dead hand effect can be traced back to nineteenth-century horror literature when it often symbolized a loss of agency for a character trapped in a story.

The all-encompassing nature of the metaverse, which dominates the senses and leaves no room for dialogue between the audience and the memorial, rejects individual histories and desires. Instead, the audience exists, in so far as it continues to exist, in a suspended present. And this is experienced in solitude. A double fracture occurs between the physical and virtual self, and between the solitary and the social world. It leaves no possibility for that flash of insight that Walter Benjamin wrote about, which brings the past into a critical light.

In contrast to the stripped senses of virtual reality, the physical world is an experience of meetings and couplings between species and matter in time. My mourning for the fields on the road to Liverpool, for example, is partly sensed through the temporal registers that connect daily weather patterns to the fossil fuels being burnt in my car, and the growing service economy that is re-replacing the fields with steel warehouses in a palimpsest of industry and ecology.

The all-encompassing nature of the metaverse leaves no possibility for that flash of insight which brings the past into a critical light

Curiously, an isolated, timeless, sterile museum space is the realization of predictions laid down many years ago. In a 1966 essay on the function of museums, John Berger quotes an unnamed French curator’s vision of an audience moving seamlessly past works of art: ‘…in one hour and a half, a thousand visitors will be able to see a thousand paintings without leaving their seats.’ The museum-goer makes the final step to being a consumer of the past rather than existing in a political relationship with it. It is no accident that the one physical place I know of that has enacted this dream is the Tower of London, where visitors are trundled on a travellator past the crown jewels, reducing the artefacts to a passing spectacle. Should the museum goer have an opportunity to enter into a relationship with the symbols before them, to connect them with the time and space beyond the glass cabinet, histories of class and imperialism might allow for a political consciousness that wouldn’t serve the interests of curators and owners.

A further disruption of history that the metaverse induces is partly the effect of photography, which, with its pretensions towards objectivity, acts as both the source and end goal for this type of virtual project. Just as the influence of museums freezes time and space, so the impact of photography on virtual memorialization suggests that the world could become, itself, an object. According to Roland Barthes, photography ‘transformed subject into object, and even, one might say, into a museum object.’ But in the metaverse, the object of knowledge is also the commodity. This will be compounded by the structure of the metaverse itself (to take Facebook’s version as an example), which takes its name from the neoliberal fantasy of Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash, where everything is for sale all of the time – ‘the people who go into the Metaverse, basically—who understand that information is power, and who control society because they have this semimystical ability to speak magic computer languages’. The viewer will have to pass through the hyper-capitalism of Meta to reach the virtual museum, which is, to a lesser degree, engaged in the same project.

In the metaverse, the object of knowledge is also the commodity

Simone Weil wrote that ‘we want everything that has value to be eternal. Now everything which has a value is the product of a meeting, lasts throughout this meeting and ceases when those things which met are separated.’ Virtual memorialization, existing as it threatens to do outside of time and space, is unlikely to facilitate contact between ourselves and what we love. These meetings are indispensable when they occur in the physical world. They produce a horrifying realization, a view of how the world arrived here and why it appears to be leaving. The meeting, however, is always beautifully dialectic, endlessly productive, and suggestively unguarded in promising the next embodied encounter.

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