Every once in a while you come across an idea that is so full of possibilities, your imagination runs wild, unleashed. When you share your thoughts with others, you might indulge in fantasizing together about how the future might unfold; or you might debate the merits and obstacles in seeing some version of the future realized; or your conversation partner might reject this new idea outright, a rejection often based on emotional reaction, because this disruptive idea perhaps lies beyond the comfort zone of your interlocutor’s existing frameworks.
When philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn wrote that paradigm shifts occur as revolutions rather than through incremental additions to existing knowledge, he pointed to the need for our imaginations to break free from our current constructs for real change to happen—divergent thinking is imagination. Kuhn contended that crises ensue when communities realize that their existing paradigms hold an increasing number of “anomalies” (that is, events that happen that don’t fit the dominant narrative). Revolutions occur when these communities shift their thinking and actions and accept the new paradigm, which eventually becomes commonly accepted, as the old one is rejected.
Not all ideas have the same value, but no idea should be thrown away because of a lack of imagination to play with its possibilities. Albert Einstein said, “If at first the idea is not absurd, then there will be no hope for it.”
We are in a state of crisis, one that is systemic and in which education is but one connected node. The planet is burning up. We have the resources but not the will to house and feed everyone on earth. Our relationships are polarized and, despite Humanism’s promises, we still don’t treat each other kindly—and by this, I am referring to how we treat humans as well as other life forms.
There are many different possible avenues for how to resolve the crisis we’re in. Even more for how we make it worse. I don’t believe that technology will save us. I do believe that technology will provide the tools with which to approach conditions differently.
The potential of the Metaverse is unlimited and my imagination is off to the races. I’d read about the Metaverse before, but it never stuck. Then came the news stories about Facebook changing its parent name to Meta because it wants to focus on multidimensional worlds in addition to (and eventually in replacement of) the 2D worlds of our screens. Facebook wants to build the Metaverse, supposedly responsibly. So I did a bit of digging and also watched Ready Player One.
What is the metaverse? “The metaverse is a shared virtual world, or worlds, that are interactive, immersive, and collaborative. Just as the physical universe is a collection of worlds that are connected in space, the metaverse can be thought of as a bunch of worlds, too.” (I took this straight from here. Here is another article, and another, and even a video.)
The thing about the Metaverse is that no one knows what it will look like. It lies at the fuzzy horizon and you need to use your imagination to see beyond it. That means that it’s a bit pointless to debate what it might look like because no one has a clue. That doesn’t mean we can’t play around with scenarios, some of them are even on this side of the fuzzy horizon.
No matter how you look at it, the Metaverse will pose a huge threat to existing meta-narratives: how we distribute power, how we understand community, why school exists….
Imagine putting on a virtual reality headset and being transported (virtually) anywhere in the world, instantly: you walk the streets of Budapest or Maracaibo; shuffle through documents in the historical archives of the City of New York or visit the Toyota factory in Yokohama; mosey through the Amazon forest listening to the trees or explore the reaches of the Russian tundra in search of an arctic fox.
This will happen in the Metaverse. It is a few years away, but it will happen. Or something like this.
We can’t get caught up in the details. It’s the possibilities that matter. We’re only limited by computing power (increasing every day), costs of equipment (decreasing every day), and our imaginations (the jury is still out). The Metaverse is a concept we can play with, and we need to think long game: not what will happen in 2025, but rather 2125, 2225…maybe as soon as 2035.
Soon enough, the Metaverse will change our concepts of space and time. We will be transported instantaneously anywhere in the world and the graphics will be lifelike (maybe even higher resolution if we can tap into the brain). We will wear a bodysuit allowing you to experience physical sensations. This will put stress on our idea of who we are because our minds will be in one place, even if our bodies are elsewhere. This will be a paradigm shift for the philosophy of consciousness as well. For the first time, we will be able to teleport—we no longer need to travel, we will already be there.
Our sense of community will change. They will take form and exist beyond spatial barriers, without linguistic barriers. We will be able to communicate and collaborate from anywhere with anyone at any time because we will have access to the same place.
The Metaverse will warp time because we will be able to access experiences across time. Imagine you want to learn about the Battle of Gettysburg. Why not run through a simulation of Pickett’s Charge as you take up arms alongside Union soldiers? Imagine you want to sit in on a lecture delivered three months ago. You can…and with AI, you will probably be able to interact within your experience, even if the event happened in the past.
The Metaverse will deliver where MOOCs failed. MOOCs are just more lectures delivered online. MOOCs failed to take off because of the lack of interaction. The Metaverse will change all that. It will create a new reality, and the word “virtual” will drop.
School as we know it is at the end of its product life cycle, which happens to every commodity… because schooling has been commodified. That’s what happens when you standardize something; it becomes a commodity*. The industrial model of school commodifies children too by making them go through a production process into docile and prodigal consumers, who leave with quality assurance scores called grades. All commodities reach a stage of decline and are eventually replaced. Remember what Thomas Kuhn wrote about new paradigms emerging from crises (above).
What happens when school as we know it is no longer useful?
What happens when kids no longer have to sit in a classroom listening to a lecturer who supposedly read some book when they could go meet the author directly? What happens when a learner has the option to meet up anytime, immediately with other students just as interested in sea urchins as she is and they can work on a research project together, even though they live on three different continents? What happens when instead of having to flip through a textbook chapter on the Incas, a high school student can walk with a local guide through the virtual city of Machu Picchu?
What happens when a young adult can collaborate with others on a project for a business, social enterprise, or charity across the world? What happens when this young adult can contribute directly, observe directly, and interact directly, without being tethered to a physical classroom?
Learning is liberated.
This shouldn’t fill us with fear! This shouldn’t make us afraid that we will lose our ability to nurture relationships! Seymour Papert suggested that the need for reading was going to wane as we became more immersed in these virtual worlds (top o’ the hat, Will Richardson). This has happened before… Writing (which is the flip side of reading) is a technology. There is nothing magical about encoding language in a series of phonemes or ideograms or syllabaries. Writing is a means to communicate through technology, from clay tablets to pen & paper to the printing press to computers. When writing supplanted oral tradition, how many people worried that writing would erode our relationships? How much fear came about as new ways of transmitting ideas to spark new thinking replaced memorizing long poems or recounting tales of the past? The Metaverse is another way of capturing thinking and catalyzing new thinking through almost infinite possibilities of access and connections.
Why would kids sit there and learn from one person at the front of a class when they could explore, construct, and experience their learning wherever they want, with whomever they choose?
Yet while space will become infinite and time malleable in the virtual world, the need to re-think our ways of living will lead to a contiguous process of partial retrenchment in our physical world. This retrenchment—that is, this process of becoming more local—may be necessary for the health of the planet (and retrenchment is not directly linked to the Metaverse). To live regeneratively—building capacity and vitality, rather than sustainably, which is just maintaining—we may need to become more in touch with our immediate environments, find ways to thrive in economies based in the local. The planet cannot afford the travel, the consumption, the waste. The bio-collective is tied to bio-locality, the area in which we live with other life forms that share the same interests. Virtual economies will still exist, but perhaps mostly without physical products (that need to be transported large distances).
While our connections will change through our ability to connect with anyone in the world when we put on our VR headsets and bodysuits, our connections will change as we thrive in a local economy, community, and ecosystem.
These are not contradictory tensions but rather complementary flows. Our desires to explore will exist in a symbiotic relationship with our need to localize. A complementary paradox. The Metaverse will open up learning and experiences (which are the same!) to the limitlessness of our imaginations and the imperative to find new economic and social models that are sustainable if not regenerative forces us to create limits to physical movement.
What lies on the fuzzy horizon? How will this unfold? We don’t know, we can’t know now. The details don’t matter.
How will we be fluid and flexible to adapt? How will we thrive?
How will we contribute? How will we perceive and embrace our interconnections?
These are the only questions that are eternal.
*Here is an experiment: Take the Mission and Vision of any of 99.9% of schools and replace it with any other Mission and Vision and see if anyone notices. I am only half-joking.