Socrates Gets Killed in the Metaverse
Warning: This post isn't just about Frame, and it's really long.
Buzz about the Metaverse is reaching new heights. Some of the biggest companies in the world are unveiling their plans to have you spend more of your time interacting as avatars inside of 3D virtual environments, increasingly from screens that are strapped to your face.
We aren’t one of the biggest companies in the world (although we are part of a pretty big one), but we have a product, FRAME, that participates in the Metaverse. Inside FRAME, people interact as avatars inside virtual 3D environments. We do think this mode of interaction is better than conventional video conferencing for many kinds of online meetings and events.
In other words, I of all people am certainly not anti-metaverse or anti-screen-time generally, nor am I yearning for some pre-metaversal Garden of Eden where avatars don’t exist.
A lot of the conversations about the metaverse currently revolve around:
- defining the metaverse and saying what it is or what it isn’t (a pretty boring question to me)
- the technical aspects of achieving the metaverse
- the business models that will underpin the metaverse
This post isn’t about any of those things. Instead, I’m going to do a close reading of an excerpt from Plato’s Republic, the famous “Allegory of the Cave” parable, to think out loud about some of the implications of people spending significantly more time in immersive 3D environments that provide alternative “realities” to the physical world.
This isn’t “OMG Plato predicted the metaverse” or nonsense like that. This is exploring conceptual overlap between ideas expressed thousands of years ago and our present reality, while seeing how reading old books can invigorate present conversations.
While in part I was looking for an excuse to write something about the metaverse that is a little off the beaten path, this excerpt does raise a few provocative questions - and perhaps a few cautionary notes.
Because of its clarity, I’ll generally be relying on Shawn Eyer’s translation of The Republic, but at times I’ll be looking at specific Greek words, many of which have valences and meanings that are hard to convey with a single English word. In a past life I used to teach ancient languages and I'll be taking full advantage of that to nerd out here. :)
Let's dive in.
Socrates and his pal Glaucon have been having a long conversation about the nature of education. Then, Socrates asks Glaucon to imagine a strange scenario:
Imagine that there are people living in a cave deep underground. The cavern has a mouth that opens to the light above, and a passage exists from this all the way down to the people. They have lived here from infancy, with their legs and necks bound in chains. They cannot move. All they can do is stare directly forward, as the chains stop them from turning their heads around.
Pretty dismal. These people are only able to look in one direction, and they are unable to move. Imagine the VR headset or augmented contact lens that you can’t take off, an aspect which some company would probably try telling you is a “feature”. Socrates continues:
Imagine that far above and behind them blazes a great fire. Between this fire and the captives, a low partition is erected along a path, something like puppeteers use to conceal themselves during their shows.
This word translated as “puppeteers” is interesting: θαυματοποιος . All Greek to you? Check this out. That first funky looking character, θ, is the “th” sound. The fourth character, μ, is the “m” sound. The character that might look familiar, π? That’s pi - the p sound. The other vowel-looking thingsroughly correspond to the English counterparts, and that s-looking thing at the end (ς) is the s sound. Thaumatopoios is how it might be transliterated.
At its roots, it sort of means a creator (ποιος - where we get the word poet), and in this case, specifically a creator of marvels or strange sights (θαυματο). It can also mean a puppeteer. These are professionals who manipulate tools to create powerful illusions for their audience. In my reading here, I think of metaverse creators as the modern-day equivalents to these puppeteers, the θαυματοποιος.
Glaucon says “I can imagine this scenario so far”, so Socrates continues by describing those puppeteers behind the wall and what they do:
Look and you will also see them carrying objects back and forth along the partition, things of every kind: images of people and animals, carved in stone and wood and other materials. Some of these other people speak, while others remain silent.
You might imagine why our present-day virtual world creators came to my mind. The people behind the wall, the puppet-masters behind the scenes, are crafting representations of people and objects, using all sorts of neat materials and textures (ha-ha). Sometimes the illusions have sounds, others don’t.
So far, we’ve got the prisoners chained up facing the back of the cave, and the puppeteers behind a wall situated behind the prisoners.
Glaucon remarks that this seems pretty strange:
A bizarre situation for some unusual (ἀτόπους) captives.
This word ἀτόπος (atopos) can be translated as “unusual” or “strange”, but at its roots means “placeless” or “lost”. The first ἀ is the Greek negating prefix (like in atypical or atheist), and then τόπος means “place” or “location”. No-place! Glaucon is saying they have no grounding. I’m reminded of those who identify more as “citizens of the metaverse” than as people grounded in some particular physical location.
I’m one of them. I don’t feel any particular affinity to the physical place I live - I’m a homebody generally, and the pandemic has brought out my most hermit-ish tendencies. When I’m in my Frame, that’s my place - my τόπος. It’s certainly where I interact with the most people, by a long shot.
For the prisoners in the cave, the physical location of the cave isn’t important - what matters is the reality composed around them by the shadows on the walls.
Socrates agrees with Glaucon that this is strange stuff, but then just in case Glaucon isn’t getting the point yet, Socrates quickly says that they themselves are the prisoners described in the fable, before casually moving on:
So we are! Now, tell me if you suppose it’s possible that these captives ever saw anything of themselves or one another, other than the shadows flitting across the cavern wall before them?
Or, in the vocabulary of the metaverse, “The prisoners aren’t seeing anything besides avatars of people, right Glaucon?” Glaucon says nope, and Socrates repeats the same question but for objects instead of people. The prisoners just see images, or shadows of objects, not the “real objects”, right? Glaucon agrees. Then Socrates:
Now, if they could speak, would you say that these captives would imagine that the names they gave to the things they were able to see applied to real things?
So, the prisoners only see the illusions of trees on the wall, skillfully crafted by one of the puppeteers with gorgeous, realistic wood textures. Given that those are the only “trees” the prisoners see - of course they would think those are actually trees.
Socrates then notes that when a prisoner hears a sound bounce around the cave, the prisoners would assume that the shadows on the wall are the source. All in all,
Such captives would consider the truth to be nothing but the shadows of the carved objects.
To Socrates, the prisoners are mistaken. But who can blame them? They’ve never been out of the cave to see any other trees, like those trees that the puppeteers have been inspired by. But aren’t those shadows “real” in the way that matters - helping the prisoners make sense of the world they live in? That question doesn’t come up.
I certainly know that when I’m in a virtual world with trees in it, I call those things trees. I don’t qualify it with “model of a tree” or “graphical representation of a tree” because I assume people just know what I mean. And they seem to.
I’m not going to dive much further into the depths of “what is a tree” here, besides observing that in my mind, as I spend more time inside virtual worlds, the word “tree” is less sharply defined as a real, physical tree that I would find outside. The word “tree” to me has less to do with whether it’s biologically alive than it used to. I suspect that this definitional slippage is happening for a lot of my words.
Trees aside, to what extent do others see my avatar in the metaverse, my own shadow on the wall, as “me”? And if my shadow on the wall, and voice echoing throughout the cave, is the primary way someone interacts with me - what’s more “real” than that, anyway?
Glaucon doesn’t ask that one either.
Socrates now speculates about a prisoner breaking free:
Look again, and think about what would happen if they were released from these chains and these misconceptions. Imagine one of them is set free from his shackles and immediately made to stand up and bend his neck around, to take steps, to gaze up toward the fire. And all of this was painful, and the glare from the light made him unable to see the objects that cast the shadows he once beheld. What do you think his reaction would be if someone informed him that everything he had formerly known was illusion and delusion, but that now he was a few steps closer to reality, oriented now toward things that were more authentic, and able to see more truly? And, even further, if one would direct his attention to the artificial figures passing back and forth and ask him what their names are, would this man not be at a loss to do so? Would he, rather, believe that the shadows he formerly knew were more real than the objects now being shown to him?
This is the disoriented stupor we imagine someone who has been playing some video game for the past week would be in when they finally put down the X-Box controller and walk outside. “Woah - the sun is blinding me! Wow, is that a real tree?” The reality that might be more familiar and navigable to people is that of the virtual world they just left.
That prisoner would probably try to return down to the cave, says Socrates, back to where stuff makes sense. Imagine, we are told, that he’s dragged up outside of the cave and held there, forced to stare at the sun until his eyes adjust to the outside. For Socrates, this world outside is the realm of fundamental truth, the contrast to the cave of shadowy deceptions. No puppeteers mediating reality up here. Not a virtual world in the metaverse, just old-fashioned meatspace.
Once adjusted, the freed prisoner would even look back on his former dwelling and pity the prisoners still chained down there.
Now . . . suppose there were honors and awards among the captives, which they granted as prizes to one another for being the best at recognizing the various shadows passing by or deciphering their patterns, their order, and the relationships among them, and therefore best at predicting what shadow would be seen next.
Do you believe that our liberated prisoner would be much concerned with such honors, or that he would be jealous of those who received them? Or that he would strive to be like those who were lauded by the captives and enjoyed pride of place among them? Or would the prisoner rather take Homer’s view, and “rather wish, in earthly life, to be the humble serf of a landless man” and suffer whatever he had to, instead of holding the views of the captives and returning to that state of being?
The games and affairs that the prisoners in the cave care about are of no concern to the prisoner that has seen the light.
The Homer quoteis interesting - the quote there is said by Achilles in Homer's Odyssey. Odysseus takes a journey into the underworld, and there the ghost of Achilles explains to Odysseus that he (Achilles) was foolish to die young for glory. Achilles would rather be alive as a "humble serf" than be dead and glorified. With this quote and allusion, Socrates likens life in the cave to death itself.
So, better a small hut in reality than a mansion in Decentraland? Heh.
As a quick aside, Socrates quotes Homer a lot in his writings - which is interesting in its own right given that later in this book Socrates tries arguing that Homer and his poetry should be banned from the ideal city. In Plato’s writings, things are often a bit more nuanced than they might first appear. Socrates is a slippery fish. He's typically better at raising questions than providing answers.
The Return to the Cave
Socrates now brings the entire allegory home by asking Glaucon to speculate about what would happen if the freed prisoner went back down to try to liberate others.
Once back in the cave, the prisoner’s eyes would be re-adjusting to the darkness. They wouldn’t know how to interpret the shadows on the wall or compete in the shadowy games the prisoners play. To the prisoners who never left, it would look like someone left the cave and came back an idiot.
This is where the allegory takes a dark turn. Should this babbling, stumbling fool who just came back from a topside trip try to free the prisoners, Socrates wonders, “don’t you think the prisoners would raise their hands against him and kill this person who is trying to liberate them?”
This brings the allegory home in a few ways. To those that know what happens to Socrates, this is a not-too-subtle allusion to his own death. Socrates was put on trial and killed by the Athenians for pushing too hard against their established worldviews.
It’s easy to come away from this allegory thinking that the prisoners are the deeply stupid, pitiful ones here, but just like I did above, I can’t help but identify with them. When life in the metaverse becomes life itself, why leave it? Why care at all about those who tell us “well actually THAT TREE ISN’T REAL” and “THAT’S NOT REALLY GABE OVER THERE”. Surely, those that spend time outside of the metaverse don’t know as much about it - they just “don’t get it”. They don’t understand that this is “real stuff” here - pixels on a screen or not.
Truth isn’t some objective thing you find outside the metaverse cave - truth is socially constructed by communities and the metaverse seems as good a place to construct it as any other.
Maybe I’m just trying to find a way to justify what I do for my profession - create shadows and caves for those that I hope spend time inside of them.
As you can tell, this isn’t something I have a strong, well-defined opinion about or answer to. This is why I like reading this book and others like it, old and new, that encourage me to reflect on these questions.
I can also relate to some extent to the returning liberator, not because I've been enlightened by some objective truth, but because the last time I was asked to speak publicly at a metaverse conference and I raised even the most gentle, cautious skepticism about the metaverse, I was in more polite words told I was an idiot by someone who said that he was around when the internet was born and that I was like the people back then who said the internet was a bad idea. Um, I guess? But hey, at least he didn't try to kill me.
He was someone who runs a "metaverse" company. Of course, the puppeteers want an audience.
Even if I am a somewhat content prisoner, I need to have an open ear and mind to those that ask us to question even our deepest held truths about reality, whatever shape or shadow that reality takes.
Final Thoughts: The Puppeteers and Open Sourcing Frame
I like to think that people don’t need to be permanently trapped in the cave or stuck outside only to be attacked should they try to re-enter it. Surely people can spend time in the metaverse without having it become the new foundational basis for their lives. Or should it become the new basis, that may not necessarily be a bad thing.
This question came up quite a bit when thousands of people were getting so sucked into the World of Warcraft game that they ended up spending most of their waking hours inside of it. Game creator Blizzard responded to a documentary about this by saying that “Our games are designed to be fun… but like all forms of entertainment….day-to-day life should always take precedence.” So, they made the cave and super compelling shadows and the shackles that keep you tied there - but life outside of it should take precedence. Easy!
This is starting to go beyond the issues that arose with World of Warcraft gaming addiction, though. Bill Gates recently predicted that most work meetings will happen in the metaverse, that our professional collaboration will more likely be in virtual worlds, not “in person”. If both work and play are happening in the cave, that’s really not a lot of time we’ll have outside of it.
We do need to be honest with ourselves about a key, obvious point. Time spent in the metaverse is time not spent outside of it.
People are wondering if this trend will come at the expense of “the real world”:
I think this is a false dichotomy. Many people are interested in “the metaverse for work collaboration” specifically because they want to reduce transportation and the greenhouse gas emissions that come from it. They want to avoid commuting so that they can spend more actual time with their loved ones. So, these concerns don’t always seem mutually exclusive.
People are meeting in the metaverse to feel human connection, to see beautiful things and provocative art, to debate, to vote, to craft an identity - to live. Many of these connections we form online spill over into the “real world” - and even if they don’t, that doesn’t make them any less real.
I return to the puppeteers quite a bit when I think about the Allegory of the Cave- those that are constructing the shadows on the wall. I’ve been asking you to think of them as the analogue to metaverse creators, those that are creating the worlds being lived in by more and more people, and the responsibilities they have.
What kind of worlds are they building? Is it one that only certain people can shape? Can the prisoners themselves contribute to it in meaningful ways?
I appreciate Meta, and at Frame we have a close, awesome relationship with a number of teams there. I say this cautiously, and with hopes of continuing to strengthen our ties with Meta: the reason why many people are skeptical of Meta’s role in the metaverse is that we’ve seen how powerful Facebook can be at shaping people’s realities, just with text and images on a feed.
What does that power look like when instead of text and images on a feed it’s everything in your sensory fields and the set of features that determine what you can or can’t do inside of a sophisticated virtual world? To their credit, it does seem like Meta is actively thinking about this question and others like it. Time will tell.
We have good reason to be nervous about who our puppeteers are, and we have good reason to listen closely to people who are skeptical of the metaverse - particularly those who have spent a good deal of time in it.
In my mind, the more that prisoners can become puppeteers and see what’s behind the shadows they are looking at, and even create shadows of their own, the more likely we are to have places (τόπος) worth spending time in and shaping our realities around. If the virtual worlds we spend lots of time in are shaped by the exclusive vision of a particular group of people or business entity, we are at risk of limiting our horizons in dangerous ways.
I really believe in this. In the context of Frame, it’s part of our mission to make Frame highly customizable even for non-technical users. We have a long way to go, and we'll go a lot further.
I think that eventually the core of Frame will be open-sourced and a new arm of our business will open up around helping people and companies use and our open-source tools to have even more control over what they build.
Did I think this blog post would end in my thoughts about open sourcing Frame? Nope. Am I glad it ended there? Yep.
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