A Citizen Of The Metaverse

August 08, 2021 - 11 min read

We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors. We don't know what to do with other worlds. A single world, our own, suffices us; but we can't accept it for what it is. - Stanisław Lem, Solaris

My phone frightens me.  It stopped being a device and started feeling like a new limb growing out of me. The limb I use as a wallet, a map, a newspaper, a book, a notebook, a CD player, a pocket cinema, a gaming console, a telegraph, as anything and everything, all in one high-tech swiss army knife. The limb that gets old together with me so I have to periodically upgrade it, expanding its computational power by a couple of hundred hertz and its photographic ability by a couple of thousand pixels to instantly supply my friends with colourful pictures of the most colourful moments of my incredibly colourful life, expiring in 24 hours.

Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate what the limb does for me. It embodies progress and cyberpunk, maybe not the cyberpunk we dreamed of, made films and wrote novels about, but at least the one we deserved. I love it although it might seem like a Stockholm syndrome type of love.

The most frightening thing is the limb’s lost externality. It's not foreign anymore.  I feel a phantom pain every time I can't grab it from a desk or a pocket like I'm one of those people who lost a finger or even a whole hand but continue to feel them for some time after the tragedy.  And I feel real pain when it runs out of battery like if it happens to my organs, to my lithium guts. I’m scared my body accepted it too easily as if I am one of those people who got a second robotic thumb attached to their palm in a high-tech laboratory, and now, after just a couple of weeks of training, they can control it like a native limb. The extra limb.

Perhaps, it trains me like Pavlov trained dogs. Using the anticipation of a reward I get unblocking the screen and tapping the notification, a buzz of a virtual bell caused by a vibrating piece of plastic in my pocket somehow increases the level of the neurotransmitter C8H11NO2 in my brain and, sometimes, salivation, too.

Or, perhaps, it parasites on me, trying to survive and doing something similar to what Ophiocordyceps unilateralis does to ants. This fungus infiltrates an ant, turns the poor insect into a controlled zombie and grows out of its head. Or in our case, from an arm. It craves electricity to support its battery level. It craves gentle strokes up and down, it craves my gaze, my attention, a labyrinthine warmth of my fingertips.

Or, perhaps, it is a symbiote.  It takes everything from me but gives me superpowers and the gateway to the metaverse, where I am deprived of the physical realm can meander on my lifeboat manoeuvring in the realm of multitudes of ones and zeros. Where I am its extra limb.

Whatever it is. It is with me all day long.

In a usual morning lethargy, I open one eye, reach the limb on a bedside table and fall straight into a lethargy digital. Newsletters, tweets, receipts, messages, cute cats, creepy cats, dying people, celebrities getting married, bills to pay, weather reports, work e-mails, likes on my recent essay, no likes on my recent essay, a reminder to submit meter readings, a domain name I bought a year ago is expiring, endless promotions from apps I forgot to mute... All locked in a 6-inch brick. All in my hand, the whole world reachable within seconds.

I open the second eye and see a red badge on Telegram app. It's Felix, a friend of mine. Felix is a startup enthusiast. He has a Twitter account with a few thousand followers. A year ago, he got follower number 1349 right on the day the bat plague was considered a pandemic. I made a joke about it but Felix didn’t get it. I tap on the dialogue.

"i have a groundbreaking idea man." He does neither punctuate nor use capital letters.

"Again?" I do punctuate and use capital letters.

I see a notification about a new e-mail. New DNA matches from 23andme. I have 0.5% shared DNA with some old women from Finland. Who knows, perhaps this DNA is somehow related to my newly acquired limb.

I open Telegram back. I click on one of muted channels. 467 unread messages. I scroll them hectically. A trailer of a new Icelandic film 'Lamb'. I watch it. It's weird as fuck. A woman adopted a lamb that is like a human and can walk on two legs and other adult sheep want it back.

A new message from Felix.

"i came up with a device that could get your attention span back"

"I don't have problems with my attention span."

Felix is typing...Why is he typing so slowly?

I google 'lamb film director'. It is Valdimar Jóhannsson. What else did he film?

"it is a thing i call attention spanner"

I think a few seconds on my message. I type "Hmm..." and tap on a notification I got from Twitter. Somebody liked my tweet! The app is loading. Nope. It was a retweet.

"i have a prototype"

Felix sends me a link.

"haha," I reply.

"im serious rn"

"Is it really a tranquilizer chair?"

"kind of, we will make a 3d model of it in blender or whatever and then sell them as nfts"

"My villiager's self still can hardly comprehend how people can pay millions for pixels and, moreover, how this is gonna save their attention spans."

"this will be a 3d printable nft with different unique ornaments and color schemes. imagine you sit on the chair with this helmet and can't grab your phone. you can read and watch films no distractions"

"It is literally a DIY medieval torture machine."

"i feel like it's the only thing that can save us."

Felix is not wrong. I suddenly imagine myself in the year 2061 when I am a grumpy old man who wants to get rid of his cyborg limb, the future version of a smartphone. The actual electronic limb.

"Tell me." A therapist says to me with a soothing Morgan Freeman voice. Perhaps, he is Morgan Freeman. My imagination can afford one. Why not?

"I want it amputated." I point at the electronic limb attached to my head. It's a chip embedded into the skull right behind the right ear with a green neon blinking light.

"I couldn't amputate it even if I wanted to. I'm not a surgeon. I'm a therapist, Ivan. I talk to people."

"Yes. I know you are a therapist. That’s why I came to you - to talk about my thoughts. I want it amputated."

"It's a risky operation, Ivan. It has several drawbacks. Especially nowadays. Especially in your age. What bothers you?"

"I'm scared. I think it controls me."

"How is this control expressed?"

"I affects my decisions. I feel it's smarter than me. I don't want something inside me be smarter than me."

"What makes you think so? It's just a device. Do you take any medication?"

"No, it has stopped being a device. Now it's a limb. Even the model is called iLimb Xs. See?"

"Have you thought of any childhood problems that could lead you to this reasoning?"

Ah, here we go.

“I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it.”

“Could you think about it now?”

I rip myself from the reverie to finally get out of the bed. I sloth to a shower. I turn on the water. I wait a minute till it’s warm and step under the stream. I check if my ears don’t have a chip attached behind. Nothing. I shut my ears and listen to the rain and thunder.

“When I was a kid I feared aliens kidnapping me driving their frisbee ship with a green neon beam underneath" I get back to my reverie. "Then they return me back but with one change. They put a Duracell 1.5v shaped mind-control chips inside my ears hence I become a zombie. Similar to what Ophiocordyceps unilateralis does to ants, you know?"

"So, and that is the reason you are so afraid of the limb?"

"You tell me."

"Well, it is clear to me now. It is just a hurtful childhood memory. You should let it go."

"You are a good therapist, are you?"

I jump out of the shower, dry myself, brush teeth, go back to the bedroom, put clothes on, check my phone. Nothing. But I need something. I open Twitter, scroll for a couple of minutes with trousers halfway down, find a couple of tweets gleaming with needfulness, like them, inwardly chuckle on hilarious No Context Russia meme, get bored, pull up the trousers and go to the kitchen. Water. Water. Water. Three glasses. I look outside – It is raining today. I grab another glass with me and go to work.

Well, another room.

I sit down at my standing desk. I push a height control button. The desk starts getting lower. Slowly. Very Slowly. The whole universe pierces me while the desk is switching to the seating position. Once it’s done, I slide the keyboard over to me, cast a password spell, click on a browser icon and commence, God forbid, a digital flâneury.

That's why I like desktop computers. You don't have to lug it around like a cardiac implant.  It's more like a portal locked behind a cellar door that you only get into when you want to escape to the metaverse.

Yes, it's not really the metaverse, I know the definition, but it has always played its role to me.

Sometimes I ponder on my youth years and come to the conclusion that I lived more in the metaverse than in Russia. I resided on forums, imageboards, instant messengers, Azeroth and some other online and offline virtual worlds. I could do everything: buy and sell things, including virtual, travel and see the most beautiful places, including virtual. I could participate in an emergence of new memes, movements and cults, including virtual, sitting on my chair in a four-thousand people village with 4 hours ride to the nearest more or less big city (no train).

I have been able to learn, watch, read and listen to any type of content and art (yo-ho-ho mostly, I didn't have money back then), create and publish it myself. All of that wouldn’t be possible for me any other way.

When I was a kid all of my family and friends lived on the same street, then with the years and the adoption of the internet in the world and in my life, distances to existing friends and newly acquired friends started to increase. Now, we are scattered all around the earth. We don’t see each other IRL, especially these days. The plague has its own borders. But we play games online. Often not for the sake of games but just to sit there in another world, kill virtual people, eat virtual food while eating the real food, and chat.

It might seem sad and miserable but it's not. Not for me. I see nothing wrong with it. It has been giving me hope, a way to jump over the wall in my head. It helped me to develop my innermost self and shape it into what I am now, for better or worse.

But we have been changing over time. Both me and the metaverse.

"You will be disconnected for life." A doctor from the Metaverse inc. says to 68-year old me in the future. He lays on a hospital table on his left side making the limb visible to the doctor.

"I feel disconnected enough already."

The doctor touches the limb, scans it.

"The operation has certain risks. You have to sign an agreement before we proceed. And that will be your last digital signature done with the limb. You will need to use a pen and paper again. "

"It is fine."

"Before we proceed, the Metaverse inc. would like to ask you for feedback. Would you mind telling me why are you leaving us?"

Old me is prepared for this question.

"The limb. I don't like it. I devours my attention."

"It's quite an old model. We can offer you a new one with a good discount and a treatment with high-tech Attention Spanner as a part of our loyalty program." The doctor shows the list of new models and their specs on her screen.

"I don't want a new one. I don't like the whole concept of it anymore. I don't like the metaverse."

"Would you mind sharing some feedback on that as well?"

Old me is prepared for this, too.

"It stopped feeling like another world that I could escape. It stopped being a sacred chamber that requires to follow a special ritual to access. It stopped being foreign and unusual. Everyone is there, everything is there, the whole life is there. It has become a mirror of our world, mirror of us, mirror of me, a large cracked mirror I don't want to look into anymore. But I have to. And the limb calls me. I feel I want it although I am not sure I need it.  It has lost its charm, the mystery, the feeling of unknown. Now, it's just... normal and I miss the time when it was not. I need to do something to escape the normality again. I need a place that will be strange enough to hide myself there, a place that I can love again, a place that I can explore again. And I thought... the physical realm is the only place like that now."

The doctor emotionlessly looks at Old me. A smile stretches across her face.

"I think you are ready to sign."

Old me nods. The doctor taps the button on her screen. The limb's green light blinks hectically. Old me signs the agreement that has been sent directly to the limb.

Anaesthesia. A few minutes or maybe hours of the utter void. The white ceiling. Old me opens his eyes and touches the skin behind the right ear. Nothing. Only a small scar that has already been healed. He thanks the doctor and shakes her hand.

A bit tense Old me exits the Metaverse inc. building. It’s raining outside. He hesitates, looking at pedestrians running with their umbrellas. Then he steps down from the porch, shuts his ears and listens to the rain and thunder.

Finally. Stillness.

A lonely thought emerges in his head.

“Perhaps, what matters is not the device. I just love being somewhere else.”

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