13 min read

Augmentation, the Metaverse and the Magic Circle

We are in a time of profound change. And one of those shifts is in the digitization of everything. Augmented/virtual/synthetic realities are markers in a much larger shift: the digitization of the entire human experience.
Augmentation, the Metaverse and the Magic Circle

I was deeply offended. It was 2008 and I had been called an augmentationist.

It sounds quaint now. You probably blinked and then asked: "huh?" or "and?".

But back then, it was important what camp you were in.

You could be an immersionist. You believed that computing spaces were evolving to be places. When you logged in, you had permission to leave your physical body and identity behind.  Because these were 'real' places, you believed that they should be governed as such. The rules didn't apply to "users". Instead, people talked about an Avatar Bill of Rights. Your game character had agency.

This was in contrast to the augmentationist. They believed that computing spaces belong in the same category as going to church or the workplace, that they are a social construct (and one of many):

In academic literature, certain online games and services are referred to as “virtual worlds” and compared to cities (Taylor, 2006: 21), countries (Castronova, 2006b) and most frequently, the Earth (e.g. Castronova, 2002; Castronova, 2006a; Nash & Schneyer, 2004, Lastowka & Hunter, 2004). Such language is intended to communicate the scale and complexity of these systems and the activities that take place within them. But the powerful metaphor also affects the conceptual framework from which researchers draw their research design.

In other words: don't call them worlds. Logging in to a 'game' is no different from going to church. It's a place a 'user' goes, where they socialize, where they might present themselves a bit differently than if they were going to work - but it's still them.

I subscribed to much of what Castranov saw in the economies of virtual environments. He argued for the concept of synthetic worlds and pointed to World of Warcraft as an example of how real economic value would be created within the confines of a 'world space'.

In fact, Castranova believed that there would be so much value created in synthetic worlds that that reality would have a hard time competing.

In a follow-up book, he proposed that getting a driver's license would need to be more like a quest in World of Warcraft. The 'real world' wouldn't be able to compete with synthetic worlds for attention and value. We'd need to gamify everything and make 'meat space' a lot more fun.

He proposed that a migration was happening: instead of moving from one country to another, we were moving en masse to synthetic worlds, which would soon have the GDP of small nations. Reality, he said, would need to learn how to compete.

Tom Boellstorff, a noted anthropologist, treated virtual environments as sites of study. He visited the 'natives' much like Margaret Mead visiting Samoa, except that he didn't need to leave his desk to arrive.

I was (and am) a huge fan of Tom's work. He made me understand the power of synthetic worlds not just as a place to 'play' but as sites for cultures that could not exist in any other way.

In 2009, I wrote that:

Boellstorff makes the case that the counterpoint to virtual worlds is not the real world, but the actual. And that this virtuality includes two important things: it is virtual (of course, but he explores this with incredible insight and finesse) meaning that you are never QUITE there... and two, it is grounded in craft, in techne, and that virtual worlds may be a harbinger of a shift from a knowledge or information culture, into a craft-based one….or perhaps a mash-up of the two, what’s now coming to be known as “crafty knowledge”.

The concept of techne was profound for its time. It included the concept that while human culture was informed by our tools, we had entered a new era in which the tools to craft with were resident in the worlds that we created. Our tools now contained tools.

It was also a harbinger of today's creator economy. Because at the time, the idea that you could use digital tools to craft digital artefacts and that those digital objects could be sold was...new....strange...and exciting.

Entire legal conferences were held on the sole topic of how to wrangle this idea of digital assets having value.

An article that came out of a now out-of-print collection was called, if I remember it right, "I am not a hammer". It took the legal argument that just because you call something a hammer in World of Warcraft you can't value it as a hammer: it's actually just code, it's just software, and the rules that apply to software should apply to that hammer.

I disagreed. I argued that we had entered a new era where, in spite the prevalence of case law, the old rules would no longer apply. The lines would blur between physical and digital objects.

If that hammer is used to beat someone up, it might still be considered assault, whether the hammer is real or not. And that context and the meta-governance of digital spaces would play a critical role.

And so it was with this background, after having written around 400,000 words on the 'immersionist' landscape, that someone called me an augmentationist.

And so I was offended.

I owned a digital house, had an avatar and even made some pretty good money in virtual environments.

It was an era where avatars had names, and it was the names that were important, not the gamertags of those "operating the avatar", let alone the 'real names' behind them.

And so how dare someone call me an augmentationists?

12 years later, I realize they were right. But it was because the world(s) themselves had changed. Culture was shifting. And in keeping with this shift I was about to move myself towards work that asked a different question: what happens when the physical world becomes a digital channel?

Kevin Kelly On Identity

Over a decade ago, Kevin Kelly laid out the road ahead:

"A major theme of this present century will be the pursuit of our collective identity. We are on a search for who we are. What does it mean to be a human? Can there be more than one kind of human? In fact, what exactly is a human?

We get to play with answers to these questions online. In Second Life, or in chat rooms, we can chose who we want to be, our gender, our genetics, even our species. Technologies gives us the means to switch genders, inhabit new forms, modify our own bodies.

At the same moment, we have the rise of hyper-realities. These are simulations so complex, convincing, and coherent that they have their own reality force. A fake so good, it is sold and bought as a fabulous fake. A Disneyland so enticing, that it spawns its own “fakes.” There must be something there to fake. Or Photoshopped images so obviously unreal that they have their own reality. Synthetic materials more desirable than natural ones. Originals inferior to their reproductions. Who cares what is real and what is memorex?

These hyper-realities launch questions such as whether a assault in virtual space counts as an actual violent assault or mere virtual assault. How much of our real lives is mental? How much of reality is a consensual hallucination? Where do our minds end and outside begin? What if it — everything outside of us — is all mind?

The faster and greater our lives become mediated — the more time we spend communicating through technology — the more urgent this question of “what is real” becomes. How do we tell the difference, if any, between realities and simulations? How do these redefine humans?"

It turns out, of course, that a few things were true:

  • Yes, "we get to play with answers to these questions online". But, at some point the "play" would need to end. We'd need to stop having proxy discussions about identity, ownership, hierarchy, governance, privacy and the rights to creation. We needed to (and still need to) work these things out in the 'real world'.
  • The profound implications of simulations, fakes and 'what is real' have just begun.
  • There are profound changes which have nothing to do with technology. Those changes are forcing an even deeper reckoning with the question of "how do we define what it means to be human". Whether technology trends towards immersion or augmentation might have profound consequences, but pales in comparison to whether our planet will survive the answering of the question.

Epic, Apple and Why the Augmentationists Won

All of these things are background to what I was thinking when the Apple/Epic battle broke into the open.

My initial reaction was to fall back on the old tropes, to use the old categories:

  • Apple is an augmentationist. Its mission is to 'enhance' reality and to create products that we use in our everyday/"real" lives. It's why I argue that Apple will never really launch a "VR headset".
  • Epic is an immersionist. They dream of the Metaverse. Which means, by definition, that they need to fight for a universe which is self-contained, with its own economies and currency and systems of identity. The battle over the App Store is a battle for ownership of the entry points to an immersive universe.

My categorization wasn't meant to be definitive. I thought it might be a useful guide to thinking about two radically different visions for our technological futures.

The battle for the App Store has almost nothing to do with commissions. It's a battle for where control will sit as we migrate into ever-more synthetic experiences.

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