Last week, Facebook announced Facebook Horizon: a virtual reality sandbox universe. Horizon will allow users to design their own avatars and hop between virtual locales through portals called Telepods. They will also be able to watch movies and consume other media with friends and play multiplayer games. We have written before that Facebook is increasingly positioning itself as the organizer of our socio-cultural capital, which emerges from the patterns of our digital energy (clicks and likes). Facebook Horizon may thus be considered a “digital market square”, where users meet and interact, create new content and meet new people, and “pay” with their attention (or with Facebook’s Libra coin). Yet, the question remains whether this can ever be a meaningful addition, let alone a substitute, of “real” life.
What does this mean?
Virtuality refers to mediation and interaction through an electronic medium between humans, and between humans and machines. Sandboxing games are virtual environments with minimal limitations for the user so that (s)he can roam and change the virtual world at will (as in the popular game Minecraft or other forms of user-generated content. Critics state that virtual identities lack the depth of situated and embodied persons and that virtual institutions are “thin” because there is limited commitment in the form of moral reciprocal relationships between people and with society at large. Moreover, they argue that the abstract categories of space and time in virtual worlds (e.g. there is no far and close, no temporary orientation) create no space for meaningful communities and connectedness.
Philosopher Gilles Deleuze is more enthusiastic about “virtual”. Rather than juxtaposing it with reality, he embraces the concept as a new condition that is already fully real and waits for us to be actualized. From his perspective, virtual worlds enable us come up with new ideas and dreams and “sandboxing” universes provide us with the freedom to actualize them. These virtual worlds will thus open up entirely new ways of “being” and interacting, such as more fluid identities, new ways for communities with shared ideals and goals to join forces and new types of meaningful experiences that are not possible in real life. As such, a new socio-cultural can emerge and lead to new worlds and forms of social reality (e.g. new religions, morality, art).