The Materiality of the Immaterial

Posted March 9, 2023 by Paul Graham Raven

Materiality of Immaterial

Not long ago I read an interview with a man whose job title is ‘philosopher’, in which he said:

“One big difference between VR and physical reality is that material goods in VR are abundant.”

This is both spectacularly wrong, in what I presume to be the most obvious way—the ‘goods’ in a virtual reality world are by definition not material, and arguably not even goods—but also horribly correct, in a way that I dare say the philosopher didn’t intend.

First, on the wrongness. That Shining Helmet of Managerial Competency +3 for which you traded your time, attention, or real-world fiat currency (or some unmappable combination of all three) is just a bunch of bits, a representation of a representation of an idea within a game. That’s not inherently bad; to make things in play is fine, a very human thing to do. But to start trading in things made in play is not at all to allow the game out into the wider world, as advocates of such trades suggest; rather, it is to drag the world—and all the ugly logics of capital and consumption that prevail there—into the game.

(Would you pay for and drink Liquid Death, even if only ironically? If you answered “yes”, you’ve already lost a game that you never realised you were playing.)

Secondly, on the correctness: the Shining Helmet isn’t material, Mork Zuckerbot’s blandly inoffensive metaverse C-suite isn’t material, your Zoom meeting-room isn’t a material space... but none of this means that “the virtual” is immaterial. All this uncountable virtual wealth and space, which seems to fold away magically into your laptop when you close it at the end of the day, is built upon and sustained by very material, very large, privately owned infrastructures and systems: not just server farms and optical backbones running under the ocean, but also the power stations that keep them running, and the mines that feed those power stations or supply the rare-earth metals for the batteries in your laptop and your Tesla, and also the train and planes and trucks that move all that stuff from where it’s scraped out of the earth to where it is burned or made into something else, and all the factories and offices and warehouses in between, the asphalt of the roads and runways, the billions upon billions of miles of copper wire that runs between and through and under and over all of it, the satellites swinging silently past us in the sky… and let’s not forget all the people whose actions, from the expert to the mundane, the celebrated to the thankless, go into making these things work, invisibly, at our beck and call, a click or a swipe away. It takes all this—and much more—to make one imaginary Shining Helmet appear in your player profile for all to see.

The “virtual” is perhaps the most material thing that exists right now. Ask yourself why you never see it.

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