A Scanner Darkly
Preliminary Remarks on the Metaverse

Federica Di Pietrantonio, 2020, Does the Body Know, glaze on canvas, 190 x 290 cm, Talent Prize 2020 Special Award by Fondazione Cultura e Arte

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Nicolas Martino

There is much talk about what seems to be another global transformation underway, a qualitative leap, so to speak, whereby reality as we have known so far will become something completely different, an alien and augmented ‘outside’. It is difficult to imagine the singular and collective consequences of this revolution – some already call it an involution. Indeed, it seems that what is needed to grasp its developments is a visionary mind like that of Philip K. Dick, not only a science fiction writer, but probably one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century, able to foresee the new millennium in its various aspects. This is why the title of this contribution is that of one of his most compelling and disturbing novels, written in 1977, annus mirabilis, the year that marked the beginning of our new history and the advent of the third industrial revolution, brought about by electronics and the microchip. I will therefore attempt – more simply and without the aid of Dick’s talent – to analyse some of the emerging aspects of this new condition. On closer inspection, what I am talking about is not something we should expect in the near future: it is something we are already experiencing. If the 1980s were characterised by the automation of production and the personal computer, the 1990s by the global net – so, if the 20th century closed with a general process of dematerialisation of reality – the present is the condition in which what until the day before yesterday we used to call ‘virtual’, contrasting it with the ‘real’, is beginning to acquire a consistency that renders this distinction obsolete. What I mean is that it is probably increasingly difficult to distinguish between what is real and what is not, because reality itself has to be redefined on the basis of a dichotomy between ‘online’ and ‘offline’, in which what we have known up to now becomes ‘surrogate’ experience (i.e. offline), while the more ‘relevant’ experience (i.e. online) becomes what until the day before yesterday we used to call virtual. In short, if until yesterday we could argue that affection, friendship and intimate or professional relationships entertained virtually through devices and messaging, were not real relationships, but only a substitute for the only possible relationship, which took place in the physical space of the office, the home or the street, the tables have turned very quickly. In the metaverse – this is what we are trying to discuss –, people will not be sending messages and documents, emoticons and voice mails, they will be experiencing a new space, which will include the sharing of emotions and sensations, making it possible to live a different and full live, perhaps one that will be even better. James Cameron imagined this in his 2009 film Avatar – its sequel is expected to come out soon – in which, significantly, one of the characters, who ‘in reality’ has lost the use of his legs, decides to abandon his real self and live with his virtual double.

The works of Federica Di Pietrantonio (1996) come to mind. Her pictorial work has focused for some time on this short circuit between the real and the virtual, which breaks down the classical distinction between true and false, as post-Newtonian, hence postmodern, quantum physics, has already demonstrated. The work of Domenico Antonio Mancini (1980) also comes to mind, namely his pictorial reflection on landscape that becomes code. These artistic experiences rightly caution us against the euphoria of a promised liberation made possible by the imminent ‘quantum’ leap. We may think of what happened in the 1990s, when techno-libertarian enthusiasm was quickly dampened by the privatisation processes of the information highways and data banks. Similarly, the metaverse is hardly a safe space with regard to capitalism, which advances by structurally enclosing public spaces. This means that experience, in such an ‘out-of-reality’, will be ordered hierarchically, according to various levels of quality, inextricably linked to various investment capacities. In this regard, too, it is worth recalling the ability to foresee of artistic imagination and, in particular, of Leiji Matsumoto, who in the manga, then anime, Galaxy Express 999 – also created in 1977 – imagined a future world where the rich could buy a mechanical body that would allow them to live a very long time, while the poor would be forced into a temporarily limited life or to travel through space, like the protagonists of the story, in search of a planet where a thousand year long life would be within everyone’s reach.

Returning to the examples of young Italian artists – we must mention the extraordinary and pioneering work of Salvatore Iaconesi (1973-2022) and Oriana Persico (1979), who conceived an ecological ‘new living’ based on the sharing of data – if, on the one hand, it is probably true that the approach has been generally cautious with regard to the international enthusiasm generated by the NFT revolution, it is also true that what we are experiencing is a ‘great transformation’, to quote Karl Polanyi, which, if we think about it, also questions our language, its limitations and the need to reinvent it, as the relationship between words and things is constantly changing. Are the more mature generations really able to understand what twenty-year-olds are saying? Do the new generations not speak a foreign language, too foreign for a relay race between generations to take place? Isn’t the current vocabulary inadequate to define our new world? How do we try and describe experience ‘of’ and ‘in’ a ‘reality outside reality’, that is, how do we describe an augmented experience in which bodies will be able to step outside of themselves? What will identities, no longer structurally bound to their own bodies, become? We should reflect, so as to stress the radical nature of the process underway, on the cognitive mutation brought about by the fact that the written word will no longer be the main means of acquiring, preserving and transmitting knowledge – Derrick De Kerckhove has insisted on this – and on the emergence of connected intelligences, educated by the net and anthropologically different from those that have inhabited our planet over the last five centuries. It would be enough to note how, almost everywhere, political elections are increasingly determined by votes cast emotionally, determined by arguments that are increasingly less valid, to realise that critical thought and the public sphere which emerged with the Enlightenment are also waning; we would thus explain why we live in the nightmare of a criticism that turns into a caricature of itself – proof of this is the viral spread of conspiracy paranoia, a tragicomic decline of the foundations of Western dialectical thought. It is no coincidence that, as Fredric Jameson has very aptly noted, just as in Dick’s stories, schizophrenia is the hallmark of our age. A general ‘crisis of presence’, Ernesto De Martino would have said, accompanied by ever more serious states of collective aphasia, and an exponential spread of the burnout syndrome. However, in the collapse of the signifying chain in which we were ‘comprehended’ until the day before yesterday, who if not poets, and therefore artists, will be able to reinvent our language, making this navigation less obscure, this ‘scanning’ of the world to come? Is it not true, as Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi states in one of his best books, that what regenerates our language and, therefore, makes our relationship possible with a world in a constant process of metamorphosis, is poetry and therefore artists, who have always worked on language and style? Looking more closely at the contemporary art scene, Carla Benedetti’s literary analysis is very useful. Reflecting on postmodernism, she compares the options offered by Italo Calvino and Pier Paolo Pasolini: one is ironic and disenchanted, the other one tragic and stubbornly committed. If Calvino’s ‘solution’ undoubtedly hegemonised the cultural scene of the 1980s and 1990s, younger artists today seem to be looking with increasing interest at the idea of works as unfinished projects at the centre of Pasolini’s late research. Reinventing language, constructing an online vocabulary, going beyond the one we use offline, imagining a new pictography that might teach us how to find our bearings and therefore experience this ‘world outside the world’. This seems to be the task of artists of the 21st century. It is a task we will all be required to undertake, inside the metaverse we have already started to inhabit.

Reference list

C. Benedetti, Pasolini contro Calvino. Per una letteratura impura, Bollati Boringhieri, 2022
F.B. Berardi, Respirare. Caos e poesia, Sossella, 2019
V. Codeluppi, Mondo digitale, Laterza, 2022
D. De Kerckhove, The Alphabet and the Brain: The Lateralization of Writing, Springer 1988
E. De Martino, La fine del mondo. Contributo all’analisi delle apocalissi culturali (1977), Einaudi, 2019
P.K. Dick, A scanner darkly, Doubleday and Company, 1977
F. Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Duke University Press, 1991