For millennia, we have lived in two worlds: one imagined, the other physical. The Metaverse will make these two worlds smaller until they partly dissolve into one another.
One of our worlds is shrinking and it will soon cease to exist. The other one of our worlds needs to shrink or it will cease to exist.
The tension—or complementarity—between these two worlds might force us to re-conceptualize school as a space for learning. If we are intentional, and perhaps lucky, this space will be at the same time infinite and strictly local (bio-local even). We will no longer think of school as a place (usually a building) where children acquire content and skills, but rather school will have a fluid quality, beyond walls, where learners of all ages come to connect with themselves, others, and nature. School will be a place of becoming.
I believe that if we get this right, it may be one of the defining shifts that ensure the survival of most life on the planet. If we get this wrong, then the future may not be so great.
I’ll throw this potentially contentious prediction (conjecture?) out there: the Metaverse might be one of the tools that we use to solve the climate crisis* by allowing us to reconnect with nature and our local communities. The Metaverse will allow us to travel virtually, to satiate our need to connect, to explore, thereby opening the doors for a physically more locally-based existence, which will in turn provide the basis for economic de-growth. Let me explain.
Our imagined world is the one we see in our minds when we are not physically there. It is the world that is created and sustained partly through memory (if we have been somewhere before), partly through stories we are told (which can include anything: narratives of all sorts, the ways the cameraperson frames pictures and videos, or the sound engineers capture). The imaginary world exists in our minds from the information we have gathered, remembered, and interpreted, and we fill any unknowns with our creative license. Our physical world is where our bodies are located and where we have sensory experiences. For the purpose of simplifying matters, it includes the world to which we have easy (a relative term) access physically on a regular basis. We might have to re-think this last notion, but let’s put that aside for a moment.
Until about 25 years ago, these parallel worlds—imaginary and physical—remained place-dependent. Even with the advent of the telegraph and the telephone, which allowed instant communication between two points, one could only reach another person at a fixed point in space. In 1868 just like in 1988 if I wanted to tell you something, you needed to be in a precise location to receive my message (immediately on the other side of the telegraph or telephone wire) or have a courier physically deliver this message to you. So if you weren’t physically next to me, I would have to imagine where you were (or believe you were there, as I could never know for certain) in order to “find you” to communicate or send you a good. The imaginary world was therefore entirely place-dependent.
Everything changed with the mobile phone. Now I can reach you anywhere, anytime so long as your phone is on and has a signal. Today, our imaginary world is undergoing a process of transformation away from place-dependency. I can call you and I don’t need to imagine (believe) where you are to reach you—I can just dial and ask “where are you?” The Internet didn’t alter this relationship with place, cellular did. The Internet did, however, revolutionize our relationship with information. Now we can access anything anywhere, anytime (not just people). The imaginary world is on its way to becoming place-independent. We put information in the cloud, which is a concept rather than an actual place to look for said information, like a library or a drawer. The cloud does not have a place in our imagination.
Our imagined world is becoming smaller because technology is overcoming time and space. Distances and travel time are practically zero because we can communicate and exchange anything, anywhere in the world instantaneously (other than physical shipping of goods, though that can be reduced to overnight in most cases if you’re able to pay for it). I can have a webinar with one person from every single country in the world at the same time. I can listen instantly to almost any song that has ever been recorded. I can peruse a book that doesn’t exist physically by typing a few search words. I can lose myself on Google Earth in as many thousands of miles as have been captured and collated in photos.
The Metaverse is nothing more than an extension of what has been unfolding for three decades, the coming to of place-independent worlds.
The Metaverse will reduce the distances in our imagined world to zero. In the Metaverse we will be able to reach anywhere, anytime and be virtually present to do anything as if we were there physically. The need for our bodies to be somewhere precise will dissolve and become irrelevant as we transport ourselves across data networks. There will no longer be an inaccessible imaginary world because we will be connected to everyone and everything through our headset, through our attached sensory devices, through the multiple contraptions that will not enhance but create our experiences. The pandemic has accelerated this process by making Zoom a life habit, but the wheels were already in motion.
In a few decades (two, three, 15?) technology will be able to convince our brains that we are physically in one place even if our bodies are in another. Stimulate enough parts of the brain that interpret light in the right ways and you can make the brain “see” something that it wouldn’t have otherwise. By transmitting the right information through existing neural pathways, we will convince our brains into believing that the created sensory experience is real. After all, our reality is what we believe is real**. The Metaverse will be able to produce a technology-induced altered state of consciousness, one that creates a reality that is different from the one we create today. This will happen. Maybe not this decade, but one day.
The Metaverse will be the world in which we exist virtually, but in our minds, we will occupy that world physically. (Though if our brains—consciousness—believe we are there physically, maybe we are? This has the making of a Zen koan.)
This means that we will no longer be bound by the same concept of school. Able to go anywhere, anytime, we will be able to pick our teachers (read seasoned learners since we will all be learners as we try to keep up to change) from anywhere in the world. We will be able to access resources from anywhere, walk the paths of anyone from any time. We will be able to walk across any biome and sketch any building. We will be able to talk, share, and exchange questions with any peer. We will be able to collaborate with anyone who has similar curiosities, passions, and drives. Our achievements, interests, and endeavors will be captured using Blockchain platforms. The world will open up to the infinite. School as we know it will no longer need to exist because the world will be our learning space. We may no longer have the same imaginary world because we will be able to visit anywhere, anytime. We will live the world, experience it, connect with it—virtually. See also this article I wrote previously.
There will still need to be a physical place for us to come together, but it won’t look like the school we know today.
This might quench our wanderlust. This might solve the climate crisis.
The planet is burning up. Our consumption patterns are not sustainable: any talk of sustainability should consider the question “sustain what?” Certainly not the way we’re living now because that is not working out so well.
Perhaps it’s time we think about sustainability after de-growth., after shrinking our physical world, after reducing our carbon footprints. Perhaps it’s time we think about how we shrink our physical world in order to live more regeneratively, getting back in touch with our environment, our human and non-human neighbors, our bio-locality. Perhaps it’s time we connect with the bio-collective in a smaller radius of physical existence so that we return to and find our place in the essence of our local environment. This would be a return to our common Holistic worldview, which were prevalent almost everywhere until the Scientific Revolution.
This opening up of our virtual world and the concurrent reduction of our physical world might be what saves the planet. If we can travel anywhere, anytime through a consciousness-altering Metaverse, will we be able to develop regenerative relationships of our immediate location, the bio-locality in which we physically exist? If we are able to change our consumption patterns to favor the local, to consume what we need in ways that promote the welfare of the bio-collective, can we put an end to the Anthropocene?
Big questions and, on the way, they might mean that school finds its place in a system more appropriate for the challenges of the 21st and most likely 22nd centuries.
School will no longer exist as the dominant physical space where learning is supposed to occur for children. The virtual world that dissolves the imaginary world alters the physical world.
According to this vision, the Metaverse will be a place where these virtual voyages into infinite learning take place. School as a physical and organizational concept will become increasingly irrelevant. School will shift in purpose, its narrative re-written. School will become a physical place where we cultivate relationships with the bio-locality: the walls will come down, the building melting into the newly re-discovered space that is the community.
The word “school” might even disappear because it will have become so conceptually different from its industrial-era ancestor. The word might no longer be relevant because people of all ages would learn anywhere, anytime through the complementarity between virtual and physical worlds.
What will emerge will be places of becoming, where learners of all ages come together to build relationships with themselves, others, and the bio-collective within a smaller physical space, but an infinite virtual space.
History is long. Our futures have yet to take shape, but they can never be static. We can find strength and courage in these possibilities, whether we understand time to be linear, cyclical, or circular.
School—or whatever we call this future learning community, this places of becoming—is one node in the living system and will have to evolve based on the emergence of every node in this system. We will transcend time and space on the one hand and return to more Indigenous worldviews on another. This will be the coming together of the hyper-technological and the traditional. It will be the end of school as we know it today.
We are years away from this, but the process continues. Artificial Intelligence is replacing humans in activities that require data capturing, analysis, and application. It is decades away from replacing humans in activities and relationships based on compassion and connection, with other humans and nature.
We can start to think about school within this unfolding story, growing learners’ capacities to embrace our interconnections, to nurture relationships with the local bio-collective.
The possibilities, opportunities, and dangers of the Metaverse will become clearer in the next decade or two. Now is the time to think about how we will shift our thinking and action to prepare ourselves and other learners. The current education models are already showing signs of being outdated with calls for a new social contract for education recently added to the many reports detailing how graduates are not prepared for the new world of work.
It is time that we re-think how and for what purpose we learn, how we transform our learning into action, action based on kindness and contribution. With the infinite world of the Metaverse, we can focus on the local world around us. School can play a part in this now. We can start now to make school a place of becoming rather than a place where meritocracy and reductionism thrive.
This is the journey of twenty, thirty years, not a quick fix. Appreciating the revolutionary changes that the Metaverse and the climate crisis will engender is the first step. By letting go of the old and taking a step into the infinite world that will develop, while at the same time reducing our production and consumption in the physical world while connecting with life in our local community, we might just get out of this.
We don’t have the answers, but we can see off into the fuzzy horizon and change course accordingly. Throughout history we have feared technological and social change. If we do nothing, if we close our eyes, the more insidious players in the high tech industry will impose their profit-centered world on us.
Arthur Koestler wrote “The great disputes are never settled on their own level, but on the next higher one.” This is the time to operate on the level of what can be, of what needs to happen now so that we can become what we want be. This is the time to connect horizontally with other actors whose interests coincide with those of the educators who are the majority of readers of this web site.
This is a source of energy for those believing that schools should change, because we can operate on a higher level, we can abandon the old structures because they will not get us to where we want go. Those who cling on will lose grip.
This is a time of hope because we may have a way out of climate disaster, out of the ego-centric (anthropocentric?) ways. This is a time of hope because we can use the Metaverse to connect virtually while we connect physically with the local.
Let us refuse to be complacent or defeated, which come down to the same thing.
*Assuming that we find an environmentally responsible way to power the consumption of data and an ethically and publicly responsible way to structure the ownership of data in the Metaverse.
** This doesn’t have to be dystopian. How would this be different essentially from the medication prescribed every day or the ceremonies Indigenous peoples use to access higher states of being? When you go on a rollercoaster, you are seeking a thrill through the release of chemicals stimulated by a contraption that is rollercoaster technology. Alcohol? Exercise-induced endorphins? A caring hug? All actions we take consciously or subconsciously to alter our state of being through the release of chemicals. Now, you could say that this is a source of craving, which according to Buddhism is a source of suffering… another conversation.