Meta Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Does

You might be a hipster if you’re mistaking abstraction for transcendence.

Mirror in the shape of a speech bubble on a red background
Paul Spella / The Atlantic; Getty

Don’t want to miss a single column? Sign up to get Caleb’s writing in your inbox.

Perhaps no morpheme has been more crucial to understanding the current cultural moment than meta. I first remember hearing it in high school, an echo across the East River from Brooklyn during the Obama-era hipster boom. On a basic level, meta meant recursive or self-referential—like a warning sign warning you about warning signs or a coffee-table book about coffee tables. But in the 2010s, it also came to signify coolness. To be meta was to flex your self-awareness for social currency, to demonstrate proficiency in the language of smirky dissociative irony that was the trendy cultural refuge from the massive information shitstorm (think: “Thrift Shop” and Deadpool). The word became ever more ingrained in the national consciousness until, in what felt like a culmination of its journey, the primary social-media company responsible for stirring up said shitstorm announced that it was rebranding itself with the word.

To the ancient Greeks, μετα- simply meant “after.” So when some first-century B.C. editor (maybe Andronicus of Rhodes) was compiling the teachings of a philosopher named Aristotle, and he got to the period right after The Physics, he didn’t put too much thought into calling it Metaphysics. He was basically calling it Physics: The Sequel. But Aristotle’s work in that period was arguably his most intense. Whereas The Physics summoned concepts like matter, nature, substance, and motion to describe the inner workings of the visible world, Metaphysics attempted to go beyond the visible—zooming out as much as possible to address questions like “What does it mean to exist?” and “How can we prove anything?” and “What in the Underworld is going on with all of us right now?” Because of the deep and abstract subject matter, many translators erroneously interpreted the prefix meta- as meaning “beyond” or “transcending.”

A whole new branch of philosophy was born, and this misinterpretation of the prefix meta- proliferated in the critical-theory jargon of the 20th century. As academia ran out of rationally explainable things to study, it began to study itself. Fields of study emerged, like metalinguistics, metahistory, and metanarrative, that attempted to go “beyond” the traditional areas of study to discover fundamental rules underlying all history, all language, all narrative. The rise of the Information Age stoked the promise that, through quantitative data and cold computational analysis, certain fundamental truths could emerge that might allow us to transcend our subjectively limited human perspective.

In his emotionally barren 1979 Pulitzer-winning nonfiction behemoth about self-referentiality, Gödel, Escher, Bach, the cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter uses 25 different words with the meta- prefix, many of them coinages. This was noted in a 1988 article by Noam Cohen, who argued that the prefix reflects a concerning instinct toward semantic self-annihilation, whether used in academia, comedy, or politics. Cohen worried that, faced with the limitations of our own perception, instead of creating anything new, we were beginning to eat our own tails.

The concept of a “metaverse” like the one currently being peddled by Facebook was first hypothesized in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 breakthrough science-fiction novel, Snow Crash. In Stephenson’s future America, an impotent federal government has ceded societal control to corporations and entrepreneurs. Massive hyperinflation due to overprinting physical currency means that even quadrillion-dollar bills (called gippers) are practically worthless, and most transactions are made online using electronic currency. A goggle-based interactive virtual reality resembling a massive first-person multiplayer online game called “the Metaverse” is the successor to the internet we currently know and love. Sound familiar? Stephenson claims to have had no communication with “Zuck,” but either Neal is a true prophet or Mark is a true fan. Regardless, 20 years later, this garbled ancient-Greek prefix stands next to a symbol of infinite recursion (a favorite image of meta maven Hofstadter) as Facebook hard-pivots into an uncertain future.

Whatever you make of Zuckerberg’s vision for Meta, the word still resonates with its ancient Aristotelian questions and contradictions. Like Aristotle, Zuck forces us to ask ourselves: Is there really something beyond the physical? Can we know it? Or is it a limitation somehow baked into the human experience? We seem to still be stuck on the ancient misunderstanding that gave us meta—a confusion of the spiritual “beyond” with the chronological “after,” mistaking abstraction for transcendence as we come up against the limits of our perceptual abilities. Put more simply: Is Meta “the future” or is it just “the sequel”?

To me, the whole endeavor still stinks of the superficial pubescent ooze that Facebook crawled from, the image-conscious irony of hipsterdom that first taught me how to be meta. Hence my Monday clue: “Smugly self-referential.”