“We’re Already Living in the Metaverse”: For March cover story, Megan Garber shows how reality is blurred, boredom is intolerable, and everything is entertainment
The metaverse started as science fiction. In his 1992 novel, Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson imagined a world of visual entertainment so immersive that people could essentially live within it. In her cover story for The Atlantic, Megan Garber argues that this new era of entertainment has already arrived—we just haven’t realized it yet. Instead of something we choose, channel by channel, or stream by stream, today’s entertainment encompasses us: Reality is blurred, boredom has become intolerable, and Americans risk becoming so distracted and dazed by our fictions that we lose our sense of what is real. And the stakes couldn’t be higher. “This could be how we lose the plot,” Garber writes. “This could be the somber finale of America: The Limited Series.”
“We’re Already Living in the Metaverse” is The Atlantic’s March-issue cover story, and is online today. The rest of the issue will be released in the coming two weeks.
We are surrounded at all times by immersive entertainment: We carry our televisions in our pockets, and streaming platforms offer us on-demand entertainment whenever we want it. Social media beckons from the same devices, inviting us to peer into the lives of others and project a stylized version of our own lives out into the world—to treat ourselves and one another, essentially, as characters in an ongoing show. More and more of the TV series we consume are “ripped from the headlines”: stories taken from history so recent that it can barely be called history.
Garber writes: “Dwell in this environment long enough, and it becomes difficult to process the facts of the world through anything except entertainment. We’ve become so accustomed to its heightened atmosphere that the plain old real version of things starts to seem dull by comparison.” Even mundane updates about the weather or our taxes come packaged as scintillating stories. “Consider an email I received from TurboTax,” Garber writes. “It informed me, cheerily, that ‘we’ve pulled together this year’s best tax moments and created your own personalized tax story.’ Here was the entertainment imperative at its most absurd: Even my Form 1040 comes with a highlight reel.”
That imperative has infected not just our culture but also our politics. In our present reality, the January 6 committee needed to deliver “a good show” in order for people to pay attention. A joke bandied about by hosts on Fox News—on shipping migrants to Martha’s Vineyard—quickly became a reality, with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis treating humans as political props. George Santos was able to invent his life story and win a seat in the House of Representatives.
The rise of the metaverse, where what is real and what is imaginary can be hard to distinguish, “coincides with the decline of the institutions that report on the world as it is. The semi-fictions stake their claims while journalism flails. We have gradually accommodated ourselves to the idea that if an event doesn’t become a limited series or a movie, it hasn’t happened. When news breaks, we shrug. We’ll wait for the miniseries.”
As Garber notes, “in a functioning society, ‘I’m a real person’ goes without saying. In ours, it is a desperate plea.” She concludes: “A republic requires citizens; entertainment requires only an audience.”
“We’re Already in the Metaverse” is the cover story of The Atlantic’s March issue. For media inquiries or interview requests, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Paul Jackson and Anna Bross | The Atlantic