This month's Frame: How art theory helps us understand the future of the metaverse
A framework to understand the relationship between communities and the aesthetics of virtual spaces.
For a long time only sci-fi fans and tech enthusiasts were familiar with “the metaverse” but recently, the concept of a virtual world shared by us all has reached broader audiences. Pushed by Meta’s vision, it has gained prominence on the agendas of major news outlets and media.
Inspired by this vision, the metaverse tends to be imagined as a singular world that will be created for us by tech companies. It is singular on multiple fronts: it is envisioned as a world on one platform, navigated with a single character or avatar and bearing a homogenous look, style or aesthetic.
This vision of singularity ignores the fact that multiple metaverses navigated by multiple avatars and inhabited by diverse communities have long existed. By being envisioned as a world with a singular style and aesthetic it reflects a limited vision of what emerging virtual worlds look and feel like.
What could be an alternative way of thinking about the metaverse experience as a sensible experience? The French philosopher Jacques Ranciere’s theory about the relationship between communities and aesthetics might help to shine a more nuanced light on future metaverses.
Ranciere’s concept of “the politics of aesthetics” describes how aesthetics and styles that are shared by a community reflect a selective way of feeling, seeing, doing and experiencing reality. The aesthetics embraced by communities tend to make sensible only what that community wants to have in common. The style and aesthetics that make up the sensible space that a community produces and inhabits is a direct reflection not only of its values but also its norms and practices.
Ranciere distinguishes three regimes through which communities design and represent their shared sensible spaces aesthetically:
The ethical regime creates a world that is styled in a “realistic” way where real life is imitated and mimicked. Style and design of art but also human-created objects serve the community in which they are embedded. Looking at art, an example would be realism.
The representative regime is a more symbolic world where style represents the real world through fictional imagery instead of “taking it literally”. Style and aesthetics are a distinct sphere and symbolically mirror rather than directly imitate real life. An example of this would be impressionism.
Finally the aesthetic regime dissolves the relationship between style and content. Here there is no visible link between real life and the way a world is styled and represented. An example here would be abstract art.
In art history, these three regimes emerged over time. The ethical regime was dominant until the 19th century, when it was increasingly challenged by more representative regimes. The latter, in turn, had to give space to aesthetic regimes in the 20th century. Today, these regimes are not mutually exclusive but co-exist and even merge at times. Which regime is predominant depends on the needs, practices and values of the community that produces it.
Using the framework
How can these different aesthetic regimes help us when thinking about what future metaverses may look and feel? Virtual worlds are aesthetic spaces that are entirely designed by humans. They are not only conceived and created by tech companies but also by online communities and users themselves. Just like the style regimes embodied by pieces of art, virtual worlds reflect the different communities and the shared values, norms and practices of their members.
Shopping worlds, such as Walmart’s vision of the metaverse, follow an ethical regime of aesthetics. They attempt to create a direct imitation of real life, recreating the shopping experience virtually. They build a sensible space that reflects and serves a community of consumers. Avatars used here tend to look very realistic and aim to mimic the users’ real looks.
Gaming platforms like Roblox and Minecraft reflect a more representative approach to aesthetics. They are worlds that symbolically represent spaces and activities you can engage in real life. Taking forms, shapes and avatars that are inspired by reality, but have a distinct lego or pixel look, they represent reality in a more symbolic way. They enable users to immerse in a world that is simultaneously familiar and different.
Finally, virtual worlds revolving around NFTs, virtual real estate and cryptocurrencies dissolve the direct link between representation and represented. Anything can become an NFT, any symbol can represent valuable spaces or real estate online. The symbolic link between representation and represented is determined by the creator. Its validity and value depends on its acceptance by the community. Their meaning and value is not instantly clear to non-members of the community.
What does this tell us about the future of the metaverse? It is unlikely that there will be one metaverse with a singular style. Looking at emerging present day virtual spaces one can see a myriad of aesthetics that are a product of diverse communities who imagine, create and inhabit these worlds. These aesthetics depend on what kind of activities users want to engage in in these worlds and how much agency they want to have when making these worlds their own.
What is certain, though, is that the importance of virtual worlds embracing an aesthetic regime will be growing. Initially at the fringes of online culture, they have gained importance through the mainstreaming of cryptocurrencies and NFTs. Moreover, the increasing integration of devices and worlds has been blurring the boundaries between the different regimes. In this process, aesthetic online regimes will become a force to be reckoned with in popular culture.
The Stripe Partners team is growing once again.
We’re hiring for a Senior Consultant and Junior Consultant at a time of significant growth. If you would like to find out more about these roles, or know someone who would be a good fit, click the links above.
Cyril Maury, Cath Richardson and Qamar Zaman become partners.
We would like to congratulate Cyril, Cath and Qamar on becoming Partners in well deserved recognition of their talent and contributions to the business.