A Deeper Understanding of Liminality in the Metaverse

Photo Kellepics/ Pixabay

The development of virtual environments in online gaming has come a long way since the 1970s which saw the first M.U.Ds – Multi User Dungeons. They are now fully immersive experiences which are are no longer bounded by the narrative of a single fantasy world. Real-world elements are now being blended in, meaning that virtual worlds are now ‘metaverses’ – digital worlds which blur the distinction between our real-world and virtual lives.

At this moment in time there is no single definition of metaverse. While for many the idea is that our physical lives will be blended with our social media existences, in many ways these already are. What makes a metaverse different is the level of virtual interaction, with social media becoming more of a gaming experience, meaning that computer gaming is at the point at which it is disrupting media streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon and Google.

The Fabricant

This does of course also mean the way in which we consume and interact with brands is changing. This week, for example, Dolce & Gabbana auctioned a digital ‘tiara’ that doesn’t exist for $340,700. The development of NFTs means that digital fashion houses such as The Fabricant can work alongside brands such as Adidas, Puma and Tommy Hilfiger to produce highly-desirable digital-only fashion that can be used and traded in virtual realities. In 2019 The Fabricant caused shock waves by selling a digital dress for $9,500, leading to a new fashion trend for influencers wearing digital clothing.

The COVID crisis has accelerate investment and developments in metaverse spaces, which are more than just virtual shopping experiences. Many creative designers are exploring new modes of social interaction, while a new generation of applications is allowing people to take more control over their content creation.

Wunderman Thompson’s recent report on metaverses explores the notion of ‘liminal spaces’. They describe these in the following way:

“Alongside the rise of fully virtual venues and spaces, extended reality (XR) is transforming physical spaces for a new category of blended events, built equally around digital and physical elements. Liminal spaces—blended virtual and physical experiences—are already successfully revolutionizing the culture and art scenes. In future, expect to see similar blurred reality activations in retail spaces, brand hubs and business centers.“ (Wunderman Thompson, Into the Metaverse, 2021)

An example they provide is the March 2021 live production Dream, staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company which was inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This performance used light and technology, transforming the actors to create an “almost game-like experience”.

This was interesting to me due to the fact that in our book Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter we discuss the notion of liminality in relation to the expanded form of conscious awareness necessary to evolve to a deeper level of systems thinking:

“In the figure above there is a dotted line which represents a wall, a barrier beyond which many systems thinkers do not go. It represents their inability to break out of their mechanistic world views; it is ‘the point of liminality’. Liminality can be thought of as a human type of singularity point in a black hole, a halfway point in transition, where existing structures have broken down but new ones have not yet been built. The word comes from Victor Turner’s anthropological work on rites of passage and rituals.

In indigenous cultures, Turner identified three stages in a ritual process. The first is ‘separation’, where a youngster is taken from their familiar surroundings, their family, friends, and village, with a view to taking them out of all known cultural and social norms. The second phase is the ‘liminal state’, which has no attributes of either past or coming states. In the final phase of the rites of passage, the initiate achieves a new form of awareness, coming out of the ambiguous state to achieve a new sense of wholeness.

In first world countries – advanced technological countries – we have lost these ancient rites of passage, and unless we have gone through them, we cannot begin to understand the change of consciousness that they are designed to invoke. Instead, we may experience deep discomfort and frustration, and a lack of truly grasping the importance of what is being taught.” (Simon Robinson and Maria Moraes Robinson (2014), Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter)

If we are to match advances in humanity to the same degree as we have advanced in technology, we need to explore the role that virtual spaces can contribute to the facilitation of liminal states of consciousness. Liminal states are far more than just a blend of the physical and the virtual, they are states of consciousness which allow us to dismantle mental models which no longer serve us before constructing ones anew.

However, the great issue is trust. Liminal states in indigenous cultures are carefully induced by the wisest elders. Given that those organisations and enterprises responsible for running and maintaining the metaverse have full access to every thought expressed and behviour observed, and that social medial platform operators have been found to both manipulate users’ emotions while knowing the negative emotional consequences of influencer culture on our teenagers and young adults, the question which deep tech pioneers will manage to gain enough trust to allow us to explore these expanded states of awareness in full confidence?

There are many questions yet to be answered but this should not stop us providing our most creative young designers and explorers with the platforms, applications and technology to allow them to discover new ways of being, and create genuinely new forms of art and expression, elevating humanity and amplifying our impact in the worlds we now inhabit and the ones of the future, whatever they may be.

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