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Anthropologist Lisa Messeri on the ‘metaverse’ and other digital worlds

Published on 9 January 2022 at 21:48

Lisa Messeri I Yale

Yale anthropologist Lisa Messeri paid close attention last fall when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg shared his plans to invest billions into creating the “metaverse,” an immersive, digital world that he claims is humanity’s “next frontier.”

Messeri studies the places where technology and science are produced and how scientists and engineers build new worlds through their research and innovations. Her current research focuses on the virtual reality (VR) industry, which produces some of the technology that is seen as central to the metaverse. She worries that Zuckerberg’s metaverse will do more harm than good.

In Zuckerberg’s hands the vision of sociality, community, and experience existing on this frontier will be devastatingly limited …,” she wrote in an essay published in Wired that placed the tech titan’s vision in historical and cultural context.

Messeri’s first book, “Placing Outer Space: An Earthly Ethnography of Other Worlds,” explored the ways planetary scientists transform the void of space into a cosmos populated with worlds that ignite people’s imaginations. Her next book will examine the people, places, and fantasies shaping VR and its simulated worlds.

Students have embraced Messeri’s anthropological approach to science and technology. She is a 2021 recipient of the Poorvu Family Fund for Academic Innovation award, which recognizes excellence in innovative teaching among Yale’s junior faculty.

Messeri, an assistant professor of anthropology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, recently spoke to Yale News about her teaching, research, and skepticism of Zuckerberg’s metaverse vision. The interview has been edited and condensed.

First, congratulations on winning the Poorvu prize. What do you most enjoy about teaching?

Lisa Messeri: Teaching undergraduates is an extraordinary opportunity to engage with young, eager thinkers. They’re creative. They’re optimistic about technology and, yet, intuitively aware of some of the big problems about which those of us in technology studies are most concerned. It’s exciting to inhabit their more optimistic space. I also like watching students become more mature thinkers as they encounter new material throughout the semester.

You teach an undergraduate seminar titled “Technology and Culture.” What ground do you cover?

Messeri: We start with the ways in which technology affects our understanding of ourselves. Then we zoom out a little bit to think about technology’s role in shaping the communities in which we live. Next, we switch over to thinking about the virtual spaces that we occupy, and we try to understand the distinction between the physical world and the virtual world and how that divide is increasingly less obvious.

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