Author and theorist Bruno Maçães joins Brian Anderson to discuss the geopolitical implications of the metaverse, the philosophical underpinnings of China’s rise, and the importance of writing history in real time.
Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today is Bruno Maçães. He's a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. He's the author of a number of books, including, most recently, Geopolitics for the End Time: From the Pandemic to the Climate Crisis, which we'll talk a little bit about today. He served in the Portuguese government as secretary of state for European affairs, and he's a regular contributor to City Journal with his most recent article, "Enter the Metaverse," appearing in our brand new winter issue and now available online. So Bruno, great to have you back on the show. Thanks for joining us.
Bruno Maçães: It's great to be back.
Brian Anderson: Let's start with this essay, "Enter the Metaverse." We're hearing a lot about this term in the business press and the regular news these days. Facebook has renamed itself Meta. Why don't we just set the terms of the discussion about this? What is the metaverse in your view?
Bruno Maçães: Yes, a lot of discussion: some people are getting tired of the term. I think it's a really fundamental concept. And that also explains the attraction that I think you see, that everyone wants to have an opinion on this. In my case, I think we have to look at it in broader terms, in terms of the history of political thinking and the history of political forms. It immediately seems to me as appealing to an idea of technological transformation, to an idea of increasing detachment from reality, which is part of our political tradition going back decades, going back centuries.
And that's the reason, I believe, that the term has become so attractive. It fits with the zeitgeist, with the mood of the times. And it seems to give some concrete expression to this desire—which is very firmly rooted in American life, I believe, and that's a reason that the metaverse has been more popular there—to once and for all escape from the chains of reality. And that's how the metaverse appeared originally in the famous science-fiction work Snow Crash. It's a reality in a world that is degraded to such an extent that your only hope for achievement and for happiness and even for safety is to leave it entirely behind. I think we, increasingly, in our time, and the pandemic has contributed to that, are feeling that urge, that call to migrate to a different and better world, changing everything as a result—geopolitics, as I argue in my book, but politics as well. New kind of politics and new kinds of geopolitics.
And finally, and I also argue that in the essay, I don't think the metaverse is limited to the concept that Meta has put forward. That's almost like a visible tip of the concept. But in many respects, we already live in a diluted or initial metaverse. We see the metaverse already around us. And what meta has done is to point towards a more concrete manifestation of the concept, but it's already present in our lives. To quote William Gibson, we could say the metaverse is already here. It's just not evenly distributed. You'll find pockets of it here and there in our political social life.
Brian Anderson: Maybe to get a little more concrete, you write in the piece, "The metaverse has to be highly concurrent. It's an artificial world that needs to be updated constantly and that it's fully immersive." Right? But this idea of concurrence, what exactly do you mean by that? That it keeps going when you go to sleep in other words?
Bruno Maçães: Exactly. It has to be autonomous, persistent, and self-sustaining. Experiences that happen in the metaverse have to relate to other experiences in the metaverse. It has to be a world on its own. And autonomous life, a second life, secondary universe, and we have to refer back to one of the initial manifestations of the metaverse as Second Life. I think that is really what defines the metaverse.
Because think about it: virtual reality as such would not be enough. We've had virtual reality for a long time, but it came in prepackaged versions. You had the experience of climbing up a mountain, you put your device on and you go through it. But that's not what the metaverse appeals to. The metaverse appeals to the idea that there is going to be, in a way, a replacement for the real world to which we all migrate and we live there. Therefore, it's not prepackaged. It happens in real time. You could have, for example, a business meeting. People would put on their devices and then meet on the beach or perhaps in a meeting room.
But it has to be concurrent in the sense that the platform has to allow for different people, potentially millions or billions of people, to experience it simultaneously. It has to have a certain coherence in the sense that what you do there is going to impact other people and other parts of the metaverse just as what you do in the real world impacts other people and other parts of the real world.
Brian Anderson: Like most technological innovations, you could imagine, if you were a techno-pessimist the dark side of this project. As the metaverse becomes more ubiquitous, more people get removed from reality. You could imagine this enervating people, right?
Bruno Maçães: Absolutely. And it's been the concern. There's a famous photo where Mark Zuckerberg is walking without a 3D device and everyone else around him has a 3D device. And this immediately resonated with people because it seemed to suggest that reality from now on is going to be a privilege for billionaires and everyone else is going to live in a fake world. We already sense that we live in a world that that is not genuine in many respects, a world of consumerism, of fake products, cheap products produced in China. And this is going to be a fake product produced somewhere in Silicon Valley, or perhaps eventually in China.
It's been part of the reaction to the metaverse. A lot of panic about this idea. It really resonated with people as a dystopian scenario. I don't exactly subscribe to it, but obviously I understand where this is coming from. And I think it also explains why in other parts of the world, not in the U.S., the idea has not really picked up and has been seen with a lot of skepticism. I think Europeans are a lot more uninterested in it, skeptical and cynical about it. In China, you've already seen some direct criticisms of the idea. We can talk about it later.
The U.S., as I argue in a previous book, is so enamored with virtual realities that I think the dangers are perhaps less immediate and the project has been embraced with some enthusiasm by business people in the US, at least for now.
Brian Anderson: Well, you could imagine the economic impact of this being immense and not just from the standpoint of communications, but simulating different kinds of realities. You could imagine telemedicine going this route, business meetings, which, conducted remotely these days, are horrendous over Zoom or Microsoft Teams. This would be closer to what one would imagine when you're physically present in a place once the technology evolves. I'd like to talk a bit about the geopolitical dimension of this, which you describe in the article and that a number of people have picked up on in responding to your piece.
Technological changes affect geopolitics. And the metaverse, you say, is not going to be an exception. And your article references a report from a Chinese think tank that notes that the metaverse will have real consequences for the distribution of power globally and that there is, as you just acknowledged, a kind of anxiety among Chinese leaders and intellectuals about the project. And you recently wrote on Twitter, "It may well be that the choice today is between the Chinese enlightenment, with all the dark elements we have come to know, and the metaverse, which is a leap in the void."
Now, that was a very dense tweet. And I wonder if you could elaborate a little bit about that. What is Chinese enlightenment as you're describing it there and how is this a conflict with the metaverse?
Bruno Maçães: Well, I've become more and more convinced that if you want to see a representative of the enlightenment today, you're actually going to find it more easily in China than in the West. I immediately add, as I did in the tweet, that we have to keep in mind that the enlightenment perhaps for some people is a very attractive concept. And we trace our most dearest values back to the enlightenment, but there's a whole chunk of literature that I'm a big fan of in the twentieth century—a lot of it German, but not only—calling attention to the dangers of the enlightenment, the dialectic of the enlightenment, the dark side of the enlightenment, which is of course present in political history.
Colonialism, racism, ideas of race, and also very powerful anti-democratic ideas, because if knowledge as such is the ruling principle of societies, knowledge is not equally distributed. Enlightened despotism was the first manifestation of the enlightenment in Europe; in my own country the enlightenment arrived precisely by the hands of one of our most despotic monarchs. So that, I think, helps us understand why perhaps the category of the enlightenment shouldn't be embraced without reservations. And it's perhaps a useful one to look at China today, more useful than other categories like totalitarianism in my opinion. And this is of course a hot topic of debate.
But what we're seeing in China is, for example, going back to some of these ideas, that knowledge is not equally distributed, that some people have the ability to transform society and others are more like objects of this transformation. This is part of our tradition, but we see it today in China. Now, the metaverse, as a kind of alternative proposition, is more liberating because it allows everyone to live in their own imaginary worlds. And by, in a way, fragmenting the social body, it doesn't force people to share the same political project.
And today we look at China, we look at the United States and it does seem that America offers this possibility of everyone going their own separate ways. This has dangers, but it's also very liberating and it does carry a promise. And in China, you have a very strong idea that the social and political body has to move in the same direction. By the way, the last two years with this idea of common prosperity and the heavy-handed regulation of different economic sectors was a reminder of how powerful this idea is in China, that society has a whole should move in the same direction.
And that's how you get results and effectiveness by making sure that everyone moves together. So we see these realities today and this opposition, it didn't surprise me to see a lot of skepticism in China about the project of the metaverse. But what was interesting in China was a certain ambiguity because on the one hand, Chinese want to leave the technological revolutions of the future. And once they realize that the metaverse is here, they say, "We want to be part of this from the beginning, and we don't want to be playing second fiddle as we did with the internet, the previous large revolution."
But at the same time, there was a lot of fear and anxiety and skepticism about what is this? Is every Chinese citizen going to be entitled to their own reality? And how does that fit with our concept of revolutionary collective politics? It's been a very, very interesting debate. Now, a lot of it is not readily accessible to Western audiences, but we have two places today where the metaverse is really being discussed in all aspects, technological, economic, political, and philosophical, that's United States and China.
Brian Anderson: Very interesting. I'd like to turn to your most recent book, which I've read with great interest, Geopolitics for the End Time, and talk a little bit about that. This book is primarily about the pandemic and it appeared several months ago. The problem with writing a book during a pandemic is that things on the ground keep changing, as you acknowledge in the book. I wonder if you could sketch the broad argument of that book and then perhaps talk a bit about what you would do differently in terms of emphasis in the next edition, if there will be a next edition.
Bruno Maçães: Yes, there will be a next edition. There may actually be something a bit different, there may be a follow-up volume, updating not only developments in the real world where the pandemic went and how it developed after my book, particularly the new variants, which we're not really discussing great detail in the book, but also updating my ideas because I have no problem admitting that those have evolved as well. I think the basic framework of looking at the pandemic is still the same, but the ideas have become sharper.
I wrote the book in large measure to actually force myself to think through the pandemic and to keep thinking, and I'll go back to the book and see where I got it wrong. So I have no problem admitting that I would do it differently now and probably will do it differently in a kind of second volume. And then maybe in the future, the two volumes will be published together. Now, how do I look at the pandemic today? And this is already in the book, but I think it's sharper in my mind today.
To use a slightly paradoxical formulation, I think we could think about the pandemic as the beginning of the Anthropocene. Often the pandemic is seen as a result, as a consequence of the Anthropocene, I'll talk a little bit about what this means, what the concept means. I think it's not a consequence. It's more the beginning.
Now the Anthropocene is the idea that human beings have now replaced the natural world with a human-made or man-made artificial world and that many of the problems we live with are a result of this transformation. Climate change, but also pandemics that one could think are a result of technological power in the sense of destroying natural habitats of, for example, bats, bringing human populations closer to bat populations, and perhaps in an extreme case, perhaps even causing a lab leak that may have been responsible for the pandemic. We don't know yet.
Now, I actually see the pandemic as a much more traditional event, as something that human beings have had to deal with for eons, a threat from the natural environment. But the reaction has been, obviously in my view, a certain wake-up call. The most vivid impression of the pandemic for me was this sense that we thought the problem of nature was solved, that we had somehow completely tamed and domesticated nature and we didn't have to worry about natural threats anymore. And the pandemic was a humbling moment and a wake-up call to make us realize that this problem of nature is not solved—and possibly is not solvable.
And that is also a moment of crisis for Western societies and Western political thought, because the promise was that eventually we would get to a moment when we wouldn't have to worry about these natural threats. The whole point of technological, historical progress was to get us to that moment. And now, if we can't do that. . . .
Remember, part of the trauma of the pandemic was to realize that everyone was in this together, including developed societies, including the United States, including the United Kingdom, and that the pandemic would not be limited to these outposts of modern civilization. At the beginning, lots of people, and it's understandable because these are the priors that we had, thought that the pandemic would be limited to China and perhaps to Africa. And I even remember at the beginning of 2020, how people were really afraid for Africa and for Pakistan and for India and for Bangladesh, but certainly not for a developed economy with all the technological resources of the United States. So it was a humbling moment to realize that even the most advanced technological societies had not moved beyond nature.
Now, what follows, I believe, is going to be a moment when we have to ask very seriously the question, well, what is the answer to this? Perhaps what we have done is not enough. Perhaps, in fact, we need to continue this project of overcoming natural threats because otherwise our position continues to be extremely vulnerable. That's also the lesson, I think, of the story of the last few months, with the appearance of new variants. If we don't take the lesson that we live in an inhospitable natural environment, and that the only resources we have are technology, then I think the pandemic will have been wasted and we will face parallel moments in the future.
But we already see all over the world how in fact the reaction has been that we need to move to a different stage. We need to realize that human life won't be safe until we create a completely artificial world. And therefore it is possible that the pandemic will be remembered decades or a century from now as a moment when in fact we realized that human beings are destined to live in a completely artificial world and that every opening to the natural world is a hostage to fortune. That's my general interpretation, but also my most personal and vivid impression from the last two years.
Brian Anderson: This is your fourth book written over the last several years. Your first big book was The Dawn of Eurasia, which was a travelogue, but also an effort to explain this geographical space where the European/Asian distinction breaks down. Then Belt and Road, which looked at China's geo-economic strategy and a kind of new political order that was emerging from that. And then we've mentioned it a few times in this podcast, History Has Begun—which, in fact, we had you on last year to talk about—was a book, an interesting and original take on where America was today. Arguing that the United States may be, in fact, still a developing country and adopting a kind of new model that makes it more competitive in a changing world.
So these four books, they're seemingly about different subjects, but do you conceive of them as part of a single project and what is the underlying unifying theme if so?
Bruno Maçães: Well, thank you, Brian, for that question. It might be my favorite topic to talk about. Now, lots of things to say about that. First, I don't obsess about this sort of internal coherence. I write the books because I become obsessed about a particular problem. And I also write the books with the hope that one of them will hit the jackpot: I'm not embarrassed to admit this. And so let's try different projects. Let's look in different places. If you keep looking in the same place, then you're not going to find new things and you're not going to have good odds of hitting the jackpot, let us say, of writing a book that really gets it.
That's my first reaction. Second, the four books are, in the end, about three really big events of our time. The rise of Xi Jinping and the Belt and Road Initiative, which was really the appearance of a China destined to be a superpower and with the ambition to control the world: that was the biggest event of the beginning of the last decade. Then the appearance of Trump, shocking, unpredictable, an important historical event by every standard. And then the pandemic. So the books are about these three events, which I actually think are the three most important events of perhaps the last 30 years.
And so I'm interested in trying to understand contemporary events. I actually think this is the best kind of thinking, because if you're trying to understand the French revolution or the Roman Empire, the access you have to those events is entirely immediate. You are not there. So you get it from books. You don't even have video footage of these events. Everything is indirect. Everything is an interpretation. You don't have access to things as they happen without being interpreted by someone else.
And so I think it's a great advantage to have these events happen at the time that you're writing so that you have immediate access to them, a kind of direct access that is not mediated by someone else's interpretation. And so I'm interested in that and I think that's the highest kind of thinking you can expire to actually. It's unfortunate we can't have that kind of knowledge about the Roman Empire. But if I want to try to give a coherence to the project, I think in a way they hang well together and they become a bit more ambitious, I believe.
The Dawn of Eurasia was a book about changes in the global distribution of power, rise of China, but about Russia or Turkey and a certain decline of the West—so the system of states and how it had evolved in the last couple of decades, but going back to the roots of that evolution. Then the book about America was no longer about how the system of states were changing, but how states themselves were changing: in particular, the leading state in the world and in the system, the United States. And this was more ambitious because it had to deal not just with dynamics of power, but with ideas, with concepts, with history, with culture as America was changing from within.
So it was much more substantive than purely the dynamics of power. And now this latest book is about changes in how we relate to the external environment. It's about the reemergence of the external natural environment, not just about how states relate to each other, not just about how states change themselves, which were still kind of claustrophobic ways of looking at the world, but opening up the doors and the windows to what is outside the system of states, what is outside states, this mysterious element of the natural environment.
So looking at change in all places where it's occurring, either in the system states, either internally in the main states like the United States or China, or then even trying to go outside the states and the system of states and look at the external environment within which they operate. So they do fit together, I think in those terms of trying to detect the elements of change happening today in all dimensions.
Brian Anderson: Now you're a prolific writer, obviously from this quartet of books and the number of essays you've written for the New Statesman and for City Journal and other publications. You're a globetrotter as well. As I mentioned, The Dawn of Eurasia is part a travelogue. And one of your pieces for City Journal was submitted to us from Kabul right as the government was collapsing, or perhaps right after that. So this is just a question about how you work. I wonder if you could say a little bit about how you obtain information, what is your information diet? How do you work? What's a typical day like for you?
Bruno Maçães: As a general method, and I already mentioned this before, you have to break through the interpretations, the conventions, the conventional knowledge that is all around you. And there are methods to do this. Economist Tyler Cowen is also very interested in this and has written some interesting things about this. You read foreign newspapers, you try to travel, meet people, but you travel without a plan. You let serendipity and chance take you to place to force you to face new ideas. You talk to people in different countries. You try really hard, even if that has costs in terms of how people regard your political opinions, you try to look at things from the Russian perspective, from the Chinese perspective, from the Turkish perspective.
I think people who follow me on Twitter sometimes get very annoyed by this. And actually, I should be the one to get annoyed, because this is difficult to do. Not everyone does it, but it's something that I'm really committed to doing—looking at things from different perspectives. I think it's very easy to look at things from the perspective of Brussels or Washington, but it's very mistaken to only look at things from those perspectives and to assume that we have access to everything that is real, that is true and that is good.
Now, it may actually be true that we do and that no one else does, but without testing the proposition, without actually going out and trying to make the effort to look at it from other perspectives, then we'll never be sure. So these are sort of my deepest commitments in terms of how I look at things. I don't read a lot because I've read a lot in the past. I don't think it's as necessary. I try to read things that force me to think in completely different ways, and those are not so easy to find or so available.
I do travel a lot, even during the pandemic. And the books are all of them related to those experiences of traveling. And usually it's traveling that I find my best ideas and that I'm forced to think in different ways and new ways.
Brian Anderson: Very interesting. And you've mentioned to me, and I think on Twitter that you're considering writing a novel. Is that right?
Bruno Maçães: Right. It is and may actually be the next book. I'm sort of taking a little break to think because I have seven different projects. And this time around, it's been slightly difficult to pick one to focus entirely on. But fiction would have many advantages. I'm not a native speaker of English, but I certainly would like to write the novel in English. So that poses a challenge. You don't have the same flexibility, creativity in your second language. But I would try to address that and other people have done it in the past. It's more work, but it can be done.
But you have many advantages in terms of precisely what I'm talking about here, of trying to have what literary theorists call the "dialogical approach to reality," where you look at things from many different perspectives. And whether you want it or not, in a non-fiction book, there's one voice. And you have to take responsibility for that voice entirely. It's yours. In a nonfiction book, it's you, it's the author. But in a fiction book, there can be many voices and all the contradictions, which are productive contradictions and all the different nuances of looking at things from different perspectives.
It can be much more easily incorporated in the dialectic of the characters and the dialogue of the characters. So I think even to talk about geopolitics, a novel would offer limitless possibilities. It wouldn't be a spy thriller, although it could have some elements of that, but it would be a geopolitical novel in the sense of forcing us to look at power, forcing us to look at the world, at different civilizations, different cultures, how they clash, how they interact from the perspective of literary work. If you ask me, is there a model for this? There are a few.
Joseph Carr did this very well and Naipaul, one of my personal heroes, he has very political. He wrote very geopolitical novels that, in a way, one has to recognize are richer and they can be richer than a nonfiction book when dealing with topics of geopolitics, politics, global power, money, class, and other such difficult issues.
Brian Anderson: Well, thank you very much, Bruno. Please check out Bruno Maçães's work on the City Journal website. We'll link to his author page in the description. He's written a number of fascinating essays on technology and geopolitics. I think if you haven't encountered his work, you'll enjoy them. You can find City Journal on Twitter @City Journal, on Instagram @CityJournal_MI. And as always, if you like what you've heard on the podcast, please give us a five star rating on iTunes. Bruno, great to talk with you again and look forward to continuing to engage with your work.
Bruno Maçães: Always a pleasure, Brian, always a pleasure talking to you.