In present-day Turkey, amid the rocky plains of Southeastern Anatolia, juts a monument, thirty meters in diameter, of immense age. The T-shaped limestone structures dotting this ancient hillside, some standing as tall as five and a half meters, are set around enclosures and painstakingly carved with depictions of animals. More than 240 of these structures have been uncovered by archaeologists, who, as of this writing, have excavated a tiny percentage of the full site, which is known as Göbekli Tepe. Taken together or separately, the megaliths serve today as a dispatch from the Neolithic: a barely scrutable glimpse of our past that still offers a relevant lesson for our future.
When this monument was erected more than 10,000 years ago, the place from which I write here in southwest England had barely tasted freedom from continent-scale ice sheets. Woolly mammoths still clung to existence, and agriculture had not yet been widely adopted. Yet in this alien world of near prehistory, at least 6,000 years before Stonehenge was built, primitive humans constructed a series of extraordinary stone megaliths and decorated them with elaborate carvings.
Why were these structures built? In the context of their era, there was no earthly reason for them to exist. It would not, therefore, be unreasonable to wonder if their construction wasn’t actually motivated by earthly reasons—if it was, perhaps, compelled by belief in some other world.
To the best of our knowledge, the spiritual world or other reality implied by this monument (if, indeed, its purpose was religious) does not actually exist. Yet the representational universe contained within Göbekli Tepe—this early “virtual world”—involved the movement of enormous masses of stone over the course of a thousand years, surely at a nontrivial cost for its hunter-gatherer creators. A task of such magnitude is never undertaken on a whim, but especially not in the harsh environs of Neolithic Anatolia, a time and a place fundamentally unsuited for frivolous architectural digressions. To these nomadic builders and their society more than 10,000 years ago, the world invoked by these megaliths must have mattered as much as, if not more than, the physical world in which they lived.
The megaliths at Göbekli Tepe may seem to you like a product of a distant and alien past. But I believe they represent a fundamental human impulse, a power that we still manifest today. The first monuments erected by humans weren’t carved out of stone so much as out of ingenuity. They were living ideas birthed into existence through collective agreement, imaginary forces imbued with the power of life and death, virtual worlds created through the force of a society’s collective imagination. For 10,000 years, humans have found ways to make the unreal real, just by willing it so.
We have always been a species of worldbuilders. Since humanity first emerged, we have used ingenious means to exist simultaneously in multiple realities: the animal reality of our earthly lives and the elevated reality of the worlds we create with our minds. We’ve been designing these other realities now for millennia, with tools no more advanced than our language and our imagination. While we sometimes build stone monuments to mark our belief in other worlds, these worlds exist separate and apart from the structures we raise to commemorate them. We speak our virtual worlds into existence, and we sustain them by the force of our collective belief.
From a cursory vantage, the dusty stones at Göbekli Tepe may seem like crude monuments from a forgotten, foreign world. But if you examine the carvings in detail, a universe of images and meaning floods your vision: scorpions and snarling beasts, geometric patterns, gesturing vultures and headless humans. Imagine how meaningful the mythologies held by these people must have been in order for them to craft such intricate works into stone—how tightly their belief system must have been interwoven into their everyday existence.
Just as the megaliths of Göbekli Tepe suggest a dynamic interplay between a virtual world and everyday existence, the virtual worlds that we’ll be discussing throughout this book are far from static stories that are disconnected from our daily lives. They are worlds that our society treats as real, ones that can be the sources of actual wealth, power, and identity in the physical world. We build and inhabit these other worlds today for the same reasons our ancestors built them eons ago: to generate fulfillment and value, to materially improve our lives on Earth. Rather than marking the gates to these other realities with monuments of stone, these days we create digital gateways that conduct us from one world into another.
Though we might not always consciously realize that we are building these worlds, our skill at doing so affects and informs everything we do as a species. This book is in part about how this fundamental human talent for worldbuilding will shape our future, and how the coming age of virtual society represents not a new and foreign phenomenon, but the continuation of ancient traditions serving intrinsic human needs. But before we move toward the future, let’s let our gaze linger a bit longer in the past, and closely examine what we mean by virtual worlds and worldbuilding.
When words become worlds
Creating models of reality is an essential part of high-level thinking. In order to survive and operate effectively in the world, we must be able to simplify and experiment with outcomes as we plan or make decisions. In so doing, we create and evolve worlds of ideas that exist apart from and in conversation with the embodied world. This process is so fundamental to our language and our cognition that we rarely stop to consider its centrality to our day-to-day lives.
“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world,” Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. When we verbalize these worlds of ideas, we begin to create social models of them, ones that people other than ourselves can begin to access and use. In a meaningful sense, then, our words create our worlds. The common phrase “visualize a better world”—one in which world peace is the norm, for example—fundamentally means to visualize a virtual world, one in which that idealized outcome has already come true, and then to use the truth of that world to create equivalent value here on Earth.
This individual capacity for worldbuilding can precipitate the creation of rich, detailed, intergenerational worlds that can inspire us to great and sometimes terrible accomplishments: the birth of great religions, for example, many of which came to have tremendous utility to society while also serving as the source of continuing pain. We often construct these social realities to fill a definable need: to explain otherwise incomprehensible events, to justify actions, to add additional excitement to our lives, or simply to lend order to the chaos and danger of life. As people come to believe in these other worlds, their faith expands the worlds’ parameters, and these realms can, effectively, come to life.
We do all of this work not just because we enjoy the act of building and believing in these worlds—although doing so can indeed be very enjoyable—but because they serve individual and social purposes without which our societies could not function. Society uses embodied worlds of culture and imagination to create common purpose and handle the emergent complexities of interpersonal dynamics; society uses these structures to regulate avarice and ambition and direct human energies toward noble purposes. A world with no shared culture, no structures within which to harness ingenuity and create shared experience, would be a brutal reality in which life would be reduced to modes of sustenance and survival.
“Myth is language,” wrote the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, “functioning on an especially high level where meaning succeeds practically at ‘taking off’ from the linguistic ground on which it keeps rolling.” These mythic worlds “take off” and become socially constructed realities: other worlds that rely on participants across the spectrum mutually agreeing to believe that they exist and that they matter. As such, in a meaningful sense, these virtual worlds are brought to life by this mutual agreement.
These other worlds aren’t alternative realities into which we choose to escape: They are more reality. They are found spaces into which we can extend, evolve, and improve our social structures. Even today, these living other worlds and the events that happen there can enrich, expand, and affect our economy, our culture, and our daily lives. Think, for example, of the art and culture created as a result of societies’ belief in other worlds. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is a priceless work in our world and also, in a sense, a gateway to the virtual world that inspired it, just as the Göbekli Tepe megaliths were effectively gateways to the world that inspired their creation.
Copyright © 2022 by Herman Narula. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.