Prozac in the metaverse: Mental illness in the virtual world

If our reality already floats in a shallow pool of instability, to what extent will our brain be able to coordinate leaving and entering two different worlds? Perhaps in the tangible one, Prozac will knock on our door from a drone to compensate for physical self-loathing

Pills and a capsule on pastel pink colored background.
Pills and a capsule on pastel pink colored background.© Eggy Sayoga (Getty Images)

Takeshi travels in style, always solo. He doesn’t need much to get around: just a functioning electrical grid, a fiber-optic internet connection, television, a powerful computer, any up-to-date video game console and piles of instant ramen. And without leaving his room, he can set sail on virtual seas for years on end. Takeshi is a committed agoraphobic, a modern vampire resigned to his coffin, as afraid of fresh air as of the electricity of human contact. He is a hikikomori, or a “parasite single,” as the Japanese have begun to call young people of his ilk. His tendency to abandon material reality for a life in the virtual world is becoming ever more common among young people across the globe.

Young people like Takeshi are likely to experience high levels of social anxiety, psychosis and depression. Or at least that’s what Dr Tamaki Saito says in his book Hikikomori: Adolescence without End. Saito sees hikikomori as the local result of two colliding elements of modern Japanese society: on one hand, the social stigma around difference, and on the other, the growth of digital spaces that offer a place for individual expression. When young people find their opportunities limited in the “real world” (a term that has grown increasingly slippery) they can turn to the infinite possibilities of the digital universe. Saito warns that the cultural phenomenon could grow to include up to 10 million young Japanese people. And if the metaverse visionaries have their way, there could be many more, all around the world.

Drunk on their success in transforming the modern world, Mark Zuckerberg and his Silicon Valley minions have decided to transform reality. Not satisfied with having irremediably transformed the social life of more than half the planet’s residents, these t-shirt-clad millionaires, after having set in motion Big Brother’s machines, now aspire to fully conquer consumers’ senses.

But be warned: whoever lets themselves be swept away by the metaverse will need a kilo and a half of aspirin each day. Our experience of reality already teeters on the verge of stability each day, our perception altered by elements as natural as light, exhaustion, hunger and love. How far will our brain be able to handle our transit between two different worlds?

The metaverse presents itself as a variety show where negativity pays few dividends. If its inhabitants aspire to escape from external impositions, it will become a universe where boundaries are blurred, egos grow endlessly and control is just a brand of condoms. But, unfortunately, the more that its creators hope to have the metaverse resemble the material universe, the more they’ll need to endow it with uncomfortable experiences. And if major fashion brands have already entered the NFT sphere, how long will it take for pharmaceutical companies to start selling metaversal antidepressants? Mental illness is a lucrative industry, and those who spend all their time in that artificial paradise will become its new customers, purchasing doses of cyber serotonin. If, as Amartya Sen said, one does not discover their identity, but constructs it, identity in the metaverse is a construction based on a disfigured understanding of who we are. The images we project in that alternative dimension will allow us to reconstruct ourselves as we wish, and it will remind us all that we would like to be and are not.

In a recent article, Ricardo Dudda cited Adam Phillips, who argued for “the importance of not knowing one’s self.” Knowing one’s self implies identifying one’s traumas in a narrative form, without an escape from them. “You can only recover your appetite, and appetites [for life], if you can allow yourself to be unknown to yourself,” said Phillips. Constructing our lives around avatars involves constant self-questioning. Once we turn away from those avatars, reality reveals all we detest about our carnal selves. We tend to be our worst critics. Our self-hatred can bring us to do anything, even sell our souls to cyberspace. As Phillips says, “The vocabulary of one’s self-criticism is so impoverished and clichéd. We are at our most stupid in our self-hatred.” In the future, we may combat that self-hatred in two ways: tangible Prozac may appear at our door from an Amazon drone, or we may spend our days mining cryptocurrency for Meta in exchange for digital antidepressants for our avatars.

It doesn’t seem like a desirable future. Forty years ago, it would have seemed absurd that a cabal of companies in California would have turned us into bundles of data whose behavior patterns are endlessly monetizable. Or that social relationships would be mediated by digital profiles, or that dating would be managed by an impersonal application, where a few photos and a brief description are meant to elicit attraction. Taking those shifts into account, it doesn’t seem so unhinged to imagine that we will all succumb to a hikikomori reality.

The metaverse could become that “great magical cauldron in which the history of the world boils,” as the German philosopher Arnold Ruge described Paris in the early 19th century, but I fear that it will become a home for those spirits who are empty of everything but themselves.

We can recall the Sims, the famous video game whose objective was to create a family and build a universe that satisfied their needs. After about an hour and a half of playing, the typical dynamics usually gave way to creative ways of messing with the characters. Forcing them into all kinds of physical and emotional collisions, the player exercised their existential frustrations sending their Sims to the hospital, abandoning them on rooftops without exits or leaving newborns without food until their tiny bodies released green clouds of rot. There was a clear sense of depersonalization around those characters. But as with tamagotchis, the digital people were the responsibility of the player who ended up carried away by a sadistic curiosity. I don’t see why the metaverse should be any different, save that those thrown to decay will not be anonymous characters, but other people, incarnated in oversexed holograms, suffering metaversal bullying.

The metaverse could become a psychotic refuge to feed a certain kind of sadism. It could catapult our society towards schizophrenia, disconnected from reality, turning truth into a series of delirious interpretations, resulting in paranoia, delusions and as-yet-unknown disorders both in one world and in the other.

Boxes of antidepressants will then circulate around our digital mahogany tables or our second-hand Ikea desks, where we will rest our heads when the cocktail of cleaning solution and sleeping pills makes us abandon both dimensions.

That’s what happened to Takeshi: the smell of his rotten head resting on a Samyang Ramen XXL pot alerted the authorities. His inactivity in the alternative universes in which he was immersed, nothing short of a cybernetic suicide, surprised thousands of other parasite singles who were waiting for him in the artificial dungeons where they would continue to take refuge from reality, indifferent to Takeshi’s death.

Sharpen your sense of smell. Sooner than you think, Takeshi could be living, and creating a scent, in the apartment next door.


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