‘Meta’ does not mean what you think it does

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Perhaps no morpheme has been more crucial to understanding the current cultural moment than meta. I remember first hearing it in high school, an echo across the East River from Brooklyn during the Obama-era hipster boom. At a basic level, meta meant recursive or self-referential – like a warning sign warning you of warning signs or one coffee table book on coffee tables. But in the 2010s, it also came to mean freshness. To be meta was to flex your self-awareness for social currency, to demonstrate your mastery of the language of sly dissociative irony that was the fashionable cultural refuge from massive information crap (think: “Thrift shop” and dead Pool). The word became more and more entrenched in the national consciousness until, in what seemed to be the culmination of its journey, the major social media company responsible for stoking said shit announced that it renamed itself with the word.

To the ancient Greeks, μετα- simply meant “after”. So when a first-century BC editor (perhaps Andronicus of Rhodes) was compiling the teachings of a philosopher named Aristotle, and he came to the period just Physicshe didn’t think too much about calling her Metaphysical. He basically called her Physics: The following. But Aristotle’s work at this time was arguably his most intense. Whereas Physics summoned concepts like matter, nature, substance, and motion to describe the inner workings of the visible world, Metaphysical attempted to go beyond the visible – zooming out as much as possible to answer questions such as “What does it mean to exist?” and “How can we prove anything?” and “What’s going on in the underworld with all of us right now?” Due to the deep and abstract subject, many translators have misinterpreted the prefix meta- as meaning “beyond” or “transcendent”.

A brand new branch of philosophy was born, and this misinterpretation of the prefix meta- proliferated in the jargon of twentieth-century critical theory. When academia lacked rationally explainable things to study, it began to study itself. Fields of study emerged, such as metalinguistics, metahistory, and metanarrative, which attempted to go “beyond” the traditional fields of study to uncover the underlying ground rules. everything the story, everything Languageeverything narrative. The rise of the information age has fueled the promise that, through quantitative data and cold computational analysis, certain fundamental truths could emerge that could enable us to transcend our subjectively limited human perspective.

In his emotionally sterile 1979 Pulitzer-winning nonfiction behemoth about self-referentiality, Godel, Escher, Bachcognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter uses 25 different words with the meta- prefix, many of which are coins. This was noted in a 1988 article by Noam Cohen, who argued that the prefix reflects an ominous instinct toward semantic self-annihilation, whether used in academia, comedy, or politics. Cohen feared that, faced with the limits of our own perception, instead of creating anything new, we would start eating our own tail.

The concept of a “metaverse” like the one currently peddled by Facebook was first floated in Neal Stephenson’s groundbreaking 1992 science fiction novel, Snowfall. In Stephenson’s future America, a powerless federal government ceded control of society to corporations and entrepreneurs. Massive hyperinflation due to the overprinting of physical currency means that even four billion dollar bills (known as gippers) are virtually worthless, and most transactions are conducted online using e-money. A goggle-based interactive virtual reality resembling a massive first-person multiplayer online game called “the Metaverse” is the successor to the internet we know and love today. Sound familiar? Stephenson claims to have had no communication with “Zuckbut either Neal is a real prophet or Mark is a real fan. Anyway, 20 years later, this scrambled ancient greek prefix stands next to infinite recursion symbol (a favorite image of meta maven Hofstadter) as Facebook pivots into an uncertain future.

Whatever you think of Zuckerberg’s vision for Meta, the word still resonates with its old Aristotelian questions and contradictions. Like Aristotle, Zuck forces us to ask ourselves: is there really anything beyond the physical? Can we know? Or is it a limitation somehow built into the human experience? It seems we’re still stuck on the old misunderstanding that gave us meta— a confusion of the spiritual “beyond” with the chronological “after”, confusing abstraction with transcendence as we come up against the limits of our perceptual capacities. In simpler terms: is Meta “the future” or is it just “the sequel”?

To me, the whole enterprise still reeks of the superficial pubescent ooze Facebook crawled out of, the self-conscious irony of the hipsterdom image that first taught me to be meta. Hence my Monday hint: “Smugly self-referential.”

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