Chambers of the past and future. The simulated worlds of Baudrillard, Cyberpunk and the Metaverse

Chambers of the past and future. The simulated worlds of Baudrillard, Cyberpunk and the Metaverse

Prof. Dr. Jiré Emine Gözen

The renaming of Facebook to Meta at the end of 2021 has sparked and updated discussions about the potential for a future where humanity increasingly operates, works, plays, and lives within the metaverse. In this article, I aim to illustrate through a specific example that the conception of virtual worlds, as represented by the metaverse, is an amalgamation of theoretical considerations and topoi from Jean Baudrillard’s work with cyberpunk literature. Cyberpunk authors have used Baudrillard’s theoretical concepts to shape virtual worlds, which have then been perpetuated and expanded upon in both popular culture and academic discourse. These ideas have had a profound impact on societal visions of future virtual worlds, shaping their semantics and significance.

Baudrillard’s ideas were widely regarded as the vanguard of subversive contemporary social sciences in the discourse on postmodernism. His views on the drastic transformation of modern society were embraced by both academic circles and the artistic avant-garde and gained him the reputation of a postmodern prophet. Of particular interest were Baudrillard’s writing strategies, which blend aesthetics and materials from diverse fields, resulting in texts that vacillate between literary and scientific styles, eroding the boundaries between theory and fiction. But despite Baudrillard’s theoretical and discursive subversion, some critics in the 1980s began to argue that his works lacked new ideas since the 1970s. They claimed that the French philosopher had been recycling his previous ideas rather than genuinely developing his concepts. Douglas Kellner notes in this regard:

“For some years, Baudrillard was cutting-edge, high-tech social theorist, the most stimulating and provocative contemporary thinker. But in the early 1980s, Baudrillard ceased producing the stunning analyses of the new postmodern scene that won such attention in the previous decade. Burnt out and terminally cynical, Baudrillard has instead churned out a number of mediocre replays of his previous ideas […] Baudrillard’s travelogues, notebooks, theoretical simulations, and occasional pieces fell dramatically below the level of his 1970s work, and it appeared to many that Baudrillard himself had become boring and irrelevant, the ultimative sin for a supposedly avant-garde postmodern theorist.”  (Kellner 1995, 298)

It is noteworthy, that during the exact period when Baudrillard’s creativity seemingly began to decline, the first works of cyberpunk science fiction appeared. Whereas my discussion of cyberpunk literature here pertains to a particular corpus of works authored by a group of writers who assembled in Austin, Texas in the late 1970s. This literature represented a revolution in science fiction writing, led by authors such as Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, Greg Bear, John Shirley, Lewis Shiner, Rudy Rucker, and Pat Cadigan. The group criticized the science fiction of their time in the fanzine Cheap Truth and in the preface of the cyberpunk anthology Mirrorshades, which could be seen as the cyberpunk manifesto – the discursive foundation for a newly emerging movement. Similar to Baudrillard, the authors of cyberpunk literature traversed the previously separated domains of philosophy, social sciences, literature, natural sciences, and media culture, attempting to capture the rapid changes of their present.

At the time, many critics regarded the works of Gibson, Sterling, Cadigan, Shirley, Bear, and Shiner as some of the most remarkable and intriguing engagements with contemporary media culture. As I argued before, Cyberpunk literature should even be regarded as an important companion to media theories, both as a means of artistic expression and as a method of knowledge production, including its theorization (Gözen 2012). So it is not surprising that this new type of science fiction was immediately declared a prominent literary trend of the present, both in academic and artistic circles, and was subsequently recognized as avant-garde and innovation in the field of speculative visions. According to Douglas Kellner, “these texts produce one of the most impressive bodies of recent writing on the fate of hypertechnological society since Baudrillard’s key texts of the 1970s” (Kellner 1995, 298). Timothy Leary, on the other hand, assigns a philosophical significance to the texts of cyberpunk writers that is comparable to the importance Mann, Tolstoy, and Melville held for the industrial age (Leary 1996, 56). Brian McHale, who has explored the mutual influence of postmodern literature, science fiction texts, and poststructuralist theorizing, also positions cyberpunk literature prominently within this framework (McHale 1992, 244f).

It is especially notable that in cyberpunk literature many motifs and themes resonate with Baudrillard’s work. A Baudrillard-oriented reading of cyberpunk literature reveals that the principal categories of hyperreality, simulation, and implosion are not only evident in numerous narratives but are also omnipresent as symbolic representations. Authors such as Gibson, Maddox, and Bear not only incorporated Baudrillard’s ideas into their stories but also expanded and developed them. It is worth noting that these interpretations and extensions of Baudrillard’s ideas were recognized by media theory and influenced it. Baudrillard views such interaction as symptomatic of a postmodern discourse, in which previously distinct cultural and societal phenomena implode and create something new (Kellner 1995, 301). In this regard, Scott Bukatman, a film and media scholar, emphasizes that:

“And so Baudrillard, the students of chaos, the cyberpunks, and others have constructed a master-narrative, one grounded in the centrality of human intention and perception, which has the culmulative effect of inaugurating a new subject capable of inhabiting the bewildering and disembodied space of the electronic environment – the virtual subject.”  (Bukatman 1993, 118)

Both Baudrillard and cyberpunk authors depict societies where all types of boundaries have collapsed, including those between different cultures, biology, technology, and particularly between reality and simulation. New technologies have dramatically transformed the body and human experience, with the perception of reality now permanently interlaced with simulation. Despite Baudrillard’s literary style and his numerous references to contemporary issues, politics, and media culture, his descriptions of simulation remain largely abstract. Conversely, cyberpunk authors present worlds where the human existence is persistently surrounded by simulations. Characters interact with artificial intelligences, androids, cyborgs, virtual personalities, and simulated realities. The portrayed figures themselves are often artificial forms of existence, with such depictions varying significantly among the different authors.

In this context, an example that stands out is the novel “Eon” from 1985 by Greg Bear, wherein an asteroid from a parallel universe enters our own and is examined by humans during the turn of the millennium. The asteroid, which has been hollowed out, contains several artificial chambers that represent the abandoned living spaces of a future humanity. These chambers contain future cities from different epochs, and the changing decor and architecture of the cities demonstrate how simulation has progressively advanced and displaced reality. Through the lens of these chambers, Bear exemplifies various stages of simulation.

In one of the final chambers, Bear depicts a society where digitalized minds exist within a computer called “City Memory”. Nonetheless, people still have the option to live beyond the city’s memory. The external environment, outside of the virtuality of the city computer, is a featureless space onto which landscapes, homes, objects, and weather conditions are projected. To navigate within this simulated space beyond the computer simulation, individuals create bodies that often bear little resemblance to a natural human form. Should any harm come to this body, the brain contained within it is equipped with an implant that records all experiences and memories. Thus, in Bear’s novel, virtual reality constitutes the absolute simulation of a bodiless and disembodied present, which remains unbreakable even with the intentional creation of a material body. The convergence of genetics and semiotics gives rise to self-generating humans of the future, the perfect simulacrum. The flawless simulation of digital and future humans uploaded into a body highlights that the physical opposition between illusion and truth has given way to playing with reality. Bear’s radical interpretation of Baudrillard’s dictum of self-referential signs demonstrates that the human, based on digital bits and bytes, has merged into an infinite circulation of self-referential signs, becoming a model without origin and hence a sign in and of itself.

In one of the earlier future cities, advanced media technologies enable the contemporary humans in “Eon” to immerse themselves in a virtual world that creates a simulation of the abandoned city and its inhabitants, which is indistinguishable from reality:

“She called up a student’s basic guide to the second chamber city.

In an instant, Alexandria surrounded her. She appeared to be standing on the portico of an apartment in the lower floors of one of the megas, looking down on the busy streets. The illusion was perfect—even providing her with a memory of what “her” apartment looked like. She could turn her head and look completely behind her if she wished—indeed, she could walk around, even though she knew she was sitting down.

She spent half an hour in Alexandria, observing the clothes the people wore, their faces, their hair styles and expressions and ways of moving.” (Bear 1985, 275)

The degree of overlap between Greg Bear’s 1985 descriptions and the 2022 META advertising campaign video “Education in the Metaverse” is remarkable.


The two works not only present similar scenarios, but even the physical movements Bear describes appear to have been incorporated into the clip. Both depictions of simulation-based virtual worlds reveal a high degree of implosion in the sense of Baudrillard, as space and time collapse. As the description in Bears text, the footage presented in the clip portrays a future that has not yet occurred in the recipient’s reality, and may never do so, yet it insists on presenting it as past history. Consequently, it constitutes both a genuine model and an illusion, in which truth vanishes behind simulation. The media-mediated reality overlays sensory experiences perfectly, as illustrated by the description of the divergent experiences of real and simulated space and body.  It is evident that the simulated worlds advertised by META, aimed at their practical implementation, have strong links to the worlds of cyberpunk literature that rely on Baudrillard’s theories. This ultimately suggests that the incorporation, refinement, and theoretical exploration of Jean Baudrillard’s ideas through cyberpunk literature continue to shape current conceptions and designs of technologies, which we anticipate will influence our future.


Bear, Greg. Eon. Castell Group vista edition, 1998 (first published 1985)
Bukatman, Scott. Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction. Duke University Press, 1993
Gözen, Jiré Emine. Cyberpunk Science Fiction: Literarische Fiktionen und Medientheorie. Transcript, 2012
Kellner, Douglas. Media Culture. Cultural Studies, Identity and Politics Between the Modern and the Postmodern. Routledge, 1995
Leary, Timothy. Quark of the Decade. In: Mondo 2000 #7, 1996, S. 53-56
McHale, Brian. Constructing Postmodernism. Routledge, 1992

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