“Could the future of parenthood be having virtual children in the metaverse?”

An article featured in British newspaper The Guardian forecasts a world in which it is commonplace for young adults and would-be parents to opt toward raising “digital babies” over having real children of their own. Powered by virtual reality and artificial intelligence, these “programmable and highly realistic children” would simulate play, emotional feedback, and the tactile feel of caring for offspring.

Cute, right?

Not at all. What it says about us is deeply unsettling: that we are a culture of lifestyle as opposed to a culture of life itself.

It would be gravely unwise of us to shrug off something like raising a digital baby in the metaverse as just a fad that will come and go or to dismiss it as a distant problem for another generation to deal with. The technology is imminent. And looking at our current culture, it makes sense why grown adults playing with a fake virtual baby will become as popular as predicted.

This futurist idea appears to be coming to fruition as more and more companies are investing billions of dollars into the metaverse—an immersive virtual world created on the internet that users can access with virtual reality headsets—and the technology becomes more potent.

Not only are companies like Google and Apple dedicating serious resources to the headsets and hardware, but Nike currently sells virtual sneakers using nonfungible tokens. Celebrities and corporations are spending millions of dollars buying digital land.

Pair this with a Google engineer claiming that the company has built a sentient artificially intelligent bot capable of discussing not only complex ideas but its fears and its rights as a “being.” Blake Lemoine, who was placed on leave shortly after going public, believes that the company’s AI has gained the mental ability of an “8-year-old kid that happens to know physics.”

Underneath the Cultural Rot

For many younger people, our culture of lifestyle is driven by a hyper-consumerist appetite for chasing cheap dopamine releases in our brains and a perpetual gamified experience designed to fill a deep existential void with immediate gratification.

Self-worth is found in the number of social media followers we gain. Identity is built around how polished of a picture we can post online. Purpose is replaced with a subtly nihilistic attitude that our lives are strictly bound to what we have on earth, so we might as well only do the most convenient, most pleasurable thing. Self over sacrifice.

Our brains being rewired in this way has dramatically changed our understanding of humanity and the way we ought to live. Children are viewed as accessories rather than as embodied souls with their own dignity and worth. Parenthood is optional or to be put off until our 30s and 40s when all conditions are arbitrarily deemed to be just right—rather than a natural duty to steward the next generation.

A survey by Pew Research in 2021 found that 44% of non-parents ages 18 to 49 said they didn’t expect to ever have children. That number is up from 37% in 2018. Out of that pool, 56% cited their main reason for not having children is because they “just don’t want children.”

In place of building a family, young adults increasingly prioritize their career, going out and “hooking up,” and pampering “fur-babies” (their pets) and growing plants. The birth control pill and abortion are customary to maintain this lifestyle. To put it in perspective, 1 in 5 pregnancies reportedly ended in abortion in 2020.

These are the symptoms of a sick nation.  

Not only is the declining societal health of our nation marked by a notable collapse of the U.S. birth rate below necessary replacement levels, but families and communities are suffering greatly as the attitude of lifestyle over life ripples throughout society.

We outsource parenting to public schools, community building to government programs, and caring for elderly relatives to nursing homes. By doing so, we cut all ties that bind us to our past and future because we are so consumed with our own present amusement.

It’s no wonder how we’ve become so disconnected as a society. We’ve closed our eyes to the gift of life along with all the challenges and natural obligations that come with it—and that is where the bonds are formed.

Rejection of the Human Experience

Many of these trends are brought about by a collective resignation toward avoiding conflict in order to live a frictionless, risk-free life.

And technology—driven by the demand to solve a problem whether it be a matter of convenience or the inherent toil of simply living—enables us to innovate away the human experience. We selectively tailor our lives to only what is most immediately gratifying while desperately resisting the realities of our nature.

So, yes, in observing our culture of lifestyle, the idea that more adults will choose to raise a virtual child in the metaverse in not at all far-fetched. It’s cheaper. It can be turned off when the user gets bored, or it can be reprogrammed when the simulation becomes too difficult.

Life is difficult, but it is often in solving life’s challenges that we find the greatest rewards and perhaps even grow into better versions of ourselves. The natural human experience is not something to avert or digitally desensitize ourselves to.

In addition to not being a proper means to approach these normal life challenges, the increased use of digital technology—especially for children—has been linked to a reduced attention span, impaired emotional and social intelligence, social isolation, as well as hindered cognitive and brain development. Then medical professionals frivolously prescribe medications to mitigate these effects.

So, as much as we reject it, the deeply innate human desire to care for offspring will not be fulfilled by replacing family formation with lesser responsibilities like becoming a dog mom, plant parenthood, or raising a digital baby.

A Culture of Life in the Digital Age

Instead, we must work toward generating a culture of life centered around human flourishing and the American family. This means revisiting questions that our nation has been recently struggling with regarding what it means to be human and how we should live.

What is the purpose of human existence, and what does that mean for me? What makes life meaningful? What does it mean to suffer well, and how can I wrestle with life’s challenges constructively? Who do I need to be so that I can serve others?

We must think intentionally. Getting these answers right will bring us to more productive conversations to what we promote culturally, how we build our economy, and how we approach public policy.

In this case, we must couple technological innovation with careful consideration of how we preserve our humanity and the responsibility we have in shaping the evolving digital ecosystem.

We can’t give up on the natural world and jump into synthetic living in the metaverse. There will always be a need for authentic family formation and community development. Any technology that tries to sell us on anything otherwise is merely a sedative for dealing with human realities.

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