So do we actually live in an onion? Or is ‘meta’ just something we should watch out for during squabbles?

 . . . and one more thing – Since Jan 2024 I have started putting my essays on Substack and with audio too! Please follow me there and give it likes and shares. Pretty please all that good stuff.


Gotta love it that kids are so fast these days. Yes, I know we are supposed to grumble that they have the minds of goldfish, stir-fried in their x-boxes and microwaved by their smartphones. But let’s face it, kids are programmed to be inquisitive and to learn and to be creative and to laugh. In a nutshell that means they are naturally sharper, and can be smarter than the rest of us. And on top of that, this is the age of the kid.  For most of civilised history, the denizens of childhood have been suppressed as inconveniences without knowledge or experience. Childhood then, was not much more than a waiting period for the respectability that was supposed to be delivered on the 21st birthday.  

Now we can choose to realise how lucky we are. We live in perhaps the first age where it isn’t considered crazyfringe to respect what kids have to offer. I mean really respect it, not just love it for its cuteness. And if youngsters do have shorter attention spans, then that means they might actually get wherever they are going a bit faster than the rest of us.

Take the fourth wall for instance. Ancient Greek theatre didn’t trust either its writers or its audience to communicate between them. And so they typically engaged a ‘chorus’ to explain the dramatic action to the audience. Shakespeare had advanced a bit after two thousand years so he often not only had a couple of storylines going on at once but also maybe a narrator, hovering between the audience and the action on the stage. At the start of Henry V for example the introducing narrator, (named Chorus – a coincidence? I think not.) Refers to the theatre itself, both physically and functionally, and the play specifically. He asks the audience to suspend disbelief sufficiently to image battlefields and palaces within the tiny “cockpit” of a theatre.  But having a guy on stage who mentioned that he’s on a stage doesn’t break the fourth wall. Like Zaphod Beeblebrox, he’s just this guy, you know?  

I’m gonna skip over the 20th century now. Why? Because I wrote three paragraphs about it and they were turgid, off topic and boring. So I erased them. Ahhh!  If you want to know about the 20th century, then read John Higgs. That guy is brilliant. Now where was I? 

Yes the fourth wall. Now – because I’m a wise old man and you may perhaps not be I’m going to patronise you and assume that you need me to explain. The stage of an old fashioned theatre has a back, a couple of sides and a front. These four sidey things all have theartre-ish names, but that’s irrelevant. If we are looking at a play on that stage, then it is as if we are seeing the action through an invisible wall at the front of the stage into the scene within. Invisible to us, but apparently solid to the characters on the other side. If we are watching a sitcom on the TV then the TV screen is the equivalent of that same thing. That is the non-existent fourth wall of the dramatic scene through which we are looking. 

It was specifically named and attention was drawn to it to by the enlightened French philosopher Denis Diderot, who stated in 1758 that by ignoring the audience, performers could better imitate reality. And so it was that this convention was codified and made explicit. A convention that everyone until the latter 20th century seemed happy to live with, allowing the audience to observe the rather tame inuendoes of Brian Rix or the imagined battlefields of Shakespeare’s ‘vasty fields of France’ 

So when Shakespeare’s Chorus turns up at the beginning of Henry V, he inhabits the universe of the audience and talks about the play is if conversing with them. During his speech though, the fourth wall is sitting there in its perfect non existence, and its subtle one-way visibility is assumed, respected and unbroken.  Young Prince Hal doesn’t ask Chorus who he was talking to.  So it took centuries and centuries before the self aware self referential late 20th century thought it might be amusing to disrespect that fourth wall by having characters on stage or in a film acknowledging the existence of the audience.  

Now as soon as they do that, they are opening up a can of worms of a completely different category from the convention of drama. Because the moment the actors (or rather their characters) acknowledge the audience, they are also acknowledging the fact that they are in an universe-within-a-universe. 

The artificial universe of the drama exists within and as a subset of the real universe in which the theatre is located on a certain street. Yes it took adults all the time from Ancient Greece to the late 20th century to discover that this idea has creative potential, skipping several golden ages of drama on the way. Even as late as 1990, I remember feeling almost uncomfortable as Francis Urquhart addressed me through the camera and TV screen in House of Cards. But I’m an adult –  any kid who has been to pantomime or who has ever shouted ’Behind you, Mr Punch!’ gets it. They get the weirdness of it, and when they read Captain Underpants, they understand exactly why it is that when when Harold orders everyone to stop following orders, it’s even more funny when George tops the gag with ‘We’ve already used that joke in this book.’ Yes, there is actually a fandom page that lists every time the fourth wall is broken in the Captain Underpants books! 

I know that I jumped from theatre to books there, but the implication is the same. When the fourth wall is broken then characters in fiction acknowledge the existence of an enclosing ‘real’ universe which contains the ‘fictional’ universe that they inhabit. Fictional for whom? Real for whom?

So yes, eight year old kids get that stuff that it took adults two and a half thousand years to invent. I’m sorry! However much I tried through three complete redrafts and any number of edits, I couldn’t compress that digression about childhood any more, so it will just have to stay put.

Now at last having got that out of the way, I can talk about meta. Before Mark Zuckerberg took all those millions off his share value by choosing it as the new brand name for Facebook, we already had words such as meta-data meta-language and meta-analysis.   

So meta, with its data describing data, its language classifying language and its studies analysing studies is a bit of a fourth wall thing.  Break the fourth wall and instantly you open the possibility of one universe inside another. But of course it doesn’t stop there. Meta-analysis, for example, as well as analysing lots of previously published tomes of field research may, also collect other meta analyses. 

In fact, once you have two levels of looking at something, you always have the possibility of an infinite number of levels – as anyone who has played with two mirrors can tell you.  The characters in a play seemed to have their own self-awareness and lives and cares and history two minutes ago. But now they acknowledge the existence of me and my meta (to them) universe. Not only do I gasp or laugh. I am drawn to postulate about the existence of a meta universe outside the one I know. And suddenly – zzzzip we have an infinite onion-layered universe of universes all nested inside each other. 

The way that I hear this possibility most commonly discussed is when people suggest that perhaps we live in a digital simulation, and if so, then is that simulation inside another one? Etcetera. Neil deGrasse Tyson makes a convincing argument that if  there are two layers it is statistically almost certain that there are many more than two.

So the word meta immediately conjures infinite possibilities outside and bigger than our own awareness. But does it go the other way, downstream?  No not really, not yet. Captain Von Trapp’s kids put on a musical puppet play within the movie Sound of Music but that doesn’t imply that the characters played by the puppets have lives of their own as soon as the show finished.  After they are done singing the Lonely Goatherd, no one believes that these bits of wood will wait in their hamper in the style of Buzz Lightyear and write puppet shows of their own. Even if they did, then it stops there. There is a set of automatic brakes on any infinite regress downstream, because the characters in a drama don’t have any initiative after the author’s pen goes down on the desk.

However I did say ‘not yet.’  What I meant by that, is we haven’t made computers who are bright enough to invent simulations within which the simulations can create simulations. Not yet. Interestingly deGrasse Tyson considers this too, and concludes that it probably means that we aren’t in a simulation at all.

There is a much more close to-home thing about meta-ness that I have realised as I have been listening to more podcasts and radio. One of the reasons I enjoy other people’s conversations so much is that the people who make them – the good ones anyway – are just so good at having discussions. Why is that? Now we all know the standard rules about this. A good interviewer asks fresh questions . . . then shuts up while the guest is answering . . . then builds on what has been said, perhaps with a bit of nuance or humour . . . and may invite the guest to develop the theme too. 

But there is almost always something else going on in parallel. A bit of meta-stuff surrounding the subject of the discussion, and that is to do with personality. At the basic level what interviewers and their guests are talking about is . . . whatever they are talking about. That is notionally the focus of interest to the listeneners or viewers, and upon which one or both of the conversants is probably an expert. 

But at the meta-level, there is also the fascination that the audience has with the fact that it is Steven Fry sitting on Graham Norton’s couch and although he may be talking about Harry Potter – we the audience are more interested in what he’s saying because we love Steven Fry and we love Graham Norton. The real skill of an excellent chat show host is just to keep that meta envelope hovering at the right orbit outside the subject of the basic discussion. The focus shifts subtly to and fro between the object of discourse and the personality of the guest. The atmosphere can collapse if the host is too sycophantic, or it can explode if a personal nerve is touched. You can see examples of these on YouTube and they are either cringingly embarrassing or hilariously funny depending on whether you love or hate the characters involved. My own favourite remains the pre-YouTube Robin Day/John Nott walkout of 1982.

In fact ‘meta’ is always a danger zone in conversation. We all know from personal experience that when a private discussion turns from ‘whatever-it’s-about’ to ‘why-you-just-said-that’ Then we are already on eggshells. 

But let’s get off the subject of arguments and onto cold logic. Any kind of meta statement is a potential minefield. Now there is nothing in my larynx or my brain or my vocabulary or my use of grammar that stops me from saying ‘This sentence is a lie’ but it can still cause my head to explode if I try to make sense of it. Until of course I realise that it’s a self-referential statement that confuses the meta level with the base level and so it’s quintessentially buggered from the outset. Philosophers are rightly wary of the risks of what they call infinite regress in semantic structures, and meta-anything is just begging to be sucked  into that vortex.

But after all this and before I disappear up my own backside in a puff of logic. I wondered why Zuckerberg had chosen the word meta to rename facebook. Did he know something we don’t about our existence in a simulation, or has he invented the means to do onion layers downward as well as up? Nothing so exciting it emerges. Meta is apparently named after the ‘metaverse’, and that doesn’t mean a universe of nested universes, but was itself taken from an earlier simpler branch of meta’s etymology meaning simply ‘beyond’ rather than the later meaning of self-referential. 

According to Wired the metaverse is more or less the same as cyberspace, but leaning towards virtual and augmented realities. So Zuckerberg’s ‘meta’ is apparently more like a ‘super’ or a ‘hyper’ type of wow word than anything specific, and apparently limited to any electronic simulations that we can create downstream from us, rather than the possibility of upstream simulations containing us.  

Of course our nascent AI may one day develop and use this technology to create a mega simulated metaverse, and then invite us dear humans to experience the infinite pleasure of uploading ourselves to it through our friendly neuralinks. 

Enjoy your messy organic life while you have it, Earthlings. The future meta one will certainly be even messier.

Nick James      Posted in:



February 2024, Brittany, France

Header Image:

Captain Underpants – a tribute to the genius of Dav Pilkey