The Future and the Past of the Metaverse

Many thinkers who first explored the idea of the metaverse were skeptical it would be liberatory. Today's tech world seems less interested in such ethical quandaries.

Sometime in the late 01980s or early 01990s, five-time Long Now Speaker Neal Stephenson needed a word to describe a world within the world of his novel Snow Crash. The physical world of Snow Crash is a dystopia, dominated by corporations and organized crime syndicates without much difference in conduct. The novel’s main characters are squeezed to the fringes of the “real world,” forced to live in storage containers at the outskirts of massive suburban enclaves. The small salvation of this future is found in the online world of the “metaverse,” described first as “a computer-generated universe that his computer is drawing onto his goggles and pumping into his earphones.” A page later, Stephenson expands this description out, waxing rhapsodic about the main thoroughfare of the metaverse:

The brilliantly lit boulevard that can be seen, miniaturized and backward, reflected in the lenses of his goggles. It does not really exist. But right now, millions of people are walking up and down it. […] Like any place in Reality, the Street is subject to development. Developers can build their own small streets feeding off of the main one. They can build buildings, parks, signs, as well as things that do not exist in Reality, such as vast hovering overhead light shows, special neighborhoods where the rules of three-dimensional spacetime are ignored, and free-combat zones where people can go to hunt and kill each other. The only difference is that since the Street does not really exist—it’s just a computer-graphics protocol written down on a piece of paper somewhere—none of these things is being physically built. They are, rather, pieces of software, made available to the public over the worldwide fiber-optics network. When Hiro goes into the Metaverse and looks down the Street and sees buildings and electric signs stretching off into the darkness, disappearing over the curve of the globe, he is actually staring at the graphic representations — the user interfaces — of a myriad different pieces of software that have been engineered by major corporations.

— Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash pp 32-33

The idea of the metaverse — of a virtual, networked world as real as our own physical one — was not completely original. A few years prior, William Gibson had used the term “cyberspace” in his own science fiction stories. In Gibson’s work, cyberspace is “A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts… A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.”

The distinction between Stephenson’s metaverse and Gibson’s cyberspace is one of tangibility. Cyberspace defies human understanding, with Gibson’s description evoking the abstract and hallucinatory. The metaverse is instead clearly bounded within the human experience, replicating it in another place but keeping its visual language and structure — city streets, defined bodies, neon signs.

This is perhaps why the metaverse has been so captivating as a concept for as diverse a range of figures as hackers, critical theory academics, and tech billionaires. It’s futuristic, expanding the possibilities of human expression and enterprise, but it does not break so fully from the human as certain similar visions. It’s a far step from Gibson’s cyberspace or a vision of the technological singularity in line with the views of past Long Now Speaker Ray Kurzweil. It’s the future, but it’s a familiar future.

Yet the claimants of the banner of the metaverse post-Snow Crash are not united in their visions. Many of the first writers and thinkers to explore the conceptual landscape afforded by the idea of the metaverse were skeptical of whether it would truly be liberatory. The feminist comparative literature scholar Marguerite R. Waller asked in 01997 if the interface of a hypothetical virtual reality metaverse would “be the site of a seduction away from Western logocentrism or of a more subtle, deep-seated entrenchment?” Similarly, the literary scholar Philip E. Baruth notes in a reflection on race (and its omission) within the cyberpunk world that “A person entering the Metaverse, like an infant entering the real world, is already bound by the agreed upon language of the Protocol, as well as the ethical view of the world represented by that web of social determinants.”

Those in the tech world who have recently taken to using the term metaverse seem less interested in these ethical and theoretical quandaries. Instead, they are mostly focused on the experience of the metaverse and how they can profit off of it. In the most discussed corporate re-branding of the year, social media company Facebook renamed itself “Meta,” with founder Mark Zuckerberg explicitly announcing that the company’s focus was now to “bring the metaverse to life and help people connect, find communities, and grow businesses.” For now, at least, the details of Meta’s metaverse are hazy – the promotional video accompanying the announcement mostly focuses on shifting conference calls into virtual boardrooms, which is perhaps not as dramatic as anything foretold in Snow Crash.

Along with Meta-née-Facebook, companies like NVIDIA, previously known mostly for GPUs, and tech giant Microsoft have made much hay about moving into the metaverse. In both cases, the connection is more prosaic than fantastical: NVIDIA claims that their graphics infrastructure could provide an “omniverse” to connect portions of the metaverse, while Microsoft sees the metaverse as a tool to “help people meet up in a digital environment, make meetings more comfortable with the use of avatars and facilitate creative collaboration from all around the world.”

Microsoft’s announcement even explicitly acknowledges that their metaverse is “not the metaverse first imagined” in Snow Crash. Yet it is unclear what real metaverse could ever match with the precise dynamics of Stephenson’s fictional one. It is also unclear if fidelity to Stephenson’s vision is necessary for any future metaverse. The idea of a metaverse is still in its infancy —  thirty years is not so long in the pace layers of culture, governance, and infrastructure that the metaverse would operate in —  and the actual practice of building a metaverse is even younger than that. Our imaginations of the metaverse, whether dreamed from the corporate world, the academy, or somewhere beyond, will inherently fail to capture the rich actuality of the metaverse yet to come.

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