Last week in New York City, Neal Stephenson spoke at an event promoting his latest book, Termination Shock. But at question time, some folks were eager to know his reaction to Meta-nee-Facebook’s recent embrace of the metaverse, the virtual reality setting of his much earlier work, 1992’s Snow Crash.
Stephenson seemed amused by the situation, but said the demonstrations he’d seen so far from Meta “looks like old hat,” and warned that people should “focus on what [Meta] is doing now and what is their business model? Everyone can use the app for free but the company is very wealthy. [So] they are selling your data. If they use that same model with whatever they are planning to do with the metaverse, we need to pay careful attention.”
Stephenson moved on to other topics (most of his talk was actually a primer on climate geoengineering, which forms the backdrop of Termination Shock), but Meta/Facebook isn’t the only company with metaverse ambitions—graphics chip maker Nvidia and Epic Games, creator of the wildly popular Fortnite, are just two of the other big names that have started bandying about the idea.
So to learn a little more about Silicon Valley’s current obsession with a 30-year-old book, IEEE Spectrum spoke with science journalist and science fiction expert Annalee Newitz, the founding editor of io9, author of the critically acclaimed novels Autonomous and The Future of Another Timeline, as well as the recently-released non-fiction book Four Lost Cities, and is the co-host of the award-winning Our Opinions Are Correct podcast, which looks at the intersection of science fiction and reality. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
IEEE Spectrum: People have been trying to create a real life version of the metaverse since Snow Crash was released. Why does it have such a hold on the engineering imagination?
Annalee Newitz: It’s easy to see why people latch onto it. In the late 20th century you had William Gibson’s cyberspace from 1984’s Neuromancer and in the 1990s you had Stephenson’s metaverse. Cyberspace was sort of like Tron, a world of pure computery stuff. Whereas the metaverse had a dose of cyberspace, but also had what we now call augmented reality. And Stephenson was looking at real work in graphics tech when he wrote it, so it felt more plausible.
IEEE Spectrum:The metaverse in the book is a much wilder and more ambiguous place than anything that’s been suggested by Silicon Valley companies though.
Newitz: Yes, it’s a shiny tech wrapped in layers of garbage with monopoly-controlled access. What's happening with a name like Meta has to do with how corporate elites misread Stephenson's work. It’s easy to ignore the [negative] social issues. Someone like Mark Zuckerberg might think “I won’t let that happen, I’m a good guy!” Corporations buy into their own dogma and Silicon Valley is very bad at satire. They have little sense of irony. This explains some of the things that have gone wrong with Facebook.
IEEE Spectrum:This is the latest in a long line of attempts to bring the metaverse to life. There was a night club in Snow Crash called the Black Sun, and I suspect we’ve both lost count of how many attempted online incarnations of that club we’ve been to. Is there any reason to think that this time things will be different?
Newitz: The technology isn’t there, but we keep trying over and over because it could be fun and entertaining. There is something in the idea of that. There’s also the unpleasant potential to monitor people’s eyeballs while working, and Meta initially is implementing their version for work. But what actually happens in the metaverse will depend on whether companies give their users good tools to create their own spaces. Second Life (a virtual universe launched in the early 2000s that failed to break out into mass adoption) didn’t have great tools for creation. What people build in a space depends a lot on the parameters established for that space. Minecraft is a great example of a space that has good tools and parameters that were centered around building, with blocks with special properties and so on. So you get inventive things, like I once saw a fountain that perpetually spawns cats. But Second Life was geared toward commerce. What tools Meta offers, and how they gear the space, will tell you a lot about the future of their new platform.
IEEE Spectrum:The original metaverse was built around a geographical metaphor, with locations closest to a main street being the most valuable because they were the easiest to get to, but Stephenson has said this is where his metaverse turned out to be a bad prediction, because Internet addresses are pretty much all the same to access. So is the metaverse fundamentally flawed as a template?Newitz: It’s funny because geographical metaphors are used for the Internet—think “IP address.” And these metaphors are also useful because there are different spaces online, that follow real world geographic and cultural boundaries, and these different spaces have different rules. A lot of spaces that grew out of Silicon Valley favor free speech maximalism, but that isn’t a priority everywhere, for example, Germany with its rules against displaying Nazi symbols. There is no one-size-fits-all Metaverse, because different nations and subcultures have different ideas about what public space should be, and what public discourse should look like. Companies need to take that into account as they build virtual worlds. Also, maybe they should get better at understanding satirical dystopian science fiction, so we end up with something that is less Black Mirrorand more Star Trek.
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Stephen Cass is the special projects editor at IEEE Spectrum. He currently helms Spectrum's Hands On column, and is also responsible for interactive projects such as the Top Programming Languages app. He has a bachelor's degree in experimental physics from Trinity College Dublin.