The Metaverse – How Science Fiction Drives Technology.
In 1992, a 33-year-old man named Neal Stephenson released a novel titled “Snow Crash”. On his own website, Stephenson says “ this book became important, and changed my life.”
Today, in 2022, this futurist’s science fiction work has changed all of our lives. The most recent addition to our day-to-day vernacular has been the term Metaverse. In the book, Stephenson calls the persistent digital space that humans of the near future gather in, The Metaverse.
Broken down into its ingredients meta-verse means a universe that references itself. So in practical terms when applied to our digital lives it really just means… a Universe that is derived from our Universe that is played out on a computer. Instantly this begins sounding like a video game. For the most part, yes, that is what it is. An important differentiator however is the word persistent. This virtual common space exists before you enter it, and remains active after you leave. Some will be thinking… but that already is a thing in MMO (massively multiplayer online) games. Those people are correct. The metaverse is already here and has been for quite some time. It actually is a concept as old as computer networks. In 1974 we had “Mazewar”.
Mazewar was the first example of a graphic virtual world. Players ( MIT students) connected using ARPAnet, which was eventually segwayed into the internet. Several of these fun primitive multiplayer games were developed and then in 1985 our first virtual community popped into existence when LucasArts released “Habitat”. It ran on the Commodore 64, participants were represented as avatars in a virtual world and could interact with one another. It was human interaction in this cyberspace that drove developers and users into the community.
Now, in that brief synopsis of vintage online communities, two words popped into play that everyone knows, but most people never question the origins of. Avatar and cyberspace. Terms synonymous with online communities and the internet in general. Another thing these words have in common is they came from science fiction books. Avatar, is an abbreviation of the Sanskrit word avatar and meaning: “descent of a Hindu deity to the earth in an incarnate or tangible form.” The word avatar as it applies to computers today first appears in Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash”. The people entering the metaverse appeared as “avatars”. The more money you had to have one made the better it performed. Avatars were an instant signal of class and wealth in the novel. This remains a very real thing today in MMOs like “Fortnite”.
The etymology of the word cyberspace is firmly rooted in science fiction with no history lesson attached. Coined by the celebrated author William Gibson, it was used by him in “Burning Chrome”, a short story published in 1982. He used the term to refer to the “mass consensual hallucination” of computer networks. A fun snackable description for virtual reality.
So, what we can distill from a walk back of current trending buzzwords and the history of interactive computer networking is twofold. One interesting thing about it is that it seems to be completely fabricated by our imaginations. Specifically the wild imaginations of tech-forward futurist writers. Another fact of note is that the metaverse, technically, has existed before the internet itself, on ARPAnet.
This is a classic current culture trope. The Metaverse is a reboot. A clever checkmate delivered by a multibillion-dollar corporation to refuel the imaginations of a new generation of cyber tourists. In fact, in the nineties, marketers used the word “cyber” in the same exact way as we are currently using the word “meta”
Cyber is such a perfect prefix. Because nobody has any idea what it means, it can be grafted onto any old word to make it seem new, cool — and therefore strange, spooky. [New York magazine, Dec. 23, 1996]
Neither of these terms actually means anything that stands on solid ground. Tech is an ever-changing landscape. Almost organic in nature, pulled from the minds of humanity’s greatest thinkers. Unsurprisingly bleeding-edge technology companies like Magic Leap and Blue Origin actually hire people like Neal Stephenson and employ them in positions with names like “Lead Futurist ”. This seems odd at first blush, but then you remember what Gibson implied with his word cyberspace. A mass consensual hallucination. A frame of mind, or state of being that we all agree on together, thus making it real.
Maybe the most interesting thing that is very real and was swiped directly from Snow Crash is Google Earth. In the novel, the characters could use a software called “Earth” to swipe a 3D globe around and investigate any swatch of land on earth… sound familiar? Well, it should, and the co-founder of Google Earth has stated that Snow Crash served as inspiration for the software.
One thing is very clear if you take a trip down our virtual memory lane. Society is eager to deepen our connection to each other. Ever since we pushed our first packets of data down that phone line we wanted to integrate as many of our senses as possible. Technology has come pretty far, but we are still a ways away from true telepresence and literal physical connection by way of computer terminals. Working as a Creative Director for an experiential technology company like Groove Jones it is obvious to me that much of what I have read as a geeky teenager, I will help to build in the coming years. The names will change, and the buzzwords will be rebooted, but the sentiment will remain. People want to be with people they care about, everywhere all the time. Also… nerds are cool, you should read the books they write, turns out they are also fortune-tellers.
Hack the planet!
Groove Jones Creative Director