No single future is guaranteed. Powerful figures like Facebook/Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg would prefer that you forget this, and instead accept that he determines our collective future. This is the vision of the “metaverse,” as Zuckerberg imagines and markets it to us. Yet the true origin of the concept of “the metaverse” is Snow Crash, a popular science-fiction novel by Neal Stephenson which, in 1992, told of a virtual reality world of avatars, including our hero Hiro Protagonist, who would interact, buy things, and otherwise attempt to build status for themselves within an alternate reality that essentially consisted of an online economic world.
Today, it is imagined similarly, typically via the use of virtual reality headsets (though not always), but with “personalized,” “private,” and “fun” descriptors added in. Critics of the metaverse have been quick to point out the dystopian flavor of Stephenson’s conception when reporting on Facebook’s shift. In particular they point to the monopolistic architecture and L. Bob Rife, the business titan who ends up dead after attempting to indoctrinate and control the masses with a virus.
Nowadays everyone from libertarian magnates and anarcho-capitalist cryptocurrency advocates to video game developers and Coca-Cola have glommed onto the idea of the metaverse as an aspiration. The only thing they appear to agree on in this adoption is to use the term with abandon; what the metaverse actually is or will be is another question altogether. Seemingly any entity can claim a place in the metaverse. It appears in everything from Fortnite and Roblox to augmented reality-assisted hologram technology to NFTs. How or why, right now, doesn’t matter.
At present the metaverse is nothing more than a trendy prompt in marketing copy. It communicates an alignment with “the future,” broadly conceived.
That said, it is worth taking stock of the various interdisciplinary approaches to the metaverse since its introduction in the early 1990s, to help understand which versions of it are being thrown around now, whether this was inevitable, and if we can imagine a better use for this concept. In the simplest sense, the metaverse has been understood as an idea of the future, and it can take on a more or less utopian flavor depending on who is invoking it.
Let’s start at the beginning. In her 2010 article “Capsules and Nodes and Ruptures and Flows: Circulating Subjectivity in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash,” Lisa Swanstrom described Stephenson’s metaverse as, “an expansive and seemingly borderless ‘place,’” which “allows for sensory expansion in spite of any bodily or financial limitations.” This is Stephenson’s conception in its most hopeful iteration. Zuckerberg and other advocates including Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella speak of the metaverse in similarly rosy terms. Last summer, Zuckerberg called the metaverse an “embodied internet” that would ideally be interoperable.
“It’ll actually feel like we’re in the same place, even if we’re in different states or hundreds of miles apart,” he explained, adding that “when you’re building social systems primarily, you want everyone to be able to be a part of the same systems. So we want to make them as affordable as possible, we want to make them as unified as possible.” And way back in 2016, Sweeney opined optimistically that, “this metaverse is going to be far more pervasive and powerful than anything else. If one central company gains control of this, they will become more powerful than any government and be a god on Earth.”
In Swanstrom’s analysis of Snow Crash, however, she points out how the metaverse’s network infrastructure is fundamentally isolationist, and moreover that it poses thorny questions when it comes to avatars, particularly involving race, ethnicity, and the roleplaying of other identities. In “‘Hiro’ of the Platonic: Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash,” Carl Boehm interprets the metaverse initially as a solution to the unwieldy nature of reality. “One way to interpret the Metaverse as the parallel to Plato’s ideal realm is to see the virtual reality as an area where the chaos of the ‘real’ world of the novel is replaced with what Hiro and the other programmers see as the ideal truth: an ordered state.” From the perspective of Hiro Protagonist, it is only the threat of a virus within the metaverse that threatens its stability and desirability as a space of possibility, compared to the dead-endedness of the real world.
Daniel Grassian has observed that “despite its democratic overtures, the Metaverse is still dominated by wealth,” as less than 1 percent of the world’s population can afford the hardware to get online. “By no means an idyllic or edenic” space, the metaverse is, Grassian says, an overcrowded “urban megalopolis run amuck.” Even still, Hiro and others prefer it to the dreadful state of reality. Many are even finding ways to remain within the metaverse permanently, if at the expense of their humanity. Always connected via portable terminals, they are nicknamed “gargoyles” because of how this connection warps their appearance. The takeaway for Grassian, rightly, is that “the futuristic world of Snow Crash seems to be precipitously balanced between a potential future of environmental collapse and anarchic violence.”
Outside the realm of literary theory and Snow Crash, though, many other scholars in the decades since that book’s publication have taken up the concept of the metaverse for a variety of uses, though generally as a way to understand the potential and the risk of virtual worlds, which became of greater interest as the twentieth century turned into the twenty-first. Indeed, as the technology of virtual reality developed, the question of how it would be used and managed was of great importance. In a 2011 article called “Usability Design and Psychological Ownership of a Virtual World,” Younghwa Lee and Andrew N.K. Chen spoke with users of the video game Second Life and analyzed how they understood their “life” within the game through the prism of psychological ownership, where a sense of perceived control and self-investment in the virtual world are crucial to keep players coming back (Lee and Chen use this to make recommendations for designers interested in building e-businesses). Second Life, launched in 2003 and popular to this day, has often been compared to Stephenson’s metaverse, even by scholars of architecture interested in building virtual environments.
Also in 2011, Alok R. Chaturvedi, Daniel R. Dolk, and Paul Louis Drnevich similarly devised a set of design principles for virtual worlds, specifically building from the mid-2000s Metaverse Roadmap project by John Smart, Jamais Cascio, and Jerry Paffendorf, which sought to bring together scholars and other stakeholders to plan for a future which would exist within the “nexus of our physical and virtual worlds,” and the implications therein for everything from logistics and transportation to artificial intelligence and e-commerce. This year, organizations like the Military Operations Research Society have even published on the metaverse as part of the worry over “cognitive superiority” in warfare.
Scholars of law have also been interested in the shape these worlds will take and how they will be regulated. Already in 2004, F. Gregory Lastowka and Dan Hunter questioned whether concepts like democratic governance even make sense within virtual social communities in their article “The Laws of the Virtual Worlds.” There’s now a Wikipedia page devoted to “Metaverse law,” which highlights more recent concerns over privacy and copyright. And a large study in the International Journal of Information Management recently brought together over 40 scholars from different disciplines all around the world to take stock of the metaverse “beyond the hype,” once again pointing out that although it doesn’t yet exist, discussion of its transformative power is unavoidable.
The study is comprehensive, with insights on the metaverse’s potential impact on the environment, national security, digital labor and the economy, education, real estate, healthcare, social life, and much more. Its main takeaway is that researchers, like the media, seem all too willing to accept the conception of the metaverse as imagined by titans of Big Tech. While the researchers focus on opportunities for future study, the premise of the investigation remains beholden to descriptions of the future as told by corporations.
Perhaps this is inevitable—I am writing about these companies now, and my own doctoral research is focused on untangling the tales told by TikTok, Twitch, and Disney as storytellers of the future. My hope, though, is that these critical approaches are geared towards a goal of making sure we understand that not every “innovation” must be seen to completion, and that there are alternative ways we can design the future. How could a virtual world that blurs the line between physical reality and digital avatars change our experience of work or leisure in ways that actually benefit us, instead of providing us with awkward meetings.
We should be asking whether a metaverse is something that regular people want instead of merely responding to what Mark Zuckerberg tells us we want. If it turns out that we do want something like the metaverse, then we can start talking about what it could or should look like. We don’t live in a time where this seems viable, but that is not inevitable. It is worth repeating: the metaverse does not exist in material form. It is a shifting concept, a promise, an illusion, and an amorphous one at that, at least for now. We need not accept Zuckerberg’s vision of the metaverse or Stephenson’s or anyone else’s, for that matter. Instead let us be as bold as they are, and imagine a future of our very own.
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