The New Presence of the Metaverse

Neal Stephenson comments on technological change

This article originally appeared in the Austrian newspaper “Die Presse” on January 8th, 2022: “Die neue Gegenwärtigkeit des Metaverse

With the Metaverse, the Internet is not only getting new applications, but above all a new interface. Instead of typing on small smartphone displays and looking at comparatively not much larger desktop or tv screens, users are immersed in a computer-generated parallel world. The Metaverse is not a second Internet, but a virtualized level of everyday life that has a special feature that is forgotten next to the superficial fascination with three-dimensional worlds: simultaneity.

New synchronicity

The asynchrony of communication that prevails online is cancelled out by a new physical presence of the users. There are already — and not just because of Corona — live concerts with an attending audience in the Metaverse. They create a different experience than streams, which ultimately cannot lead to such a collectively shared event. The role of a chatbot in an online store will be taken over by an avatar in a three-dimensional representation of a brick and mortar store. And the world of work will move further into the metaverse, and with it the digitized stacks of paper on a 3D-rendered desk. The changes to society brought about by the Metaverse will be far-reaching, even if we can only speculate about their nature.

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Snow Crash

Having an idea does not entail the responsibility to be aware of its consequences. Nor can the creator be held liable for its execution. When Neal Stephenson invented the term metaverse for a networked virtual reality in 1992 for his novel “Snow Crash”, the first very applications of a virtual reality (VR) were already being developed. It was foreseeable to the author that integration with the internet would not happen anytime soon:

It is a hard technological problem that requires major advances in both hardware (immersive 3D devices) and software (the underlying network technology that makes everything work in real time). It has only been a few years since really solid low-latency hardware came into existence, and much of it is still too expensive for ordinary consumers. On the software side, the required infrastructure is only now coming into existence.

Many companies are involved in setting up this infrastructure, especially from the games industry, but none of them has declared itself as clearly as Facebook, which also changed its name to Meta as part of its strategic orientation toward the metaverse. This connection to Zuckerberg, who is not particularly popular with critical observers, already bestowes an atmosphere of escapist consumerism upon the data space, which is also reinforced by films (and books) such as “Ready Player One,” when people leave their virtual environment only for deliveries from Uber Eats and Amazon.

Meta Reverb

How does Neal Stephenson feel at the thought of his fictional concept being taken today by one of the richest people as a guardrail for the future development of his corporation? Is he concerned Meta might twist his concept in a way that it turns against him backfiring: What the heck did Stephenson think when he invented that?

This has been developing for a long time and so it is no surprise to me. Fortunately the book has been in circulation for almost 30 years now and so anyone can go back to it and refer to what it actually says. The fact that the book has a satirical, comedic edge makes it clear that everything in it should be taken with a little grain of salt.

The author remains optimistic about the Metaverse:

It’s an evolution of those technologies, not a replacement. And I hope it will be an improvement, in the sense of being more humanistic and less destructive of the social fabric. We made a lot of mistakes in the development of the technologies you mentioned. Most of those were inadvertent, based on naive idealism about human nature. No one is being naively idealistic now and so perhaps the next generation of these technologies will be less susceptible to being exploited by bad actors.

This does not only refer to Facebook, which makes a substantial contribution to the fragmentation of the public sphere and the individualization of reality. All social networks create perceived realities through the algorithmic composition of content, which initially look different for each of us regardless of their veracity. In addition, there is the deliberate manipulation and counter-manipulation of content with, for example, deep fakes, which is also a marginal theme in Stephenson’s last two books, “Termination Shock” and “Fall; Or, Dodge in Hell” In the latter, a flood of fabricated content largely invalidates the Internet as a medium for disseminating information. The actual source or truthful news can now only be found with great effort in an avalanche of generated false content. Asked about the possible actual occurrence of these developments, Stephenson says,

It is literally happening now, before our eyes. The events depicted in ‘Fall’ are just mild exaggerations of things that have already happened.

But what can be done about it? Not much, but there are approaches:

Jaron Lanier has advocated for the idea of data unions: aggregations of users who negotiate with social media companies for the right to access their data. This is an idea that I think has promise.

Concurrency with notice

Technology is changing human communication in unpredictable ways. Simultaneity is the domain of personal contact and privacy. In the past, there was no way to announce phone calls. With smartphones at the latest, the new etiquette of announcing or arranging calls in advance with text messages has become established. Only partners, friends and family have the right to disturb the daily routine. Those who ignore it are simply considered rude. But this process may also be reversible; also the pandemic has changed conventions in communication, and increased the pressure to adapt to new technologies:

In my experience people adapted quickly to the use of Zoom and other video conferencing apps. There were some awkward moments in the beginning, as people became familiar with the features of the software, but over a fairly short period of time, a new etiquette and set of conventions developed (and is still developing).

With the Metaverse, Neal Stephenson is certain, it will be no different:

There is always a high degree of artificiality in human encounters, which is only obvious when you observe them through the lens of a different culture.

PS: Confused about spelling Metaverse/metaverse or Internet/internet? There is only one concrete Internet/Metaverse, but as a concept there could be many internets/metaverses. Hence capital I and M when I refer to the one specific manifestation or proper noun. Just like Moon/moon.

Neal Stephenson invented the term metaverse for his novel “Snow Crash” which recently became available in a new German translation (S. Fischer). His latest book, “Termination Shock” (William Morrow), was published in November 2021.

Niko Alm is a media entrepreneur (average.media) and is currently writing a book about the Metaverse.

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