Neal Stephenson’s science fiction novel Snow Crash predicted the Metaverse in 1992. This cult book has the amusingly-named Hiro Protagonist running around in an artificial cyber world, trying to stop a virus that wipes minds, aided by his hacker friend Y.T. Reality is a place to escape from, a neoliberal future wrecked by hyperinflation and inequality and run by corporations and gangsters and insane bureaucracy.
In many ways, the book is horribly prescient. (It’s also horribly written in places, more like an info dump than a novel.) The Metaverse was a place where people had digital avatars, where they hung out with friends, went shopping and attended concerts. It was full of ads, the infrastructure was owned by a billionaire, and a virus was wreaking havoc on society. It all sounds familiar.
It wasn’t COVID-19 of course. The Snow Crash virus caused the infected to lose the ability to think for themselves, and they start speaking in tongues.
“Obviously, at the time, we didn’t have social media,” Stephenson told The Washington Post, but added, “I was writing about just a long-standing human trait, which is this tendency for the mind to get hijacked by ideas.”
The metaverse can’t enslave you, yet, but the addictive nature of social media suggests it’s possible you might get hooked on a better virtual world, where your hotter-looking avatar interacts with people from all over the planet and has adventures that are not possible in reality.
To give you one crazy example of the possibilities, there is an actual theater company in the zombie-infested online wasteland survival game Fallout 76 that puts on Shakespeare plays. So, you can be part of the audience, or even audition and act, if you desire. Almost normal, except you may have to blast a few zombies in the middle of Romeo and Juliet. The ushers patrol the perimeter with chainsaws and AK-47s to annihilate any undead critics seeking to make their analytical discourse upon the performance.
This is all very Snow Crash. There is a real tension between the use of virtual worlds for escape or leisure and the impetus for profiteering. Many corporations see the metaverse and metaverse platforms as new continents to be colonized and exploited. If the metaverse develops under a centralized model, then it will be Amazon, Facebook and Google all over again: whale time. A decentralized metaverse…
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