The metaverse is evolving from fiction into fact
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Thirty years ago, the science fiction writer Neal Stephenson invented the concept of the metaverse. Now, he is intent on building it in real life. We must hope his constructive feats are more uplifting than his imaginary fears — the metaverse he depicted in 1992’s Snow Crash was an escape hatch into an alternative virtual world from the hellscape of 21st-century Los Angeles. The novel’s main character, Hiro Protagonist, lived in a shipping container, worked as a pizza delivery driver and tried to survive in a brutal anarcho-capitalist world disfigured by menacing monopolists, economic collapse and environmental degradation.
Yet in a video call from his home in Seattle, in which he spells out his current thinking on the metaverse, Stephenson expounds a much cheerier theory about the future uses of technology. “Snow Crash is both a dystopian novel and a parody of dystopian novels,” he says. “And I am increasingly of the view that technologies, with a few notable exceptions, aren’t really dystopian or utopian; people are.”
Whether the metaverse is a good or a bad thing will depend on how we develop and use it. Stephenson sees the real-life metaverse — as opposed to his fictional creation — emerging as the next big computing platform, a kind of next generation “3D internet”. He is excited by its possibilities as a deeply immersive new means of communication and entertainment that will open up “new categories of experiences”. But the metaverse will only fully flourish if it is decentralised, interoperable and not dominated by a few giant corporations, as the current internet has been. He himself is working on the latter problem, attempting to build “the base layer for an open metaverse”.
Mere mention of the metaverse nowadays is enough to provoke eye-rolling mockery. Meta (formerly known as Facebook) has tied its corporate reputation to the idea’s evolution and has bet more than $10bn on reinventing virtual reality. For the moment, though, poorly pixelated avatars of founder Mark Zuckerberg are not setting pulses racing.
Still, others are shouting about the metaverse’s longer term potential too. In March, Citi forecast that 5bn people might be using the metaverse by the end of this decade, transforming commerce, art, media, advertising and healthcare. CB Insights also predicts the metaverse could be a $1tn market by the end of the decade.
Stephenson says he is not paying much attention to what the big corporations are doing. Instead, he is focusing on the creative possibilities being explored by an expanding army of games developers using increasingly powerful engines. The games industry, he believes, has already introduced billions of players to new experiences in three-dimensional virtual worlds and thereby created a huge market. Out of all that intellectual ferment, the future metaverse will evolve.
Although coy about the details, Stephenson is developing his own experiences in the metaverse; a kind of multi-modal prequel, or sequel, to Snow Crash. He dismisses those who see computer games as no more than escapist fantasy. Every society since the dawn of time has sought distraction and entertainment, albeit in different forms, he insists. Neanderthals painted cave walls while the 19th-century bourgeoisie listened to grand operas and now we play computer games. “Why the hell were they painting walls when they could have been out stabbing mammoths?”
One of the big issues for the metaverse will be how to ensure all these different worlds interact. Several companies are working on that challenge including Lamina1, a blockchain start-up where Stephenson is chair and chief creative officer. These companies are aiming to provide the underlying infrastructure, smart contracts and payments systems that will make the metaverse interoperable. So, for example, in future it will be possible for users to transport their avatars from one domain to another, taking their virtual identities and possessions with them — although they may have to check their lightsabres at the door if they enter a medieval role-playing game.
As with many blockchain companies, it is not entirely clear how Lamina1 will make money. Can Stephenson turn prophecy into profit? He is the first to acknowledge that it is hard to anticipate the future. “The reason that entertainment is such a fascinating industry is that you never know,” he says. “Not even the best informed people can predict what it’s going to be.” He seems convinced that something fascinating is finally emerging in the metaverse, 30 years after he imagined the concept. But as ever with the creative process, it may require a temporary suspension of disbelief.