— Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash
Everyone knows that the Metaverse will be the Next Big Thing. The problem is that no one knows what that means. Or, rather, what it means depends on which corporate executive you are talking to, and what they are trying to sell. Microsoft envisions turning the “entire world into an app canvas” augmented by cloud software and machine learning, integrated with its existing technology suite of Windows, Microsoft Teams, and Xbox. Facebook — recently rebranded “Meta Platforms” and already spending $10 billion per year on Metaverse-related initiatives — sees the Metaverse as a more immersive form of social media, facilitated through its own Oculus headset. For the less tech-savvy, vaguely enthusiastic talk of the Metaverse provides a useful way to “justify pet R&D projects that are years from public release, probably farther behind schedule, and of little interest to shareholders.” Skeptics imagine that the Metaverse will simply be a flashier version of Second Life, trendy for five minutes before being permanently deleted from desktops. (Does anyone remember Obama holding a virtual campaign rally back in 2007? No, me neither.)
Matthew Ball — a venture capitalist and former global head of strategy for Amazon Studios, who also holds bylines at The New York Times and The Economist — has long been one of the most interesting writers analyzing the technological and cultural shifts behind the emergence of the Metaverse, and his new book, The Metaverse: And How It Will Revolutionize Everything, provides an informative account on where our online existence is heading. Crucially, he argues, we need to appreciate that the Metaverse will not simply be an upgraded version of the internet with VR goggles and cross-platform shopping. According to Ball, the Metaverse will be:
A massively scaled and interoperable network of real-time rendered 3D virtual worlds that can be experienced synchronously and persistently by an effectively unlimited number of users with an individual sense of presence, and with continuity of data, such as identity, history, entitlements, objects, communications, and payments.
Perhaps the Metaverse will be a single network encompassing all of our online activity, which is, after all, what “interoperable” means: seamless integration among our current electronic jumble of phones, tablets, laptops, and varied operating systems. Virtual objects could thus be taken from place to place without logging into new servers or uploading separate files, and the consequences of our virtual actions would persist no matter how many times we clear our histories or reinstall our browsers. It is supposed to be the Metaverse after all, not one of many.
Yet some of these desiderata, if that’s what they are, clearly have philosophical as well as technical implications. On the one hand, the transition from two-dimensional touchscreen to three-dimensional virtual world will radically improve online interaction. That’s a clearcut desiderata. Similarly, maintaining a fully synchronous experience for all users is obviously preferable to intermittent connections and interminable lagging. But here things get trickier, philosophically speaking: the principal benefits will have less to do with massively scaled data-handling than with securing a shared sense of reality among the inhabitants of the Metaverse. In this regard, we do well to keep in mind that the Metaverse is intended to be not just a technological leap forward but an existential revolution, a fundamental change in how we live our lives, interact with other people, run the economy, and even govern society. As Ball notes, it is probably worth trying to understand what this might mean — to interrogate the so-called desiderata while we still have a chance to influence their enactment.
The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
— William Gibson, Neuromancer
While no one is exactly sure what the Metaverse will be, Ball notes that it already carries negative connotations, largely derived from its precedents in science fiction. The term “Metaverse” itself was coined by Neal Stephenson in his gloriously absurd 1992 Snow Crash to refer to the vast, interconnected virtual reality in which the main character (the aptly named Hiro Protagonist) finds refuge from his life as a mafia-franchise high-speed pizza “Deliverator.” Stephenson’s vision borrows from William Gibson’s earlier cyberspace — first introduced in his 1982 short story “Burning Chrome” and popularized in his 1984 novel, Neuromancer — a “consensual hallucination” providing a “graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system.” You would no more want to live in the quasi-autonomous gated “Burbclaves” of Stephenson’s post-collapse Los Angeles than in the faceless corporate arcologies punctuating the endless techno-sprawl of Gibson’s Chiba City.
There are older precedents, of course. A real-time version of Google Earth — the “telelectroscope” — provides the narrative hinge in Mark Twain’s 1898 short story “From the London Times of 1904.” A prototype for the Oculus headset drives Stanley Weinbaum’s 1935 novel, Pygmalion’s Spectacles. Isaac Asimov’s novel The Naked Sun (1957) is set in a world where social interactions take place through holography, much like present-day communication over Zoom. Yet as Ball writes:
Whatever the differences among each specific author’s visions, the synthetic worlds of Stephenson, Gibson, the Wachowskis, Dick, Bradbury, and Weinbaum are all presented as dystopias. Yet there is no reason to assume that such an outcome is inevitable, or even likely, for the actual Metaverse. A perfect society tends not to make for much drama, which is the root of most fiction.
At the same time, few of these stories actually capture the essential changes promised by the Metaverse. Even the Wachowskis’ 1999 movie, The Matrix — largely inspired by Philip K. Dick’s 1969 novel, Ubik — misses the crucial point, since the persistent virtual reality at the center of the narrative is a simulacrum of the real world, a high-tech reboot of the traditional wizard’s enchantment. The Metaverse by contrast is intended to augment our mundane existence rather than replace it, and to change how ordinary people live their lives. This existential alteration of human life is also what makes the constructed worlds of writers like Gibson and Stephenson so distinctive, part of the “cyberpunk” subgenre of the 1980s and 1990s, as much concerned with the threat of social disintegration and the increasing political dominance of the multinational corporations controlling this new technology as with the technology itself.
Neither Gibson nor Stephenson present the Metaverse itself as dystopian. It’s who’s in control that creates dystopia. But the technology is not inherently good or bad; indeed, it is usually the only means of escape from the neon-streaked conglomeration of Reagan-era hypercapitalism and Japanese zaibatsu middle management that is the stock-in-trade of the genre (that and the obsessive fashion for mirror-shades, chummer). This technology provides the liminal space in which the narrative can develop, the trading post on the neo-frontier, or the Wild West 2.0, in which digital outlaws fight back against the establishment, save the world, get the girl, or just earn their $25 per day plus expenses. Again: The problem lies not with the technology, but with the sort of world capable of producing and sustaining a persistent and interoperable virtual environment like the Metaverse — and those who are likely to be in charge. Ball is right, of course, that there is no reason to assume that the outcomes envisaged by Gibson or Stephenson are inevitable. But curiously, these very same social concerns provide a running subplot to much of his discussion. These authors are perhaps more prophetic than we give them credit for.
In order to place these things on the Street, they have had to get approval from the Global Multimedia Protocol Group, have had to buy frontage on the Street, get zoning approval, obtain permits, bribe inspectors, the whole bit.
— Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash
The core of Ball’s book considers the changes that need to happen for the Metaverse to exist. He knows what he is talking about, and perhaps more importantly, when the enthusiastic prophets of the new digital age are blowing smoke. Some changes will of course be purely technical. Current computing power is not yet remotely close to being able to support a Metaverse. Today’s most popular online gaming platform, Roblox, can only host 200 players in a relatively low-fidelity virtual world, hardly an “effectively unlimited number of users.” Moore’s Law may predict that processing power will continue to double every two years, but supply tends to increase its own demand, often for functions we never knew we wanted, leaving designers forever playing catchup.
And even once we have the hardware, there is still the challenge of infrastructure. The problem is not just the quantity of data needing to be transmitted (bandwidth), but also the speed of transmission (latency). The latter is crucial to maintaining any shared sense of reality. You can grudgingly cope with a Zoom meeting with a 1,000-millisecond delay. Netflix streamers will not notice audio out of sync by 125 milliseconds. But online gamers experience frustration around a 50-millisecond delay, and revenues decrease by six percent for every additional 10 milliseconds beyond that. If the Metaverse is going to change the way we live our lives, our real-time interactions had better not be rerouted halfway around the globe along a frayed copper cable, all in order to make way for fiber-optic phishing scams and high-resolution pictures of kittens.
The current internet is a surprisingly democratic hodgepodge of data routes, reflecting its haphazard and decentralized construction. The existing Border Gateway Protocol regulates data flow without consideration of its content or importance; all are equal in the eyes of the TCP/IP, which is why writers like Gibson and Stephenson extrapolated to a virtual environment in which traditional power structures were contested. But the Metaverse will require far greater central planning. There must also be a way to share virtual objects and identities — enabling the all-important object persistence — across networks without needless duplication or disruptive transitions. This will necessarily require standardization. Ball is optimistic that it can be achieved through free-market forces rather than governmental diktat, and that cross-platform technologies of the kind developed for the thriving online gaming economy will eventually dominate. Why? Because there is more money to be made:
As the global economy continues to shift to virtual worlds, these cross-platform and cross-company technologies will become a core part of global society. […] Most obviously, they become a sort of standard feature, or lingua franca, for the virtual world — think of them as the “English” or “metric” of the Metaverse. Just as it is likely that you use some English and some knowledge of the metric system when traveling internationally, odds are that if you’re building something online today, irrespective of what it is you’re building, you are using — and paying — one or more of these companies.
Even Sony recently changed its notoriously rigid policy against cross-platform gaming in order to capitalize on the unprecedented popularity of third-party games like Fortnite.
But there is a tension here between the need for standardization and for improved technology. Apple and Google charge developers a basic 30 percent cut for using their apps — an arbitrary figure derived from the early days of console gaming — which survives because Big Tech has no incentive to change it, and also because the online achievements and virtual identities of individual users (persistence again) remain locked into specific platforms. There is therefore no competition; everything costs 30 percent and no one can complain because if you’re not using Android or iOS, no one is going to hear you anyway. These overheads stifle development, and often block innovation. More computing power could be made available through cloud streaming, where the work required by an individual device is outsourced to nearby (otherwise dormant) devices or remote data centers. Pooling resources is great for users, but not for those marketing the latest handset; Apple initially banned cloud streaming altogether in order to “protect its customers from inappropriate content.”
As Ball points out, the race to build the Metaverse will therefore also be the race to own it. Standardization has always been used for controlling new territories, physical or virtual. And again, it is this ambiguity that gives cyberpunk its particular flavor. Stephenson’s vision of the Metaverse is obviously a satire of free-market forces run wild, but at the same time, it is the universal programming language underpinning this virtual environment that provides the perfect delivery system for the apocalyptic virus that gives his book its title.
Gibson’s world is similarly nuanced. Cyberspace may offer the ultimate escape, but it is also an eerily uniform environment, one of “lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data,” where Manhattan and Atlanta “burn solid white” through data traffic but without further feature or differentiation. And while Henry Dorsett Case (or simply “Case”), an outlaw computer hacker, enjoys virtual freedoms he is denied in the physical world, access to cyberspace depends on the goodwill of his corporate employers. Ironically, his final reward is acceptance into the ruling elite he previously served. Ball acknowledges the fundamental tension between standardization and innovation, yet remains optimistic that enlightened self-interest will find a compromise. It is not always clear whose self-interest will ultimately be served.
He’s seen the ad, or others like it, thousands of times. It had never appealed to him. With his deck, he could reach the Freeside banks as easily as he could reach Atlanta. Travel was a meat thing.
— William Gibson, Neuromancer
The final section of Ball’s discussion briefly touches on the cultural changes that are needed for the Metaverse to become reality. Most important is destigmatizing the spending of large quantities of time online, often dismissed as a fringe hobby — all that effort decorating your house in Animal Crossing little more than “the modern version of an adult man building a train set alone in his basement.” But attitudes are already changing, thanks in part to the COVID-19 lockdowns and the ways in which online social interactions fostered mental health. By the end of 2021, attitudes had changed enough that major brands like Ford, Nike, and Louis Vuitton included the Metaverse (whatever they think that means) in their future business plans.
So technological feasibility is advancing alongside social acceptability, and once we sift through the buzzwords and empty marketing hype, we can see why Ball believes that the Metaverse is not only inevitable but will also revolutionize everything. It seems rather curmudgeonly, therefore, to ask whether any of this is truly desirable. In his perhaps unintentionally revealing comments, Ball notes that:
It is natural to worry about a future in which no one goes outside and spends their existence strapped to a VR headset. Yet such fears tend to lack context. In the United States, for example, nearly 300 million people watch an average of five and a half hours of video per day (or 1.5 billion hours in total). […] The Metaverse may offer no substitute for actually sailing in the Caribbean, but manning a virtual sailboat alongside old friends is likely to come pretty close and offer all sorts of digital-only perks — and beat watching midday Fox News or MSNBC.
I agree with him about daytime TV — but maybe rather than giving people the latest interactive device, it would be preferable to give them something better to do with a third of their waking life than staring at a screen. It is well known that Steve Jobs banned his children from using an iPad. One wonders if there will be a similar distinction between those who use the Metaverse, and those who simply make money out of it.
At the climax to Gibson’s Neuromancer, we meet the new ruling class sequestered away in an orbiting museum crammed with the artistic achievements of the past. It is a deliberate contrast of course with the bleeding-edge futurism which has taken us to this point, but it also makes the point that while the Metaverse offers the possibility of freedom for the (cybernetically enhanced) everyman like Case or Hiro Protagonist, the real winners are those who have no need to escape or otherwise augment the real world in the first place. It is this streak of willful anarchism that puts the “punk” into “cyberpunk,” and ultimately elevates the genre beyond mere techno-dystopia. If Ball’s illuminating guide is anything to go by, there is a bright future ahead for those building the Metaverse — and time perhaps for the rest of us to dust off those mirror-shades.
Paul Dicken is a writer and philosopher based in rural England, and the author of Getting Science Wrong. He was forced to purchase his first smartphone this year in order to travel abroad.