“The metaverse is a new word for an old idea: To understand what we are—and should be—building, we need to look beyond Snow Crash.”
Print title: “Before the metaverse”
MIT Technology Review, February 8, 2022
Humans and Technology
by Genevieve Bell
“Yet this history should also let us be alive to the possibilities of wondrous, unexpected invention and innovation, and it should remind us that there will not be a singular experience of the metaverse. It will mean different things to different people, and may give rise to new ideas and ideologies. ”
I have spent a lot of my career, both in Silicon Valley and beyond, insisting that all our technologies have histories and even pre-histories, and that far from being neat and tidy, those stories are in fact messy, contested, and conflicted, with competing narrators and meanings.
The metaverse, which graduated from a niche term to a household name in less than a year, is an excellent case in point. Its metamorphosis began in July 2021, when Facebook announced that it would dedicate the next decade to bringing the metaverse to life. In the company’s presentation of the concept, the metaverse was a thing of wonder: an immersive, rich digital world combining aspects of social media, online gaming, and augmented and virtual reality. “The defining quality of the metaverse will be a feeling of presence—like you are right there with another person or in another place,” Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg wrote, envisioning a creation that would “reach a billion people, host hundreds of billions of dollars of digital commerce, and support jobs for millions of creators and developers.” By December 2021, a range of other large American technology companies, including Microsoft, Intel, and Qualcomm, had all articulated metaverse plans of their own. And by the time the Consumer Electronics Show rolled around in January, everyone seemed to have a metaverse angle, no matter how improbable or banal: haptic vests, including one with an air conditioner to create your own localized climate; avatar beauty makeovers; virtual delivery vans for your virtual home.
There has been plenty of discussion about the involvement of Meta (née Facebook) and its current complicated position as a social media platform with considerable purchase on our daily lives. There have also been broader conversations about what form the metaverse could or should take, in terms of technical capabilities, user experiences, business models, access, and regulation, and—more quietly—about what purpose it would serve and what needs it would fulfill.
These are good conversations to have. But we would be remiss if we didn’t take a step back to ask, not what the metaverse is or who will make it, but where it comes from—both in a literal sense and also in the ideas it embodies. Who invented it, if it was indeed invented? And what about earlier constructed, imagined, augmented, or virtual worlds? What can they tell us about how to enact the metaverse now, about its perils and its possibilities?
There is an easy seductiveness to stories that cast a technology as brand-new, or at the very least that don’t belabor long, complicated histories. Seen this way, the future is a space of reinvention and possibility, rather than something intimately connected to our present and our past. But histories are more than just backstories. They are backbones and blueprints and maps to territories that have already been traversed. Knowing the history of a technology, or the ideas it embodies, can provide better questions, reveal potential pitfalls and lessons already learned, and open a window onto the lives of those who learned them. The metaverse—which is not nearly as new as it looks—is no exception.
So where does the metaverse come from? A common answer—the clear and tidy one—is that it comes from Neal Stephenson’s 1992 science fiction novel Snow Crash, which describes a computer-generated virtual world made possible by software and a worldwide fiber-optic network.
About the Author:
Genevieve Bell is director of the School of Cybernetics at the Australian National University in Canberra. She is also director of the Autonomy, Agency, and Assurance Institute at the Australian National University and a senior fellow at Intel.