Neal Stephenson, Cyberpunk science fiction writer who coined the term “metaverse” in his book “Snow Crash”, is collaborating with a cryptocurrency enthusiast to build his own virtual world, Wired reported last week. The move, reported to be stemming from Stephenson’s concern (and “disgust”) at existing iterations of the metaverse concept, raises speculation about what its impact and consequences will be. How Stephenson can subvert the idea of the metaverse from within remains to be seen, but the move points toward how science fiction becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The metaverse is, in essence, a playground for Big Tech. How can a science fiction writer — who coined the term in his imagination of a dystopic future — disrupt this?
“Metaverse” became a buzzword late last year, as social media giant Facebook announced a rebranding to highlight a focus shift from social media to virtual reality. The term conceptualizes an integrated virtual world where people can operate as they do in the physical world, but with better connectivity across distances and fewer bureaucratic hurdles. Virtual reality and augmented reality headsets connect users to this virtual world. With Covid19 restricting physical movement, people spending a large part of their time online, and with cryptocurrency and digital spending — in the form of NFTs, for example — gaining prominence, the idea of the metaverse gained a significant push from technocrats. Facebook’s rebranding influenced other companies to join the bandwagon, and now every major technology company is developing its own version of the metaverse.
However, the architecture of the metaverse is rife with problems. As Saumya Kalia noted in her piece for The Swaddle, the metaverse’s most famous ambassador, Facebook, faces multiple allegations of encouraging hate speech and violent content, especially in non-Western countries, for higher engagement. This would imply that Facebook was at least partially responsible for aggravating several situations of unrest in these countries. There’s also the issue of privacy: technological giants like Google and Facebook are accused of mining and selling users’ data, and as more people integrate on metaverse networks, the data privacy situation is set to worsen.
The metaverse is also a terrain that can unleash a new range of hate crimes against sexual, gender, and ethnic minorities. A woman gamer, for instance, was sexually harassed in the game universe by a male player. “… message boards would later hotly debate whether this was “real” sexual harassment,” wrote Rohitha Naraharisetty for The Swaddle earlier. “… accountability gets harder to define in any virtual setting. There is an “update” in how embodied we can be online, with no corresponding update in how the law understands this new reality,” and asks “will our avatars have human rights? Will avatars that harm others be liable to the same punishments as they would offline?”
Stephenson, in his announcement to build his own metaverse, mentions that the corporate rush by every technological company to build their own private, centralized version of a metaverse led him to want to build one of his own. Along with his cryptocurrency collaborator Peter Vessenes, Stephenson developed Lamina1 — an open-source, decentralized, crypto-powered platform that will let others use its existing framework to develop their own independent virtual worlds. Rony Abovitz, the strategic advisor to Lamina1, told Wired that the situation is “like Neal is coming down out of the mountains like Gandalf, to restore the metaverse to an open, decentralized, and creative order.”
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Indeed, at the heart of Lamina1 is the idea of integrating different parts of the metaverse into one single decentralized entity, shifting away from a few giant corporations dictating all the rules of technology. Steven Levy, a reporter at Wired, cites existing tech duopolies such as Android vs iPhone and Apple vs Windows to note how “platforms have dominated entire product categories, stifling creativity and just plain usability by shutting out rival systems…If this were to happen with the metaverse it would be a disaster. A company that ruled the metaverse would literally own the reality where we work, play, and buy stuff.”
It may be too late to undo the fact that a dystopian concept is now a reality — but Stephenson’s attempt to fix what already exists demands some scrutiny of its own. Would a decentralized, egalitarian metaverse be an essential part of human life? And more importantly, would it fix the inherent problems with an unregulated digital world, where people are vulnerable to unprecedented forms of harm?
Even beyond the open-source innovation and the idea of decentralizing the metaverse, lies the question of the utility of a cryptocurrency-fueled, non-fungible-token-laden, metaverse itself. A basic argument against the need for this specific form of a metaverse is that human lives have been connected, through social media and massively multiplayer online gaming. Universes like Minecraft already let users build their own universe and interact with others freely.
Besides, cryptocurrencies are responsible for burning colossal amounts of fuel, which will only increase if more people jump in on platforms that are powered by these digital currencies. Experts have also already warned about the scammy nature of NFTs, the volatility of cryptocurrencies, and the inherent exclusion that lies at the roots of blockchain technology. As such, one needs to ask whether investing a significant portion of one’s income in building a digital world is even worthwhile in the first place, even when it’s open-source. And it begs the question: is the metaverse itself redeemable, even by the person who first dreamt it up as a nightmare?