Across the Metaverse

Across the Metaverse

Have you heard about the “metaverse”? It’s the next new thing, according to Facebook founder-and-CEO-for-life Mark Zuckerberg. “Think about the metaverse as an embodied internet, where instead of just viewing content, you are in it,” he said recently as he announced the formation of a metaverse product group within the trillion-dollar social media colossus.

So what is this metaverse? Its roots stretch back longer than Mark Zuckerberg has been alive. And, like another word to which it feels very closely related to, “cyberspace”, the metaverse had its genesis in the pages of a science fiction novel. Snow Crash, author Neal Stephenson’s 1993 career-maker, introduced readers to a place that’s no place at all – a world that exists entirely within the confines of the global network of computers. Stephenson’s metaverse has become Earth’s global-scale group chat app (like the largest Zoom call you’ve ever been on, multiplied by a million) – and a refuge from a real world grown almost unbelievably fragmented and dystopian.

The metaverse did not originate with Neal Stephenson. For 40 years, science fiction writers have imagined synthetic, hyperconnected worlds. In 1981, science fiction legend Vernor Vinge (who would later coin the term “singularity”) propelled readers into an online environment full of medieval imagery – swords, sorcery, red witches and malevolent powers. Vinge’s novella True Names called that synthetic world the “Other Plane”, tasked its central characters with the motivation of solving a series of murders, and in its transhuman climax those characters used all of the resources available to them in the Other Plane – and the real world – to track down, identify and eliminate the perpetrator. Four decades on, it’s still considered among the most influential – and prescient – works in the science fiction canon.

So what is this metaverse? Its roots stretch back longer than Mark Zuckerberg has been alive.

A year later, William Gibson’s Burning Chrome graced the pages of OMNI magazine. In his novella-length story, Gibson introduced readers to a new word: “cyberspace”, an “electronic consensus-hallucination that facilitates the handling and exchange of massive quantities of data”. In 1984’s Neuromancer, Gibson expanded on that brief phrasing with one of the most influential paragraphs in all of science fiction:

“The matrix has its roots in primitive arcade games,” said the voice-over, “in early graphics programs and military experimentation with cranial jacks.” On the Sony, a two-dimensional space war faded behind a forest of mathematically generated ferns, demonstrating the spacial possibilities of logarithmic spirals; cold blue military footage burned through, lab animals wired into test systems, helmets feeding into fire control circuits of tanks and war planes. “Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts… A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding….”

Nearly all work in virtual reality – and, in particular, massively networked virtual worlds – represent attempts to bring this vision to life. Fifteen years later, the Wachowskis borrowed “The Matrix” both for the title of their films and as the name of a massively networked consensual hallucination holding human beings in invisible bondage to machinic masters.

When Gibson wrote Neuromancer (on a mechanical typewriter, no less), he had no precedents to draw from – only his imagination. The internet of the early 1980s connected only a few hundred sites – mostly universities, technology companies and military contractors. Simulation barely existed in the 1980s, and where it did (in a few flight simulators) it was finicky and very expensive.

Simulation barely existed in the 1980s, and where it did, it was finicky and very expensive.

It took another decade for the world to begin to catch up to Gibson. Dr Mike Zyda, a pioneering computer scientist working at the US Naval Postgraduate School, proposed networking those expensive military simulators to one another, in order to create large-scale multi-person simulations. SIMNET made it inexpensive (in military budget terms) to run massive simulations of tanks and aircraft and other military hardware within a simulated battlefield, and marks the first viable cyberspace/matrix/metaverse. Anyone with access to SIMNET could plug in their own simulator – whether of a jet, a tank, or pretty much anything else they could program – and play at war. Within the fraternity of the US military, it was an open platform, meant to be used by as many people, in as many places, as needed.

To make it all work, SIMNET had to solve a fundamental problem: how do you coordinate any common activity across dozens or even hundreds of computers separated by anywhere from a few metres of cabling to a few thousand kilometres of telephone lines? Even at the speed of light, signals take time to travel from one point to another, a phenomenon known as “latency”. That means that agreeing on whether their tank hit yours with an artillery shell when you’re zooming across a battlefield at 40km/h can be a matter of some contention – if there’s a significant amount of latency between the combatants. SIMNET solved that latency problem, paving the way for really large-scale simulations.

SIMNET had to solve a fundamental problem: how do you coordinate any common activity across dozens or even hundreds of computers?

More than any other single individual, Zyda could comfortably wear the title of “father of the metaverse”. Not only did he get military simulation up and running, he advised a range of videogame companies as they created the building blocks for their own “massively multiplayer online roleplaying games” (MMORPGs). MMORPGs like Ultima Online, World of Warcraft, and Final Fantasy XIV delivered the first tastes of what a metaverse might be like – and have proven enduringly popular. You don’t need to explain “the metaverse” to today’s gamers – they’ve already spent plenty of time there.

But the metaverse isn’t just a game – it’s all things to all people. There are no rules, no scores and no leaderboard. It’s open platform for connection and collaboration, where people are free to do pretty much as they please. When we define a metaverse like that, we can see we’ve already got several of them. First and foremost, the World Wide Web – 30 years old as of this month, mostly text, but with bits of video and audio and animations and games and even three-dimensional virtual worlds. It’s open to all comers, free to use, and has become the way we all share with one another. We don’t call the Web the metaverse – but that’s pretty much what it is.

If you want to insist – as Zuckerberg does – that you need to be “in” the content, folks have already solved that problem, too: Minecraft has been around for a dozen years, and Roblox even longer than that. (If you haven’t heard of either of these, ask some kids.) Both metaverses host massive, amazingly creative, globally connected communities. And they’re not the only ones – everywhere you look, Vinge’s and Gibson’s and Stephenson’s conceptions of a metaverse have influenced our online experiences.

Zuckerberg may have a trillion dollars, but he’s late to the party, and if he thinks he can own the word (and the synthetic world), there are plenty of people who will be perfectly content to ignore him – and continue crafting their own corners of the metaverse.

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