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“In the lingo, this imaginary place is known as the Metaverse”*…

The estimable Genevieve Bell looks back beyond Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash to the deeper-than-you-might-think history of “the metaverse”– and explains the importance of understanding it…

…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…

I think there are even earlier histories that could inform our thinking. Before Second Life. Before virtual and augmented reality. Before the web and the internet. Before mobile phones and personal computers. Before television, and radio, and movies. Before any of that, an enormous iron and glass building arose in London’s Hyde Park. It was the summer of 1851, and the future was on display… The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, as the extraordinary event was formally known, was the brainchild of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s beloved consort…

Just as there is a straight line from the Midway to Coney Island to Disneyland, there is a straight line from the White City to the 1939 New York World’s Fair to the Consumer Electronics Show. We can also draw a line between the Great Exhibition and today’s metaverse. Like the virtual world that the metaverse’s promoters promise, the Great Exhibition was a world within the world, full of the splendors of its day and promises about the future. But even as it opened up new spaces of possibility—and profit—it also amplified and reproduced existing power structures through its choices of exhibits and exhibitors, its reliance on the Royal Society for curation, and its constant erasure of colonial reality. All this helped ensure that the future would look remarkably British. The exhibition harnessed the power of steam and telegraphy to bring visitors to a space of new experiences, while masking the impact of such technological might; engines and pipes were hidden underground out of plain sight. It was a deliberate sleight of hand. If Brontë saw magic—not power, xenophobia, and nationalism—that was what she was intended to see.

I think our history with proto-­metaverses should make us more skeptical about any claims for the emancipatory power of technology and technology platforms. After all, each of them both encountered and reproduced various kinds of social inequities, even as they strove not to, and many created problems that their designers did not foresee. 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. The Great Exhibition generated anxiety and wonder, and it alternately haunted and shaped a generation of thinkers and doers. I like to wonder who will author this metaverse’s Bleak House or Alice in Wonderland in response to what they encounter there. 

The Great Exhibition and its array of descendants speak to the long and complicated human history of world-making. Exploring these many histories and pre-­histories can be generative and revelatory. The metaverse will never be an end in itself. Rather, it will be many things: a space of exploration, a gateway, an inspiration, or even a refuge. Whatever it becomes, it will always be in dialogue with the world that has built it. The architects of the metaverse will need to have an eye to the world beyond the virtual. And in the 21st century, this will surely mean more than worrying about ancient elm trees and the tensile strength of glass. It will mean thinking deeply about our potential and our limitations as makers of new worlds…

To understand what we are—and should be—building, we need to look beyond Snow Crash: “The metaverse is a new word for an old idea,” from @feraldata in @techreview via @sentiers (soft paywall). Eminently worth reading in full.

See also “So what is “the metaverse,” exactly?” (source of the image above).

* Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash

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As we stew over simulacra, we might recall that it was on this date in 1903 that Morris Michtom began selling stuffed bears in his toy shop on this day in 1903. Earlier, he had asked President Theodore Roosevelt for permission to use the president’s nickname, Teddy, to which the president agreed. Soon, other toy companies were churning out copies of their own “Teddy Bears”– still among the most popular children’s toys (and also popular as adult gifts signifying affection, congratulations, or sympathy).

Bear formerly owned by Kermit Roosevelt, thought to be made by Michtom, early 1900s; Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, 2012

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“In the lingo, this imaginary place is known as the Metaverse”*…

Ethan Zuckerman on the history of enthusiastically working to make a dystopian vision real…

In a booth at Ted’s Fish Fry, in Troy, New York, my friend Daniel Beck and I sketched out our plans for the metaverse. It was November 1994, just as the graphical web was becoming a thing, and we thought that the 3-D web could be just a few tweaks down the road. In our version of the metaverse, a server would track the identity of objects and their location in virtual space, but you’d render the objects locally, loaded to your hard drive off of a CD-ROM. It made a certain sense: Most users were on sub-56k modems, and AOL was shipping out enough CD-ROMs to pave Los Angeles each week.

To be very clear, Daniel and I were in no way being original. We were hoping to re-create the vision that Neal Stephenson had outlined in his 1992 book, Snow Crash. We were both (barely) self-conscious enough to understand that Snow Crash took place in a dystopia, and that Stephenson was positing a beautiful virtual world because the outside world had become so shitty that no one wanted to live in it. But we were young and naive and believed that our metaverse would rock. (Stephenson, of course, wasn’t being entirely original either. His vision of the metaverse owed a debt to Vernor Vinge’s 1981 True Names and to a series of William Gibson novels from the ’80s. Both of those authors owed a debt to Morton Heilig’s 1962 Sensorama machine, and on and on we go, back in time to Plato’s shadows on a cave wall.)

Daniel and I got a chance to actually build our metaverse about six months later, after we both joined Tripod as graphic designers and “webkeepers.” This was well before Tripod became a competitor to GeoCities, offering free webpages to all. (It was also before I accidentally invented pop-up ads. Sorry again about that.) Instead, we were a lifestyle magazine for recent graduates, providing smart, edgy, but practical content—“tools for life”—while hawking mutual funds to 20-somethings. When that business model didn’t take off (can’t imagine why), the half-dozen folks in the “tech cave” revived the metaverse idea…

We sold our CEO on the idea by telling him that the MOO could be a simulation of life in the big city postcollege, bringing onto the site new users who wanted to experience New York City while still in Ann Arbor or State College. And remember, this was 1995: The photos we used to represent this metaverse of ours were taken on chemical film! Which we then developed at a photo-processing lab! And then scanned on a flatbed scanner!

The MOO was really cool, in theory. Most people weren’t building HTML-enabled multiplayer spaces in 1995. It got us our first round of venture-capital funding, demonstrating to our investors that we weren’t just kids translating mutual-fund propaganda into HTML. We were technology innovators. We were building things no one had ever seen before.

But here’s the thing: The MOO was garbage. On a good day, I could give a demo that made it look smooth, slick, and fun to use. But our CEO couldn’t. And that was a problem. It wasn’t his fault. The MOO was buggy and quirky and demanded that you think of the world as a set of six-sided cubes made up of webpages. Our boss pulled the plug on the project, telling us, “I know it’s the future, but if I can’t use it, I can’t sell it to investors.”

I watched other metaverses rise and fall. An Icelandic firm, OZ Virtual, introduced a metaverse with 3-D avatars in sexy streetwear dancing on an infinite dance floor, which felt like the future for a few days. OZ Virtual used VRML, a format for specifying 3-D objects in an HTML-like language that was all the rage for a few months in 1996. Netscape supported it via a plug-in, and Blaxxun built a 3-D chat space. Don’t remember these moments of web history? Neither does the web, for the most part. Wikipedia’s thorough, but not comprehensive, timeline of virtual environments misses our MOO, the Icelandic dance club, and half a dozen other early virtual experiments. (By the way: “Blaxxun”? That’s another Stephenson reference, to Black Sun Systems, the fictional company that created Stephenson’s fictional metaverse. Very creative, guys.)

And then there was Second Life. When Linden Lab launched this metaverse in 2003, there was a brief burst of enthusiasm where otherwise serious entities, such as businesses and universities, bought and built out their own islands in Linden’s proprietary world. (Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, now the Berkman Klein Center, had its own island.) The learning curve to build objects in Second Life was steep, the universe was populated haphazardly, and the Second Life client demanded a very fast computer and a very patient user…

So, after watching metaverses spring up and crumble for 27 years, and after building one myself, I feel fairly well equipped to offer context for what Mark Zuckerberg is trying to do with his firm’s pivot to “Meta.” In his heavily produced keynote video for Facebook Reality Labs, Zuckerberg starts by acknowledging that this is a bizarre time for the company to be launching a new product line—Facebook is under more scrutiny than ever for its ill effects on individuals and societies, and for the company’s utter unwillingness to address these issues.

But why bother with that mess? Or, as Zuckerberg put it: “Now, I know that some people will say that this isn’t a time to focus on the future. And I want to acknowledge that there are important issues to work on in the present. There always will be. So for many people, I’m just not sure there ever will be a good time to focus on the future.” Allow me to translate: Fuck you, haters.

Let’s be frank about this: Facebook’s metaverse sucks. From the first images in which legless torsos sit around a conference room, staring at a Zoom-like videoconferencing screen, to Zuckerberg’s tour of his virtual closet, filled with identical black outfits (see, he’s got a sense of humor!), Zuck’s metaverse looks pretty much like we imagined one would look like in 1994. Look, I’m playing cards with my friends and we’re in zero gravity! And one of my friends is a robot! You could do this in Second Life 10 years ago, and in somewhat angular vectors in VRML 20 years ago…

The metaverse Zuckerberg shows off [is] promising future technologies that are five to 10 years off. But it still looks like junk. The fire in his fireplace is a roughly rendered glow. His superhero secret lair looks out over a paradise island that’s almost entirely static. There’s the nominal motion of waves, but none of the foliage moves. It’s tropical wallpaper pasted to virtual windows. The sun is setting behind Zuckerberg’s left shoulder, but he’s being lit from the right front. Even with a bajillion dollars to invest in a video to relaunch and rename his company, Zuckerberg’s team is showing just how difficult it is to create a visually believable virtual world.

But that’s not the problem with Zuckerberg’s metaverse. The problem is that it’s boring. The futures it imagines have been imagined a thousand times before, and usually better. Two old men chat over a chessboard, one in Barcelona, one in New York, much as they did on Minitel in the 1980s. There’s virtual Ping-Pong and surfing, you know, like on a Wii. You can watch David Attenborough nature documentaries, like you do on Netflix. You can videoconference with your workmates … you know, like you do every single day.

Zuckerberg isn’t building the metaverse because he has a remarkable new vision of how things could be. There’s not an original thought in his video, including the business model. Thirty-eight minutes in, Zuckerberg gets serious, talking about how humbling the past few years have been for him and his business. Remember, he’s not humbled by the problem of Russian disinformation, or the spread of anti-vax misinformation, or the challenge of how Instagram affects teen body image. No, he’s humbled by how hard it is to fight against Apple and Google.

Faced with the question of whether Facebook’s core products are eroding the foundations of a democratic society, Zuckerberg takes on a more pressing problem: Apple’s 30 percent cut on digital goods sold in its App Store. Never fear, though: With a Facebook ecosystem, Facebook developer tools, and Facebook marketplaces, the custom skin you buy in one video game will be wearable in another video game, just like Mark’s black T-shirt. Just as long as that video game is in Facebook’s metaverse. (Meta’s metaverse? Meta’s verse?) And if you want Mark’s actual digital shirt, it will almost certainly be available as an NFT, which the launch video promises will be supported. Did I mention how dystopian this all is?

Facebook can claim originality in at least one thing. Its combination of scale and irresponsibility has unleashed a set of diverse and fascinating sociopolitical challenges that it will take lawmakers, scholars, and activists at least a generation to fix. If Facebook has learned anything from 17 years of avoiding mediating those conflicts, it’s not apparent from the vision for the metaverse, where the power of human connection is celebrated as uncritically as it was before Macedonian fake-news brokers worked to sway the 2016 election…

Neal Stephenson’s metaverse has been a lasting creation because it’s fictional. It doesn’t have to solve all the intricate problems of content moderation and extremism and interpersonal interaction to raise questions about what virtual worlds can give us and what our real world lacks. Today’s metaverse creators are missing the point, just like I missed the point back at Ted’s Fish Fry in 1994. The metaverse isn’t about building perfect virtual escape hatches—it’s about holding a mirror to our own broken, shared world. Facebook’s promised metaverse is about distracting us from the world it’s helped break.

It was terrible then, and it’s terrible now: “Hey, Facebook, I Made a Metaverse 27 Years Ago,” from @EthanZ.

For a nuanced (and provocatively-“optimistic”) look at what a metaverse like Facebook’s could yield if in fact it worked (and then morphed), see Corey J. Whites‘s (@cjwhite) Repo Virtual.

And as (and for the reasons) noted in an earlier post, see “The Metaverse Is Bad,” from Ian Bogost (@ibogost)

* Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash

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As we think twice, we might send adventurous birthday greetings to Giovanni Battista Belzoni; he was born on this date in 1778.  The 14th child of a poor barber in Padua, he was a barber, a Capuchin monk, a magician, and a circus strongman before finding his true calling– explorer (and plunderer) of Egyptian antiquities.

Belzoni’s call to action came when he met a British Consul-General named Henry Salt who persuaded him to gather Egyptian treasures to send back to the British Museum.  Under extremely adverse conditions he transported the colossal granite head of Rameses II from Thebes to England, where it is now one of the treasures of the British Museum. Later, he discovered six major royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings, including that of Seti I, and brought to the British Museum a spectacular collection of Egyptian antiquities. He was the first person to penetrate the heart of the second pyramid at Giza and the first European to visit the oasis of Siwah and discover the ruined city of Berenice on the Red Sea. He stumbled into the tomb of King Ay, but only noted a wall painting of 12 baboons, leading him to name the chamber ‘Tomb of the 12 Monkeys” (because hieroglyphs had not yet been deciphered, he usually had no idea who or what he had actually found).

Belzoni had two habits that have contributed to his legacy:  he was a lover of graffiti signatures, and inscribed “Belzoni” on many of Egypt’s antique treasures, where the carvings survive to this day.  And he carried a whip: which, given that he was one of the models for Indiana Jones, became one of that character’s hallmarks.

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