(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘White City

“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

###

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

source

%d bloggers like this: