The sci-fi writer who coined the term 'metaverse' is building his own

The sci-fi writer who coined the term ‘metaverse’ is building his own

Neal Stephenson, Cyberpunk sci-fi writer who coined the term “metaverse” in his book “Snow Crash”, collaborates with a cryptocurrency enthusiast to build his own virtual world, Wired reported last week. The move, which is believed to stem from Stephenson’s concern (and “disgust”) with existing iterations of the metaverse concept, raises speculation about its impact and consequences. It remains to be seen how Stephenson can subvert the idea of ​​the metaverse from within, but the move indicates how science fiction becomes 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 dystopian future – disrupt this?

“Metaverse” became a buzzword late last year as social media giant Facebook announced a rebrand to highlight a shift in focus from social media to virtual reality. The term conceptualizes an integrated virtual world where people can function as they do in the physical world, but with better remote connectivity and fewer bureaucratic hurdles. Virtual reality and augmented reality headsets connect users to this virtual world. With Covid19 limiting physical movement, people spending much of their time online, and with cryptocurrency and digital spending – in the form of NFTs, for example – gaining prominence, the idea of ​​the metaverse has received significant impetus from the technocrats. Facebook’s rebranding prompted other companies to join the bandwagon, and now every major tech company is developing its own version of the metaverse.

However, the architecture of the metaverse is fraught with problems. As Saumya Kalia noted in her article 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 the escalation of several unrest situations in these countries. There’s also the issue of privacy: tech giants like Google and Facebook are accused of mining and selling user data, and as more and more people integrate on metaverse networks, the situation of data privacy is set to get worse.

The metaverse is also a terrain that can trigger a new range of hate crimes against sexual, gender and ethnic minorities. A female gamer, for example, was sexually harassed in-game by a male gamer. “…Message boards would later debate passionately whether this was ‘real’ sexual harassment,” Rohitha Naraharisetty wrote for The Swaddle earlier. “…responsibility becomes more difficult to define in any virtual environment. There is an “update” in how we can be embodied online, with no corresponding update in how the law understands this new reality”, and asks “will our avatars have human rights? Will avatars who harm others face the same penalties as they would offline? »

Stephenson, in his announcement to build his own metaverse, mentions that the corporate rush by every tech company to build their own private, centralized version of a metaverse led him to want to build one. Along with his cryptocurrency collaborator Peter Vessenes, Stephenson has developed Lamina1 – an open-source, decentralized, crypto-powered platform that will allow others to use its existing framework to develop their own independent virtual worlds. Rony Abovitz, Lamina1’s strategic advisor, said Wired that the situation is “as if Neal descended from 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 a single decentralized entity, moving away from a few giant corporations dictating all the rules of technology. Steven Levy, journalist at Wiredcites 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 down rival systems… If that were to happen with the Metaverse, it would be a disaster. A company running the Metaverse would literally own the reality where we work, play, and buy things.

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 careful scrutiny. Would a decentralized and egalitarian metaverse be an essential part of human life? And more importantly, would it solve the problems inherent in an unregulated digital world, where people are vulnerable to unprecedented forms of harm?

Even beyond the open-source innovation and idea of ​​decentralizing the metaverse is the question of the usefulness of a cryptocurrency-powered, non-fungible, token-laden metaverse. A basic argument against the need for this specific form of metaverse is that human lives have been connected, through social media and massively multiplayer online games. Universes like Minecraft already allow users to create their own universe and interact freely with others.

Furthermore, cryptocurrencies are responsible for burning colossal amounts of fuel, which will only increase if more people jump into platforms powered by these digital currencies. Experts have also previously warned about the fraudulent nature of NFTs, the volatility of cryptocurrencies, and the inherent exclusion that drives blockchain technology. As such, one has to wonder if investing a significant portion of one’s income in building a digital world is even worth it in the first place, even when it’s open-source. And that begs the question: is the metaverse itself redeemable, even by the person who first imagined it as a nightmare?

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