Facebook’s new name is Meta.
CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the new name last week at Facebook Connect (Meta Connect?) as part of a polished, shining sales pitch about his dreams of building the “metaverse”. The term is lifted directly from Neal Stephenson’s 1992 cyberpunk classic Snowcrash, which critics could be forgiven for thinking a bit of an odd choice. Snowcrash is, after all, a novel about a lethal katana-wielding master hacker turned pizza delivery driver named Hiro Protagonist (yes, you read that right) and his quest to save the world’s best programmers from an angry guy with lots of knives and a pattern of pixels that kills anyone who looks at it.
It is, in other words, a very strange book, but it’s become a foundational work of the cyberpunk genre for exactly the same reason that it apparently so appeals to Zuckerberg: it coined the idea of a persistent, fully rendered virtual world, which Stephenson called The Metaverse. The same idea has been articulated by many others since, most notably in Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One, but Snowcrash remains the keystone of the metaverse dream.
Stephenson gave us the vision: a boundless, open-source virtual plane independent of cultures, borders, and creeds. A single shared reality run by all the world’s computers acting as one, where anyone can be anything. And on its surface, Meta’s presentation seems to call that vision to life.
Sure, this vision of the metaverse is a little more down to Earth, with users playing virtual ping pong on an everyday sidewalk instead of racing motorcycles at the speed of light down the Street that never ends, but it nevertheless manages to be alluring. It would be fun to play holographic Ping Pong with just a pair of glasses as an interface, especially if it came with a whole world of its own.
What I find alarming, though, is the glaring absence in Meta’s sales pitch: where are the programmers? Stephenson was explicit that his famous Street was created empty and made infinite so that anyone, anywhere could carve out their piece of the waiting void and make it their own. The heroes of the metaverse weren’t corporations, they were hackers, enthusiasts and dreamers who built a world from a blank canvas through sheer passion and hard work.
However polished it may be, this new metaverse ad campaign is far from that dream. You can play games in Meta’s metaverse, meet up with friends, even buy NFTs, but nothing I’ve seen suggests that you can code, or build, or create. It seems that what Meta really wants is a theme-park of a universe, where the user is meant only to consume and the world is laid out according to a corporate design.
I have no doubt that would be profitable, but it represents a fundamental misunderstanding of what the internet has always been and what the metaverse could be. There’s no doubt that we regularly let corporations set some of the rules, the basic functions of The City Voice are governed by WordPress for example, but they don’t necessarily have to be. If I really wanted to, if I had the time, money, and inclination to do it, I could sit down to teach myself HTML5 and CSS and build my own website exactly to my design.
It would take a long time and be expensive to host, and the final product would probably be an inexcusably terrible website, but, theoretically, it could be done. That’s the beauty of the internet, that anyone who consumes it can also create it. We can throw our words and our thoughts and our dreams out here into the void even as we go looking for what has come before. That’s the spirit of innovation, that’s what keeps this whole thing going, because without the chaos of thousands of programmers all dreaming their own dreams the internet would never be as alive as it is.
The real metaverse isn’t a universe, it’s a multiverse, a web of thousands of experimental worlds and wild ideas as vibrant and varied as the people who inhabit it. A place we can all live in, and shape, not just consume. So if Meta wants me to believe in their metaverse, they’ll have to show me the code.