Over the month of June, The Difference Engine are publishing a four-part series exploring the metaverse in-depth. What is it? How is it being used? And what is the future of both the metaverse and the internet as we know it? In this first part, we look at the origins of the metaverse - a phrase which dates back to the 90's.
On 28 October 2021, social media giant Facebook, owner of platforms including Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, announced that it would be changing its name to 'Meta'.
CEO Mark Zuckerberg explained at the company's annual conference that the change was spurred by the company being so closely linked to one product, and thus has become a name they've grown beyond. "Over time," he said, "I hope that we are seen as a metaverse company, and I want to anchor our work and identity on what we're building toward." The company headquarters even changed their sign on the same day, replacing the famous thumbs-up with the new Meta logo.
The name 'Meta' was chosen to link the company to something which already existed, but that Zuckerberg sees as the technology of the future, the metaverse.
Origins of the Metaverse
The metaverse is in essence a collection of digital worlds. It is very much like the internet, but with a much more immersive Virtual Reality (VR) aspect to it. Users enter the metaverse with a VR headset and can explore much in the same way as they might in a VR video game.
"Over time, I hope that we are seen as a metaverse company, and I want to anchor our work and identity on what we're building toward." -- Mark Zuckerberg, Meta
The difference between video games and the metaverse, however, is that the metaverse is designed to run parallel to real, physical life.
Whilst Zuckerberg and Meta may have launched the term into the public consciousness, this is something which has been around for much longer, built through the contributions of multiple companies. In fact, it is common belief that the metaverse finds its origins in the 1992 Neal Stephenson novel Snow Crash, in which the hacker Hiro Protagonist exists in a 21st Century virtual world - something he initially sees as an opportunity that would allow him to escape the physical world - a world called the Metaverse.
Stephenson describes the Metaverse in his novel as a successor to the internet, an exploration of his early-90's vision of what a virtual reality world could entail. This includes ideas such as the increasing adoption of a virtual currency, and inhabitants being represented by user-controlled avatars (the term 'avatar', too, whilst in existence before Stephenson, was popularised by the release of Snow Crash).
"[Stephenson] was somewhat tired of hearing us engineering geeks rave about Snow Crash as a grand vision for the future. That may have something to do with Snow Crash being a dystopian vision." -- Avi Bar-Zeev
The novel itself is somewhat of a satire (hence the protagonist's name), playing out more as a warning, as opposed to an advertisement of the future of technology, highlighting the problems of late-stage capitalism and class inequality.
A quarter of a decade later, Stephenson's novel lives on in Silicon Valley as a cult classic, a survey of all the things that have since become our reality. Stephenson is hailed now as a futurist, a "tech Nostradamus".
Google Earth designer Avi Bar-Zeev, for example, has said that he was inspired by Stephenson's vision of the future and had once even tried to get Stephenson to visit the office of Keyhole (the app suite that later formed the basis of Googe's mapping tech). "He wasn't interested in visiting Keyhole, or didn't have time. My best guess is that he was somewhat tired of hearing us engineering geeks rave about Snow Crash as a grand vision for the future. That may have something to do with Snow Crash being a dystopian vision."
In a 2017 interview, Stephenson talks about how his vision of the virtual world of Snow Crash was just him "making s*** up". The metaverse of Snow Crash doesn't quite mimic the metaverse of today. "The way that the Metaverse is designed — keeping in mind that this was pre-Internet as we know it, pre-Worldwide Web— ... there's only one Metaverse. You have to go there; you can't set up your own."
The metaverse of today's world is somewhat of a different story. The idea is that, rather than being controlled by one singular entity, anyone can set up their own metaverse. In fact, whilst doing so does naturally require a certain level of advanced coding ability, it is not as complex as one might think. It is no wonder, then, that in 2022, companies (and even individuals) are increasingly exploring how they might use the metaverse to their own benefit.
Next week, in part two of our metaverse series, we explore the state of the metaverse in 2022. We look at the inevitable impact of not just Zuckerberg's move to rebrand Facebook to Meta, but the global pandemic's influence over how consumers and businesses utilise the internet — and how these facets have shaped the modern-day metaverse as we know it.
'Exploring the metaverse' is a four-part series released by The Difference Engine over the month of June 2022.