How Science Fiction has prepared me for the metaverse

By now, the hubbub around the Facebook renaming has died down. Everyone knows what the Zuck is planning. It’s a clever media play, a grand vision, and in the near distant future. At the same time, years of science fiction exposure, however tangential, has conditioned many to be excited about what the metaverse can bring, used in lowercase to refer to a generic hyper-realistic virtual realm.

The lack of limitations, physical and metaphysical: what will flying be like? Will the improvement from video calling to the metaverse be as big of a jump as from letters to telegrams to calling to video calling? Many works of science fiction also imagine virtual worlds tearing down individual barriers to social participation: physical disability, poverty, and language. A hyper-realistic virtual world is undoubtedly exciting, and would perhaps be the invention to finally supplant the iPhone.

What are of note of course, are the potential pitfalls of the Metaverse. Early science fiction is rife with terrifying examples of simulated realities gone wrong: In Ubik, dying people can be reanimated for brief periods of time against their volition. In Paprika, rouge agents enter the dreams of targets to wreak havoc and plant ideas. In Snow Crash, a piece of ancient rogue text can hack the human brain if read. In many Black Mirror episodes such as White Christmas and Playtest, the technology runs amok and participants are subject to horrific fates.

Of course, this is strictly science fiction: there are currently no wetware sockets, no conduits to physically plug into the human body. That there is this irrational aversion to integrating machine parts into the human body, and specifically the brain is understandable. For now, the majority of virtual reality technology relies on goggles and handheld controllers, nothing that would come close to the horrors above. Perhaps because of this, current virtual reality technology is often disappointing, and the fear factor is low. But there are still many valid concerns with the technology as is, and as it continues to develop.

These criticisms can be found embedded within the rallying cries of the boomers: “The kids will just be on their computers all the time! They need to experience the real world! Get fresh air!” Though it may seem Luddite, there are a few truths embedded within. Things could go the way of Ready Player One and Snow Crash, where the poor spend their free time within the virtual world to escape the soul crushing poverty and lack of economic mobility. Things could also go the way of USS Callister where social outcasts turn to virtual reality as a means to escape their real life. Though there is already an alarming trend of eschewing progression in the real world for virtual gold and levels, a truly immersive virtual world will bring that temptation to the next level.

Will the real world only be patronized by the rich henceforth, the poor shuttling between their day jobs to keep their electronics on, and then going home to plug into their devices, unable to afford anything else? This brings to mind the video game consoles and controllers in Sword Art Online. But why stop there? Why unplug for work when the pandemic has shown that productive employment is possible in a fully remote setting?

Perhaps the poor will be perpetually plugged into the devices, like in The Matrix; out of their own volition of course, but able to work and play and eat and sleep in their virtual reality. The real world is comparably sinister in Ready Player One, where people earn in game currency for their corporate bosses, like line workers without a union. These can be interpreted criticisms of our current economic systems as well as the technology itself.

Snowcrash, the granddaddy of the term “metaverse”, is set in an anarcho-capitalist world run by corporations. Everything in its metaverse costs real money and is sold to the highest bidder. Though the metaverse is a better place than the outside world, a socio-economic ladder continues to exist for those who use it to escape reality. The entire plot of Ready Player One revolves around corporations and individuals battling for control of their metaverse through solving a puzzle from its creator.

With the real as with the virtual. Almost all fictional words depicting some sort of economics with virtual reality frames it as a conflict. There will always be lords and serfs, bourgeois and proletariat, users and Zuck. The problem with the metaverse is not that it’ll serve as a panacea for the real world, but that it’ll become even better than the real world, and even less equally distributed. Enter Web3.

The Web3 boys missed a big opportunity in not calling it w3b, just saying. Perhaps they were concerned they wouldn’t be taken seriously, perhaps it was impressive enough that the quants could foresee it as the successor of Web 2. W3b is the decentralized web: the backbone of all systems is owned in part by its users. No banks are needed because all users of a specific currency can see every transaction anyone has ever made. All users in the network have either contributed to the creation of the network itself, or bartered with users that have. Proponents claim that it is the future of the internet, without any sort of rent-seeking middleman. Detractors say it’s a fad, a bubble, or even a Ponzi scheme. Personally, I’m confused as what’s preventing newcomers from being shut out or someone wealthy from buying a large chunk of ownership.

In any case, it’s exciting stuff and I know far too little to write anything significant. However, any discussion of future technologies at this current time would be incomplete without a very generalized note. Regardless if w3b and blockchain can solve the ownership and distribution problem pervasive in science fiction virtual reality and baked into our economic systems, it’s fun to pretend that it can.

Perhaps science fiction is too dark, and I too pessimistic. It’s easy to take a new idea and smash it to the ground before its seen the light of day. Fortunately, history provides positive antecedents. Though the internet is perceived now by the cynical as a terrible time sink, a cesspit of misinformation and a wealth transfer from traditional capitalists to the technological barons, it wasn’t always this way. The early aughts were the heyday of the internet with fun websites to discover, information at everyone’s fingertips, and plenty of pranks.

It certainly delivered on its promise of knowledge for all, providing opportunities for anyone who was willing to learn its ways. Even now, with corporations acting as gatekeepers of the internet and conspiracy theorists at every corner, there are still portals to knowledge and opportunities for fame. Anyone with an internet connection can learn how to code, and anyone with a smartphone camera can become a TikTok star. Only time will tell if the metaverse can do the same. I, for one, welcome our new virtual overlords.

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