The Metaverse is a New Word for an Old Idea – MIT Technology Review – Hotel News Resource


Excerpt from MIT Technology Review

I have spent a lot of my career, both in Silicon Valley and beyond, insisting that all our technologies have histories and even pre-histories, and that far from being neat and tidy, those stories are in fact messy, contested, and conflicted, with competing narrators and meanings. 
The metaverse, which graduated from a niche term to a household name in less than a year, is an excellent case in point. Its metamorphosis began in July 2021, when Facebook announced that it would dedicate the next decade to bringing the metaverse to life. In the company’s presentation of the concept, the metaverse was a thing of wonder: an immersive, rich digital world combining aspects of social media, online gaming, and augmented and virtual reality. “The defining quality of the metaverse will be a feeling of presence—like you are right there with another person or in another place,” Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg wrote, envisioning a creation that would “reach a billion people, host hundreds of billions of dollars of digital commerce, and support jobs for millions of creators and developers.” By December 2021, a range of other large American technology companies, including Microsoft, Intel, and Qualcomm, had all articulated metaverse plans of their own. And by the time the Consumer Electronics Show rolled around in January, everyone seemed to have a metaverse angle, no matter how improbable or banal: haptic vests, including one with an air conditioner to create your own localized climate; avatar beauty makeovers; virtual delivery vans for your virtual home. 
There has been plenty of discussion about the involvement of Meta (née Facebook) and its current complicated position as a social media platform with considerable purchase on our daily lives. There have also been broader conversations about what form the metaverse could or should take, in terms of technical capabilities, user experiences, business models, access, and regulation, and—more quietly—about what purpose it would serve and what needs it would fulfill.
“There is an easy seductiveness to stories that cast a technology as brand-new.”
These are good conversations to have. But we would be remiss if we didn’t take a step back to ask, not what the metaverse is or who will make it, but where it comes from—both in a literal sense and also in the ideas it embodies. Who invented it, if it was indeed invented? And what about earlier constructed, imagined, augmented, or virtual worlds? What can they tell us about how to enact the metaverse now, about its perils and its possibilities? 

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There is an easy seductiveness to stories that cast a technology as brand-new, or at the very least that don’t belabor long, complicated histories. Seen this way, the future is a space of reinvention and possibility, rather than something intimately connected to our present and our past. But 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. 
So where does the metaverse come from? A common answer—the clear and tidy one—is that it comes from Neal Stephenson’s 1992 science fiction novel Snow Crash, which describes a computer-generated virtual world made possible by software and a worldwide fiber-optic network. In the book’s 21st-century Los Angeles, the world is messy, replete with social inequities, sexism, racism, gated communities, surveillance, hypercapitalism, febrile megacorporations, and corrupt policing. Of course, the novel’s Metaverse is messy too. It too heaves with social inequities and hypercapitalism. Not everyone finds their way there. For those who do, the quality of their experience is determined by the caliber of their kit and their ability to afford bandwidth, electricity, and computational horsepower. Those with means can have elaborately personalized digital renderings. Others must make do with simple flat sketches, purchased off the shelf—the “Brandy” and “Clint” packages. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that many who read the book saw it not just as cutting-edge science fiction but as a critique of end-stage capitalism and techno-utopian visions.
In the three decades that have passed since Snow Crash was published, many of the underpinnings of Stephenson’s virtual world, such as social networks and artificial intelligence, have materialized. And the metaverse, like other ideas foreshadowed in the cyberpunk tradition, has persistently found its way into broader conversation. It has featured in recent movies such as Ready Player One and Free Guy. And it has shaped much of the digital landscape in which we now find ourselves. However, I think there might be more to the metaverse than just Snow Crash and its current re-instantiation.
In fact, today’s conversations around the metaverse remind me a lot of the conversations we were having nearly 20 years ago about Second Life, which Philip Rosedale’s Linden Lab launched in 2003. Rosedale is very clear about the ways in which he was inspired by Snow Crash. He is also clear, however, that a trip to Burning Man in the late 1990s forever framed his thinking about virtual worlds, their inhabitants, and their ethos. Second Life was to be “a 3D online world created and owned by its users.” It was hugely successful—it dominated news headlines and conversations. Companies and brands fought to establish themselves in this new domain; we had conferences and concerts in Second Life, and even church. In the early 2000s, millions of people flocked to the platform and created lives there. Anthropologists studied them*; policy makers and politicians debated them. And the realities of a fully fledged virtual world collided quickly with regulators and policy makers; concerns about fiat currencies, money laundering, and prostitution all surfaced.
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