Category Archives: metaverse

two novels revisited

Near future science fiction is a reflexive art: the present embellished to the point of transformation that, in turn, influences how we envision, and eventually create our future. It is not accurate—far from it—but there is power in determining the vocabulary we use to discuss a future that seems possible, or even probable. I read Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash in 2000 and thought it was a great read back then. I was twenty-five, the internet was tanking, but the online games were going strong and the Metaverse seemed so close. The Metaverse is an avatar inhabited digital world—the Internet on ‘roids—with extremely high levels of interactivity enabled by the combination of vast computing power, 3-D tracking gloves (think Minority Report), directional headphones, and wraparound goggles that project a fully immersive experience in front of your eyes. This is the technophilic dream: a place where physicality matters less than the ability to manipulate the code. If you control the code, you can make your avatar do just about anything.

Now, five years later, I’ve reread Snow Crash. It continues to be relevant. The depiction of a fractured, corporatized society and of the gulf between rich and poor are more true now than they were five years ago. But there is a special resonance with one idea in particular: the Metaverse. The Metaverse is what many people dream the Internet will eventually become. The Metaverse is, as much as anything, a place to hang out. It’s also a place to buy ‘space’ to build a house, a place for ads to be thrown at you while you are ‘goggled in,’ a place for people to trade information. In 2000, in reality, you would have a blog and chat with your friends on AIM. It didn’t have the same presence as an avatar in the Metaverse, where facial features can communicate as much information as the voice transmission. Even games, like Everquest, didn’t have the same culture as the Metaverse, because they were games, with goals and advancement based on game rules. But now we have Second Life. Second Life isn’t about that—it is a social place. No goals. See and be seen. Make your avatar look the way you want. Buy and build. Sell and produce your own digital culture. Share pictures. Share your life. This is closer to the Metaverse than ever, but I hope that doesn’t mean we’ll get corporate franchise burbclaves as well. Well, at least any more than there already are.

I also reread The Diamond Age. This is a story about society in the age of nanotech and the power of traditional values in an environment of post-materialism. When everything is possible through nanotech, humanity retreats to fortresses of bygone tradition to give life structure and meaning. In the post-nation-state society described in the book, humans live in “phyles,” groups of people with like thoughts and values bound together by will and rules of society. Phyles are separated from each other by geography, wealth, and status; phyle borders are vigorously protected by visible and invisible defenders. This separation of groups by ideology seems especially pertinent in light of the continuing divergence of political affiliation in the US. We live in a politically bifurcated society; it is not difficult to draw parallels between the Red state/Blue state distinction, and the phyles of New Atlantis, Hindustani, and the Celestial Kingdom.
The story focuses on a girl, Nell, and her book, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. The Primer is her guide through a difficult and dangerous life. Her Primer is scientifically advanced enough that it would, if we had it today, appear to be magic. The Primer is aware of its surroundings, and aware of the girl’s position in the surroundings. It is capable of determining relationships and decorating them with the trappings of ‘story’. The Primer narrates the story using the voice of a distant actor, who is on call, connected through the media system (again, the Internet but so much more). The Primer answers any questions Nell asks, expounds and expands on any part of the story she is curious about until she fully satisfies her curiosity. It is a perpetually self-improving, self-generating networked storybook, with one important key: it requires a real human’s input to narrate the words that appear on the page. Without a human voice behind it, it doesn’t have enough emotion to hold a person’s interest. Even in a world of lighter than air buildings and nanosite generated islands, tech can’t figure out how to make a non-human voice convey delicate emotion.
There are common threads in the two novels that are crystal clear. Stephenson illluminates the near future with an ambivalent light. Society is fragile and prone to collapse. The network is likely to be monopolized and overrun with advertising. The social fabric, instead of being interwoven with multiethnic thread, will simply be a geographic patchwork of walled enclaves competing with each other. Corporations (minus governments) will be the ultimate rulers of the world—not just the economic part of it, but the cultural part as well. This is a future I don’t want to live in. And here is where Stephenson is doing us a service: by writing the narrative that leads to this future, he is giving us signs so that we can work against its development. Ultimately, his novels are about the power of human will to work through and above technology to forge meaning and relationships. And that’s a lesson that will always be relevant.

letters from second life

Last week, Bob mentioned that Larry Lessig, law profressor and intellectual property scholar, was being interviewed in Second Life, the virtual world created by Linden Lab. Having heard a lot of Second Life before, I was pleased to have a reason and opportunity to create an account and explore it. Basically I quickly learned that it’s Metaverse, as described in Neil Stephenson’s Snowcrash, in operation today, and I’m now a part of it too.
I already covered the actual interview. Here are a few observations from my introduction to SL.
Second Life is a humbling place, especially for beginners. Everything ,even the simplest things, must be relearned. It took me 5 minutes to learn how to sit down, another 5 minutes to read something, and on and on. Traveling to the site of Lessig event was an even more daunting task. I was given the location of this event, a name and coordinates, without any idea of what to do with them. Second Life is a vast space, and it wasn’t clear to me how to get from one point to another. I had no idea how to travel in SL, and had to ask around someone.
I presume it is evident that I’m very new to SL, by my constant trampling over people and inanimate objects. So, I continue walking into trees and rocks until I come across someone whose title contains “Mentor,” and figure that this is a good person to ask for help. Not knowing how to strike up a private conversation, I start talking out loud, not even sure if anyone is even going to pay attention.
(I will come to learn that you travel from place to place via teleportation.)
“Hi Harold.”
I am relieved to discover that people are basically nice in SL, maybe even nicer than in New York. This fellow avatar is happy to chat and answer questions. Second List has a feature called “Friends” which operates like Buddies in Instant Messaging. However, I’m not sure what the social protocol for making friends is, so I make no assumptions. As I was typing “can we be friends?” I sigh with the realization that I am, in fact, back in fourth grade.
second_life_clothes.jpgPeople around me have much more sophisticated outfits than I do. So, I try out the free clothing features. I darken my pants to a deep blue and my shoes black. Then, my default shirt gets turned into a loose white t-shirt. Somehow I end up a bit like a GAP model crossed with Max Headroom. After making my first “friend,” another complete stranger comes up to me and just starts giving me clothes. Apparently, my clothes still need a little work. I try on the cowboy boots and faded jeans. Happy that I’ve moved beyond the standard issue clothes, I thank my benefactor and begin to make my way to the event.
The builders of Second Life force people to rely on other people within the virtual world. However, assistance in the real world certainly helps too. Entering Second Life, the feeling of displacement is quite clear, as if I arrived to a new city in the real world with a single address, where I don’t know anyone or how to navigate the city. The virtual world often mimics the real world, but my surprise each time I learn this fact is still ongoing. It definitely helps to know people, both in where to go that’s interesting and how to do things.
After teleporting to the event, I found myself around people who had common interests, which was great and similar to attending a lecture in the real world. At different times, I struck up a conversation with an avatar who is a publisher on the West Coast and then talked to an academic who runs a media center. In both cases, I was talking to the person literally “next” to me.
When I first heard about the interview, I learned at there was limited spacing. Which seemed strange to me, as it was taking place in a viritual space. When I arrived at the event place, I saw the ampitheater with video screens, that would show a live web stream of Lessig. The limited seating made more sense, seeing the seat of the theater. I also believe that the SL servers also have a finite capacity for the number of people to be located within a small area, because movement was jerky around concentrated groups of people. I guess I’ll have to wait for the Second Life Woodstock.
The space was crowded with people walking around, chatting, and getting up their free digital copy of Lessig’s book, “Free Culture.” (I’ve included a picture of me reading Free Culture in Second Life. You can actually read the text.) second_life_reading.jpg The interview is about to begin, as an avatar with large red wings walks by me. I say out loud, “I know she was going to sit in front of me.” Adding, “Just kidding,” in case I might be offending someone, who knows who this person could be. Fortunately, she found a seat outside my sight line without incident, and the introductory remarks began.
There was a strange duality where I had to both learn what was being said, but also how to navigate the environment of a lecture as well. The interview proceeds within the social norms of a lecture. People are mostly quiet, clap and for the moderator runs the question and answer session. Afterwards, I line up to get Lessig to “sign” my virtual book at the virtual booksigning, as in my virtual public event. I finally stumble my way through the line, all the while asking many question on what I’m supposed to do. With my signed book in hand, I look at the sky, which is quite dark. I log out and return to the real world.