The Metaverse in Fiction: In 1992, the dark obsession of the “virtual samurai”

What do Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Jack Dorsey and Sergey Brin have in common? They have all founded some of the biggest companies in technology. But they all also read “Snow Crash” (“The Virtual Samurai” in the French version) by American novelist Neil Stephenson.

In this cult novel from 1992, the inhabitants of a bleak mafia-dominated world connect to a virtual space of complete freedom to escape a fragmented society plagued by corruption. Neil Stephenson will find a word to describe this simulation that you connect with a virtual reality headset: “Metavers. This is the first time the term has been used.

Thirty years later, subsequent reading of the novel is delicious. Because this metaverse is about to become a reality. At the end of 2021, Mark Zuckerberg with great fanfare announced the launch of his own virtual universe and renamed his group “Meta”. Avatars, 3D meetings, multiplayer games … For the head of Facebook, this is nothing more and nothing less than the “future of the Internet”. Google, Amazon and Microsoft entered the race in their own way.

Classic cyberpunk game

“Snow Crash” enters the structure of the main business of science fiction, and it offers an amazing story. In a miserable America devoid of a central government, Hiro Protagonist, a genius hacker turned pizza delivery mafia man, seeks to understand the origin of “Snow Crash”. This virus, sold under the coat as heroin, harms the avatar of netizens in the metaverse and in fact de-identifies them by inflicting brain damage on them.

The novel is a classic of the cyberpunk genre, a literary movement that was born in 1984 with the publication of William Gibson’s Neuromancer. Prosthetics, implants and micro-devices: Cyberpunk characters manipulate technological devices to escape unattractive reality.

“Cyberpunk coincides with the emergence of neoliberalism,” explains Mark Atallah, a professor at the University of Lausanne and director of the Maison d’Ailleurs, a museum dedicated to science fiction. The state withdraws and the market takes over. What place for humans in this society? The individual is isolated and becomes, in a way, a commodity. In this context, individuals seek, through technology, to leave their bodies to free themselves. Oftentimes, they become more and more averse. »

liberation and alienation

This technological oscillation between liberation and alienation, or to paraphrase the philosopher Bernhard Steigler, between cure and poison, is at the heart of the cyberpunk theme. The metaverse described by Stephenson is no exception to this rule.

Hiro, the broken pizza delivery hacker, lives in a shipping container. The metaverse offers him an escape. He had a great stay there. He can also practice the art in which he excels most: sword fighting. Bars, concerts … The entertainment possibilities in Metaverse are endless.

“The metaverse is the promise of an escape from human isolation in the postmodern era. But this is an illusion. “Technology is a loneliness-promoting machine,” says Mark Atallah. Moreover, Stevenson’s metaverse falls into the hands of a powerful corporation owned by an enlightened magnate. Which spreads the virus called “Snow Crash” into metaviruses and real life in order to enslave souls. “By moving our minds into the metaverse, we become highly vulnerable to errors and interference,” the researcher disassembles.

Unpublished description of metavirus

If he invented the word “metaverse,” Neil Stephenson wouldn’t be the first science fiction author to mention virtualization. In “Do Androids Dream of an Electric Sheep?” (1968), Philip K. Dick actually imagined a machine that would allow to live in the world of the character in a virtual way.

But experts point out that the description of these virtual worlds has so far remained relatively abstract. “The great novelty of the ‘virtual samurai’ lies in the discovery in this manner of metaverses less accurately that Stevenson spins the possibilities offered by metaverses,” comments Ariel Kerro, essayist and science fiction specialist. Microcomputers, VR glasses, connectivity Wireless Internet … Stevenson sensed technological innovations when the Internet was still in its infancy.Mark Atallah asserts that “the idea of ​​metaverbs is not new, but the fact of its technologicalization is new.”

Technology addiction

Stevenson also describes how the technology has become portable. Some humans, nicknamed “gargoyles,” are completely addicted to the metaverse and are permanently inundated with miniature units placed on the waist, back and head. “Cyberpunk expresses the idea that technology has become intimate, that it is interfering with our daily lives,” explains Ariel Kerro.

Cyberpunk demonstrates an “almost organic dependence on technology,” and supports Mark Atallah, who sees the metaverse not as a utopia but a place for exercising power: “Stevenson aligns with Deleuze and Foucault, for whom technology is a manifestation of power exercised on a more intimate scale than any other time ago. “

“Snow Crash” vs. Meta

If the metaverse isn’t what geeks are up to at the time, a 2022 reader can discover a startling match between the metaverse described by Stephenson and those developed by Meta and its competitors. The land is divided into plots, and the wealthy can afford to buy the best spots. An echo of the current rush of companies towards virtual real estate offered by current scales such as The Sandbox or Decentraland, at prices sometimes reaching several million euros.

In Snow Crash, developers can program buildings, create new activities, and immerse themselves in their lesser vices. We’re far from the professional meetings and soothing mini-games that Meta has to offer.

The invisible hand of the market

Erin Langlet, professor of contemporary literature at Gustave Eiffel University, notes that “there is something libertarian in the metaverse of ‘Snow Crash'”. “It is tempting to see in it a utopia of the commons. But it is more appropriate to see in it the invisible hand of the market, that is, the self-regulation and self-regulation of people among themselves,” adds the researcher, comparing the work of Stevenson’s Metaverse with Wikipedia: “In both cases, the liberal owner provides a structure An infrastructure so that Internet users can develop freely in the same digital space. The bet, of course, is on self-discipline.”

If Stephenson does not explicitly claim to be a liberal, his books are regularly cited by important figures in libertarianism. As for Jimmy Wales, the founder of the online encyclopedia, he is a convinced liberal.

“If we want the metaverse to survive, we must give this freedom to users. However, I don’t see Mark Zuckerberg letting life enter his plan, which is purely marketing,” notes Ariel Kerro. By the way, Neil Stephenson flatly refused That we identify his metaphors with those of Mark Zuckerberg. “Meetings we attend as avatars, board games we play remotely… it’s all old-fashioned,” he quipped a few weeks after the meta was announced. “Online games have been around for a long time. I don’t see anything new.” In fact, games like “Second Life” have introduced virtual spaces since 2003 where you interact using avatars.

The novelist is also highly critical of Quffam’s economic model of offering free services to Internet users in exchange for their data being stolen. “If GM opens a factory and asks people to come and work for free, no one will take the proposal seriously. However, that’s what happens with social networks. We need unions, because we are all workers in their factories,” he pleaded with the “New York Times” in last December.

‘Capitalist version of fiction’

For Gafams, the temptation is big to plunge into the metaverse. The potential fall from the metaverse is staggering. In predictions some might call fanciful, Citibank has estimated that by 2030 the industry will be worth $13 trillion and have 5 billion users, or 60% of the world’s population.

The information has not escaped the tech giants who are already eyeing the massive amount of data they will be able to collect using the metaverse. Some sci-fi pundits, more to the left, see Gafam’s proposed Metaverse as an extension of tech capitalism on an ever more intimate scale. “The promise of metaphysics is to strip oneself from reality and live another life. Moreover, this is the principle of imagination. But unlike so-called “classical” fiction, the true meaning covers the economic dimension. As such, the metaverse constitutes a capitalist version of fantasy” , analyzes Mark Atala.

At the same time, the Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated the prevalence of conspiracy theories on social networks. Just like ‘Snow Crash’ goes through the brains. The prospect of seeing Meta dominate the market and absorb a massive amount of data causes Democratic US Congressman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to describe Metaverse as “a cancerous tumor for democracy”.

Stevenson’s paradox

Despite its critical vision of digital capitalism, Snow Crash has over the years become a bible for American tech tycoons, who say they draw inspiration from it. “The novel advances ten years ago and I was able to anticipate what was to come,” said Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google. Avi Bar-Zeev, the creator of Google Earth, explained that he was inspired by Stevenson’s ideas. On Facebook, reading a book was a mandatory time during some seminars. Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter, is also an avid reader of Stevenson, who has built a reputation as an educator in Silicon Valley. With his shaven head and small beard worthy of James Bond movie villains, the novelist loves to keep this image.

This contradiction is also found in the person of Neil Stephenson himself. The 62-year-old writer has been involved in the technology sector, providing dystopian insight into his novels. In the early 2000s, he worked for seven years as a consultant for Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ airline. The two men’s paths will cross again in 2010 with Stevenson’s launch of Subutai Corporation, a company in which Bezos will become a partner. In 2014, Stevenson joined Magic Leap, a company that specializes in virtual reality. He held the position of “Future Chief”, literally “Future Master”.

Between science fiction fiction and digital innovations, “Porosity is strong,” Ariel Kerro recalls. However, with one important difference: “Where digital marketing perceives only its increases in positive status, (…) the words of novelists and novelists sow the contradiction of their discoveries,” he wrote in “L’augmented human” (Editions de l’Aube, 2022) .

Metaverse author and entrepreneur

30 years after writing “The Virtual Samurai” and coining the word “metaverse,” Stevenson is now working on developing his own metaverse. Together with Peter Vessenes, the co-founder of the Bitcoin Foundation, he recently launched a startup, Lamina1, that aims to build an “open metaverse.” This means that it is an open source and decentralized application based on blockchain technology. Reed Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, invested in the project.

It’s an opportunity for the writer to “turn some 30-year-old ideas into reality and some others that I couldn’t think of at the time,” he recently told The Washington Post. Some of the activities created by the author will take place in the world of “Virtual Samurai”. In doing so, Neil Stevenson makes his imagination a reality. For better or for worse?

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