Metaverse: When, Not If
It's hard for Second Lifers to ignore the influence of Neal Stephenson's vision of the future Internet when Linden Lab's execs reference it non-stop in the SL White Papers. (Which I can't seem to find online anymore. - Update: You can find Cory Linden's here.) I have heard plenty of debate on whether SL will become the Metaverse, or whether there will be a Metaverse at all, for that matter. However, for most of the people reading this 'blog, the Metaverse is a question of when, not if.
Something strikes me as very intriguing about the Metaverse of Snow Crash. Stephenson's vision from over a decade ago of V.R. and online communities is so very similar to what we have today. Sure, Stephenson had a lot of good source to pull ideas from. (Most notably, William Gibson's AI/cyberspace classic, Neuromancer) But unlike other attempts at describing a 3-D Internet, Stephenson nails the central use of the Metaverse on the head: Connecting not only with the rest of the world, but also the people in it.
Other books and movies fail to portray an Internet that is anything like that we experience nowadays through MMOs. Many describe a cyberspace much like our own current, flat Internet: impersonal, like a graphical interface to a Unix box. (Think Hackers.) Others break into the bounds of immersion, but fail to grasp the worldwide concept. (Lawnmower Man) In both cases, cyberspace is merely a nice V.R. GUI to servers. Some go further and grasp the online world aspect, but fail to think of it as anything past entertainment or limited use. (Killobyte, Virtuosity, Tron) They key idea that they all miss is one that Stephenson picks up in Snow Crash: that the whole world could interact in an immersive manner without the limitation of geography.
Self-fulfilling Prophesy, or Harbinger of the Inevitable?
Is Stephenson a visionary social designer? Is he a prophet? The line between the two isn't necessarily so clear, either. With the concept of a global, immersive, interactive Metaverse, we see it explode into mainstream media. (The Matrix, eXistenZ, Dark City, The Thirteenth Floor, Spy Kids 3-D). The theme is one we've been relearning since the atomic bomb exploded above Hiroshima: The world around us is controlled and can produce terrible atrocities of war and poverty. We're back to the two-millennia-old Platonic cave allegory, and it's the Internet - bloggers, newsgroups, non-capital-driven news of all kinds on a mass scale - that is finally capable to extinguish the fires of the puppet-masters and lead people out into the sunlight, for the first time ever in human history.
So the world is getting philosophically ready for its collective mind to be blown away by the Metaverse.
It's no surprise, then, that the main story plot is stopping a religious-userping nutso from brainwashing mankind and enslaving its technocracy. (Someone please remind me to, at some point, write a long entry just about the rich symbolism and iconography in Snow Crash!) The Metaverse is the medium that our hero uses to save the world. Second Life is a medium that we all can be using to achieve world peace.
Okay, I know this is the point where some of you are going to write me off as an idealist. Hang in there!
I had the pleasure of a conversation with Philip "Linden" Rosedale in September 2004. A delight in SL that he and I share is how people across the globe are connecting and doing such creative projects together. So where are the political boundaries in Second Life? Well, perhaps it's still limited; after all, most residents live in a fairly Westernized countries, all but a handful are English speaking. On top of that, creative people tend to respect each other, and SL is definitely a trove of creative talent. Maybe that's okay, though, because we geeks are the ones making all the technology that the world loves; the cool stuff we invent spreads through the population as fast as a catchy television commercial.
The Tech Required
We still have a way to go before we can make the Metaverse. I would say my short list of technical precursors to Second Life truly taking over the world:
- Cheap high-speed Internet available as widely as cell phones. By government and telecommunications projections, we should have 10mb/s up and download, wireless, by 2008. Landline / optical / cable speeds will be even higher.
- A few iterations of Moore's Law on computer CPUs to allow widespread availability of inexpensive computers that can handle complex, dynamically rendered online world content.
- Full WWW reverse-compatibility, including HTML, programming, plug-ins, and standards
- Fully distributed architecture that allows local data saving and hosting of simulators by non-Linden companies
Community is what Stephenson hit dead-on in his written illustration of the Metaverse. It wasn't just a place to get information or to entertain; the Metaverse to Stephenson is a place just as valid to interact with people as a real world meeting. There's something huge to be experienced.
Community is also the theme of the 1st Annual Second Life Community Convention. We're holding it in New York City, October 9, as well as in world for those who can't attend in the real world. Details here. Come build the Metaverse with us. :)