Into the Metaverse: a short history

SuperRare Editorial – Original publication SEPTEMBER 10, 2021  ART/EDITORIAL

Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal.

JEAN BAUDRILLARD

By Rowynn Dumont, Agora Gallery (NYC) & COOPH Magazine (Austria)

Simulation is not just the reflection of ourselves in the mirror anymore. We can see the development of an “expanding network of persistent, real-time rendered 3D worlds and simulations,” what is now known as “the Metaverse,” in real-time through technological evolution. But, from where did this idea originate? What is the history of the Metaverse?

The term was first coined in the book “Snow Crash” in 1992 by the author Neal Stephenson. In the novel, the Metaverse is a virtual topography where real estate can be bought and sold, and humans interact with avatars (originally a Hindu concept) and other software programs. 

Hiro, the main character in the book, is a pizza delivery driver and hacker who lives in squalor. When he plugs into the Metaverse, his physical surroundings disappear, and he is immersed in this digitized universe. Hiro owns property in this virtual realm and people have respect for him. In this altered state, one has the power to choose one’s own identity. You hold the power to change how others perceive you. Everything is a construct. Identity formation can be etched into your represented character within the realm of a Subjective becoming. One could relate this to the Lacanian “object of desire,” as that which is attainable within the reflection of ourselves through replicant duplication. In this way, the Metaverse generates the means to emulate our most wanted desires into a codified tokenization of digital civilization. Thus one’s identity in the Metaverse is a simulacrum within a Neo Nation-State. As Stephenson puts it, “You can look like a gorilla or a dragon or a giant talking penis.”

Outside of Stephenson, academics, philosophers, and pop culture icons have been skirting the territories of what is now commonly becoming accepted as a newly founded ‘ultra reality’ within the Metaverse. Particles of this can be seen in William Gibson’s short story, “Burning Chrome,” which was the first work to mention the concept of “cyberspace.” Gibson later develops this formerly abstract concept in his novel “Neuromancer:” 

Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts… A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters, and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…

Cyberspace is an all-encompassing network that connects digital technologies. Though cyberspace and the Metaverse are not the same thing, they exist in the same realm of possibilities. The “Matrix” films, a production of the Wachowskis and producer Joel Silver, was influenced by previous films like “Dark City,” “Lawnmower Man,” “Total Recall,” and the anime “Ghost in the Shell.” However, the philosophy behind the movie can be traced back to the French theorist, Jean Baudrillard. Baudrillard’s text so heavily formed the Wachowskis thinking that “Simulacra” is often spotted throughout the first film as a prop on set.

One can follow the Wachowskis’s line of thinking back to Plato’s famous Allegory of the Cave. A group of prisoners lived in this cave deep underground, their limbs and necks fixed into place by chains. It was very dark, and all they could see were the shadows of puppets playing against the wall. These shadows were all the prisoners knew. They did not realize that their reality was a simulation. One day, one of the prisoners broke free from his chains and went above ground. At first, he was blinded by the light from above. As his eyes slowly adjusted, he saw a whole new world of color and clarity. His perception was suddenly altered when he realized that everything he understood about the world up until that point was literally a stand-in for what was real.

In the beginning, there was web1

Technological change is an ongoing process. Nothing happens overnight. Take, the Industrial Revolution, which was a transitioning period between 1760 and 1840. It started in Britain and later moved throughout the rest of Europe and the United States. The Industrial Revolution (IR) was the incorporation of automation through apparatus. Before this period began, everything was handmade. IR introduced speed; it was the Age of the Machine.

Web3 and its relationship with the Metaverse can be seen in the progression of the web itself. Web1 was the network that laid the foundation for the development of a series of protocols, where one computer would be able to give a set of instructions to another. Multiple computers could connect and follow these steps, communicating with each other. It was this process that allowed one computer to share a document or program with another, thus forming the infrastructure of the Internet. Most users on web1 were passive, unable to generate their own content unless they could build their own websites.

What ushered forth web2 was the desire to do more with the internet than web1 allowed, namely, highlighting user-generated content and online c ommunities, and private companies were eager to fill the gaps. Big tech formed out of the need for more and more data, and ways to organize and retrieve that data, leading to the rapid expansion of Google and prominent Big Brother social media, like Facebook. The corporations behind this expedited the reality of actualizing human wish-fulfillment in that people could see themselves as active participants on the Internet, being an active participant in the development of its functionality.

The downside of this progress is that these companies have accomplished efficiency and ease through their private servers. That likens them to demi-gods who can collect and extract data while determining their own rules and regulations. Anything that is shared or posted using their platforms automatically becomes their property. They own the market and everything in it.

Web3 utilizes the decentralized nature of blockchain to provide an environment of anonymity. In this space, the individual retains the right of ownership and privacy over themselves and their assets. With blockchain, web3 creates the protocols, laying the landscape for a new set of standards and practices. Blockchain crosses boundaries and helps to initiate a sense of digital ownership and identity. It levels the playing field. And in doing so, it sets a precedent for the future of what will come.

The term ‘the Metaverse’ itself has been defined and redefined over and over again. One can say that Stephenson laid the foundations for our understanding of the Metaverse, but the idea of it is constantly evolving. Mathew Ball gives contemplation to the term in his blog, “Framework for the Metaverse.” He comes to this solid definition: 

The Metaverse is an extensive network of persistent, real-time rendered 3D worlds and simulations that support continuity of identity, objects, data, and entitlements, and can be experienced synchronously by an effectively unlimited number of users, each with an individual sense of presence.

What does the future hold for the Metaverse?

Ernst Cline wrote a book in 2011 called “Ready Player One,” and in 2018, Steven Spielberg converted the text into a film. The contemporary formation of what many Metaverse enthusiasts would envision as the platform’s future is reflected in this work of art. On the flip side of this, the tangible reality of the main character’s environment is not so unlike Stephenson’s character Hiro. His world is destitute and dystopian, dominated by technology. In these macrocosms, the gap between the rich and the poor is extreme, and we are beginning to see that in the real world of 2021. 

However, to quote Ball again:

“While these sorts of experiences are likely to be an aspect of the Metaverse, this conception is limited in the same way movies like Tron portrayed the Internet as a literal digital ‘information superhighway’ of bits. Just as it was hard to envision in 1982 what the Internet of 2020 would be — and harder still to communicate it to those who had never even ‘logged’ onto it at that time — we don’t really know how to describe the Metaverse.”

All of these artist-philosophers can agree that from their point of view, their works of art act as a defining warning or prediction upon what the future may hold. We must heed such a warning and take it into account. With that being said, in such a warning, there is opportunity. What is this opportunity, one may ask? The concept of the Metaverse and all that it can be represents a space of exploration and becoming. It allows humans to create a world from scratch that can be anything they want it to be. These works of art can be utilized as an outline for forging a philosophically well-constructed, open, and advanced way of thinking. One that lays out a level playing field for all. 

What the future of the Metaverse will look like, nobody exactly knows, but that is the beauty of it. It is up to each of us to help navigate that territory. 

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