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How science fiction precedes science fact
By Jeff Norton
Some days, it feels like we’re all living in a science fiction novel, though more dystopian than utopian. Between a global pandemic, Russian saber-rattling on the Ukraine border, and climate change challenges, you’d be forgiven for despairing about the state of the world. And yet, there is more peace in the world than war, extreme poverty is on the wane in most parts of the planet, and we’ve made incredible progress against childhood mortality.
While we still don’t have the flying cars, time machines, and holographic movies that sci-fi has long offered us, it’s not to say the genre hasn’t delivered on some promises. The Star Trek communicators became the Motorola flip phone. The gentle hum of electric cars in are now selling like hot cakes in the form of Tesla and others.
Jules Verne-inspired space tourism is now a thing, video calls are de rigueur, and we all walk around with powerful computers in our pockets that connect to an infinite web of data and information — and yet we use this incredible computing power to play diverting games like Candy Crush and Wordle.
One subset of science fiction, virtual fiction, or what I like to call ViFi, is having its moment in the spotlight as the tech world leans into a future it believes will be dominated by the metaverse. While there is no one, unifying definition for what the metaverse actually is, the general consensus is that it will involve a more immersive version of the current internet, likely an enhanced digital reality that enables users to connect and communicate in a virtual space — William Gibson called it cyberspace — and perhaps using interface tools such as goggles or headsets to offer a more immersive experience than today’s flat-screen, 2D internet. The term itself was first coined by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel Snow Crash and popularized on the big screen adaptation of Ernst Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One.
I wrote my own ViFi novel, MetaWars, in 2010 after the Icelandic ash cloud grounded flights across Europe, inspiring a story-world where everyone interfaces digitally in a global metasphere using a brain-computer interface and is even able to upload their consciousness to the internet to achieve a type of digital immortality.
And while it’s easy to dismiss today’s hardware as clunky and uncomfortable — I still loathe headsets and get nauseous after about sixty seconds into any virtual reality experience — it’s notable that in a way, we’re already living in the bunny hill equivalent of the metaverse. Anyone who spends their days working from home, on what feels like non-stop Zoom meetings or Microsoft Teams sessions, is living a type of virtual reality. We each project a version of ourselves, a type of avatar, to present our digital selves in a constructed way. My personal metaverse high water mark was getting a good score on Room Rater, but no one ever sees the laundry hanging on the rack just out of view.
We’re all willingly living in the Matrix, eschewing parts of our real lives to give ourselves over to Big Tech’s tools of virtual interconnectivity. And it shows no sign of abating. Last week’s announcement of Microsoft’s takeover of Activision Blizzard was couched in terms of capitalizing on the metaverse. And last year, Facebook nailed their colors to the mast, rebranding themselves as Meta and declaring their intention to be a metaverse-first company.
All this was foretold in ViFi. Technology tends towards monopoly, or at least oligopoly, and the metaverse will likely not be different. The Pareto Principle applies here, in that there will be a few — or even one — big winners, and a lot of also-rans. Just look at search, mobile operating systems, social media, and virtual real estate micro-leasing to name a few verticals that are dominated by three or fewer players.
The great filmmaker David Cronenberg made an underappreciated film called eXistenZ, which portrayed a world dominated by a fully immersive computer game that required a bio-connection to play and two dominant companies fighting for the attention of the world’s gamers. I wonder if that’s the direction of travel for Microsoft. It’s not such a huge leap given that some ridiculous number of humans believe that Bill Gates has put microchips into vaccines. Maybe the next big game from Activision will require bio-connectivity — real life imitating Cronenberg’s art.
Of course, the virtual metaverse interacts with the real world in very concrete ways. The tap of an app can bring restaurant-quality food to your door in a matter of minutes. Calling an Uber sure feels like waiving a magic wand, summoning a chariot in the form a Toyota Prius. And the fact that I can snap a photo of my kids and share it instantly with their grandparents reminds me that when I was a boy — in what my children teasingly call the nineteen hundreds — sharing photos involved two trips to the drug store to drop off film and pick up prints. These daily parts of our modern lives would have read like science fiction just twenty years ago.
Twenty years from now, will we look back at various ViFi stories as the road map for the way we live? Or, will the metaverse be the flying car, more dream than reality?