How Neal Stephenson’s Sci-Fi Novel Snow Crash Invented the “Metaverse,” Which Facebook Now Plans to Build (1992)

What­ev­er the ben­e­fits and plea­sures of our cur­rent inter­net-enriched world, one must admit that it’s not quite as excit­ing as the set­ting of Snow Crash. Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in 1992, that nov­el not only made the name of its author Neal Stephen­son, it ele­vat­ed him to the sta­tus of a tech­no­log­i­cal Nos­tradamus. It did so, at least, among read­ers inter­est­ed in the inter­net and its poten­tial, which was much more of a niche sub­ject 29 years ago. Of the many inven­tions with which Stephen­son fur­nished Snow Crash’s then-futur­is­tic 21st-cen­tu­ry cyber­punk real­i­ty, few have cap­tured as many techie imag­i­na­tions as the “meta­verse,” an enor­mous vir­tu­al world inhab­it­ed by the avatars of its users.

“Lots of oth­er sci­ence fic­tion media includes meta­verse-like sys­tems,” writes The Verge’s Adi Robert­son, but “Stephenson’s book remains one of the most com­mon ref­er­ence points for meta­verse enthu­si­asts.” This holds espe­cial­ly true in Sil­i­con Val­ley, where, as Van­i­ty Fair’s Joan­na Robin­son puts it, “a host of engi­neers, entre­pre­neurs, futur­ists, and assort­ed com­put­er geeks (includ­ing Ama­zon C.E.O. Jeff Bezos) still revere Snow Crash as a remark­ably pre­scient vision of today’s tech land­scape.” It’s rumored that Face­book CEO Mark Zucker­berg will soon announce his com­pa­ny’s intent to change its name to one that bet­ter suits its own long-term plan: to tran­si­tion, as Zucker­berg him­self put it, “from peo­ple see­ing us as pri­mar­i­ly being a social media com­pa­ny to being a meta­verse com­pa­ny.”

Bold though this may sound, astute read­ers haven’t for­got­ten that Snow Crash is a dystopi­an nov­el. The meta­verse it presents “is an out­growth of Stephenson’s satir­i­cal cor­po­ra­tion-dom­i­nat­ed future Amer­i­ca,” writes Robin­son, “but it’s unde­ni­ably depict­ed as hav­ing a cool side.” After all, the nov­el­’s pro­tag­o­nist is “a mas­ter hack­er who gets in katana fights at a vir­tu­al night­club,” though his vir­tu­al exis­tence com­pen­sates for a grim­mer real-world lifestyle. “In the book, Hiro lives in a shab­by ship­ping con­tain­er,” Stephen­son says, “but when he goes to the Meta­verse, he’s a big deal and has access to super high-end real estate.” This may sound faint­ly rem­i­nis­cent of cer­tain online worlds already in exis­tence: Sec­ond Life, for exam­ple, whose hey­day came in the ear­ly 2010s.

Though pre­sum­ably more ambi­tious, Zucker­berg’s vision of the meta­verse remains, for the moment, broad­ly defined: it will con­sist, he’s said, of “a set of vir­tu­al spaces where you can cre­ate and explore with oth­er peo­ple who aren’t in the same phys­i­cal space as you.” But as The Verge’s Alex Heath notes in an arti­cle on Face­book’s impend­ing name change, the com­pa­ny “already has more than 10,000 employ­ees build­ing con­sumer hard­ware like AR glass­es” — glass­es, that is, for aug­ment­ed real­i­ty, the over­lay­ing dig­i­tal ele­ments onto the real world — “that Zucker­berg believes will even­tu­al­ly be as ubiq­ui­tous as smart­phones.” It’s not impos­si­ble that he could be lead­ing the way toward the thrilling, dan­ger­ous, and often hilar­i­ous vir­tu­al world Snow Crash held out to us — and in whose absence we’ve had to make do with Face­book.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Sto­ry of Habi­tat, the Very First Large-Scale Online Role-Play­ing Game (1986)

Tim­o­thy Leary Plans a Neu­ro­mancer Video Game, with Art by Kei­th Har­ing, Music by Devo & Cameos by David Byrne

William Gib­son, Father of Cyber­punk, Reads New Nov­el in Sec­ond Life

Sci-Fi Author J.G. Bal­lard Pre­dicts the Rise of Social Media (1977)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.