If talk of "The Metaverse" seems a bit obscure or confusing, it's helpful to compare it to a buzzy expression from ancient times (by which I mean the 1990s): The information superhighway.
Often touted by Wired magazine and celebrities (along with Vice President Al Gore) throughout the 90s, it was a common buzzword and late night punch line for years. But what did it actually mean? That was probably best illustrated by a series of AT&T ads from 1993 narrated by Tom Selleck.
Watch above! The eerie thing is that every "you will!" promised in these ads did indeed came to pass a decade or two later. We do in fact watch whatever movie we want instantly, have remote meetings from the beach, and so on. Ironically, most of these technologies were not actually developed by AT&T itself. (For me, I frankly just think of AT&T as my annoyingly expensive and slow Internet Service Provider.)
While it's not a perfect analogy, it's worth keeping in mind when thinking about the Metaverse — a topic I discussed with Neal Stephenson himself in Making a Metaverse That Matters:
In all my interviews with quite a few Gen Z metaverse platform creators, none of them have mentioned having read Snow Crash. Many only knew it by reputation. (Ready Player One is somewhat more known, but largely due to the Steven Spielberg adaptation.)
Asking them about Stephenson’s novel itself only elicited awkward pauses. I felt an embarrassing tug across the X to Z generational divide. Bringing up Snow Crash felt a bit like asking them if they had heard Nirvana’s Nevermind all the way through. How do you do, fellow metaverse kids?
For that matter, few of these metaverse platform creators even consider what they do to be “working in the Metaverse” per se, preferring instead to specify their platform of choice.
This strikes me as a positive milestone. In the 1990s, “the iInformation superhighway” was a pervasive metaphor to describe the Internet. Now that we are all hurtling on that digital autobahn all the time, the term is scarcely remembered (and certainly not needed).
In a similar way, Neal Stephenson’s own Metaverse plans paradoxically face a market where his ideas have already become so influential, inspiring so many massively popular platforms, his success as a business founder now competes with his success as a novelist.
And in another final twist, the long (long, long) awaited adaptation of Snow Crash finally going to the screen —– recently planned as an HBO series, but now in the hands of Paramount Studios.
When that does finally happen, as Neal Stephenson notes drolly, computing technology has become so advanced over the decades, it’s no longer even necessary to depict the Metaverse in Snow Crash with 3D graphics.
“[T]today if we were to watch a 1995 adaptation of Snow Crash, we would be immediately pulled out of the story by the obviously substandard graphics from 27 years ago,” as he puts it.
“[W]e’ve kind of reached the point where it’s not clear that you would even use computer graphics. I mean, you could film actors playing whatever role and just claim that they were photorealistic avatars.”
Or to put it another way: Neal Stephenson conceived of the Metaverse as something that might one day be as popular as television. For his own metaverse startup to stand the best chance to succeed, it might first need to be depicted on TV.
To put that yet another way: There's a very good chance "the Metaverse" also becomes, in 10-20 years, a term we only remember from history and literature — while all the features of the Metaverse are something many of use every day.
To judge by recent news, we may just call it Roblox.
But there's still some heavy competition there, fellow metaverse kids.