I recently came across a great article about (and interview with) Neal Stephenson, one of our most celebrated working science fiction authors. His 1992 novel Snow Crash remains a classic of the genre. But more remarkable is that people still study the novel for practical reasons—specifically, its depiction of a virtual reality universe that people disappear into for significant amounts of their lives.
In the novel, Stephenson coined the term “metaverse” for that world’s virtual-reality + internet + 3D virtual space universe. The novel appeared during the early-1990s, a high water mark for “virtual reality thrillers” in film and publishing. At the time, it felt like we were all on the cusp of diving into virtual reality worlds while wearing clunky headsets (or soon-to-arrive stylish glasses).
But it didn’t happen. The 90s went by, the 2000s zipped along, and most of the 2010s have disappeared. Yet here we are, STILL not spending huge portions of our day inside a virtual reality world.
The technical problems of virtual reality proved vastly more difficult than anticipated. Computing power wasn’t even close to what was needed, the rigs were terribly uncomfortable, and the VR experience often made the user sick (this is still a problem).
But the clock kept ticking, Moore’s law kept legislating, and we’ve arrived at a time when virtual reality is “back.” The article describes a new competition among Silicon Valley heavy hitters to create the best “metaverse.” It also details the dual avenues of virtual reality and augmented reality.
Enter Stephenson (again). Many of the prognosticators and engineers of these new VR visions are big fans of Snow Crash not only for the story but for its seemingly prescient view of what is now being engineered.
Stephenson nailed some specifics of the problems that VR worlds will have to address. Thus in 2014, the augmented-reality startup Magic Leap acquired him as their “chief futurist.”
“Chief Futurist” – now that’s a business card.
The fact that a 1992 sci-fi novel is still being studied for its prescient vision related to the internet and virtual reality is astonishing. Oddly enough, sci-fi writers don’t have a great track record with predicting the future, and prognosticating the internet has been a particular problem. For a sci-fi writer (including myself), Stephenson’s 25-year old accomplishment feels like a magic trick. Or a miracle.
Check out the article; it’s a great read and interview. It’s as much fun to see such a celebrated futurist talk about the things he didn’t predict as the ones he did.
So having read the novel, do I actually want to see any of his predictions come true? I do like the orderly nature of his metaverse. There are height restrictions so no one can go marching around with a mile-high avatar. Tuxedoed gorillas to escort you from any virtual space you cause trouble in. Both of these sound like solid policies (and I just want to see a gorilla in a tux).
But like most sci-fi novels that deal with a metaverse-like future reality, it’s not a particularly attractive future. It’s very, very difficult to imagine good outcomes from the disappearance of a significant portion of the population into false VR worlds.
But I DO very much want a smartwheel skateboard. Read Snow Crash, and you will too.