As a technologist, I have spent much of my career insisting that all of our technologies have histories and even pre-histories, and that those stories are messy, contested, and conflicted, with competing narratives.
How Improbable or Banal: Metaverse
“The defining quality of the metaverse will be a sense of presence—like you are right there with another person or in another place,” Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg wrote, envisioning a creation that will “reach a billion people, host hundreds of billions of dollars of digital commerce, and support jobs for millions of creators and developers. Microsoft, Intel, and Qualcomm, as well as a number of other large American technology companies, had all released plans for their own metaverses by the end of 2021. At CES in January, everyone seemed to have a metaverse angle, no matter how improbable or banal: haptic vests, including one with an air conditioner to create your own localised climate; avatar beauty makeovers; virtual delivery vans for your digital home.
As a social media platform with significant influence on our day-to-day lives, Meta (formerly Facebook) has been the subject of much debate. As a result, there has been a broader discussion about what the metaverse could or should look like in terms of its technical capabilities and user experiences as well as its business models, access, and regulation.
It’s easy to be swayed by stories that portray a technology as completely new
These are good topics for discussion. While it is tempting to jump right into the metaverse and speculate about who will create it, we would be remiss if we didn’t first consider where it comes from, both literally and conceptually. If it was ever invented, who was the brains behind it? It’s also worth noting that there have been numerous examples of previously constructed, imagined, augmented or virtual worlds. What can they tell us about the dangers and opportunities of enacting the metaverse now?
Stories that portray a technology as brand new or at the very least do not delve into its long and complicated history have a certain allure. When viewed in this light, the future is seen as a place where new ideas can emerge and old ones can be reinvented. But there is more to a storey than just a narrator’s backstory. In other words, they’re the skeletons, blueprints, and road maps of a world already mapped out. Better questions can be asked when one understands the history of a technology or the ideas it represents, as well as the mistakes that have been made and the lessons learned. The metaverse, which appears to be a new concept, is not.
So What is the Origin of the Metaverse?
If you’re looking for a simple and straightforward answer, Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, the 1992 science fiction novel about a computer-generated virtual world, is the most common one to give. As depicted in the book’s Los Angeles of 21st century, the world is messy, full of social inequities, sexism and racism, gated communities and surveillance, hypercapitalism, febrile megacorporations, and corrupt policing in the 21st century. The novel’s Metaverse is no exception, of course. Hypercapitalism and social injustice abound. There are some people who don’t make it there. To a large extent, the quality of the experience is determined by the equipment one has access to and the resources one can afford in terms of bandwidth, electricity, and computational power. Affluent individuals have the option of obtaining highly personalised digital renderings of their portraits. The “Brandy” and “Clint” packages are the only options for those who don’t have access to a professional artist. The fact that many people who read the book saw it as a critique of late-stage capitalism and techno-utopian utopianism rather than just cutting-edge science fiction should come as no surprise.
Many of Stephenson’s virtual world’s foundations, such as social networks and artificial intelligence, have come to fruition in the three decades since Snow Crash was published. And the metaverse, like other cyberpunk concepts, has resurfaced in the general public discourse. Free Guy and Ready Player One have both used it recently. As a result, it has shaped much of the digital landscape we now inhabit. As far as I know, the metaverse isn’t limited to Snow Crash and the current re-incarnation of it.
Metaverse Discussions Today Remind Me a Lot of Discussions
We had about Second Life nearly two decades ago, when Philip Rosedale’s Linden Lab launched the game in 2003. It’s clear to Rosedale how Snow Crash influenced him, and he doesn’t hold back. His thoughts on virtual worlds and their inhabitants were forever changed by a trip to Burning Man in the late 1990s. Users were to “create and own a 3D online world” in Second Life. It was a huge success, dominating news stories and conversations alike. It was a battle between corporations and brands to establish themselves in Second Life; we held conferences, concerts, and even church there. Millions of people flocked to the platform in the early 2000s and established their own lives there. They were studied by anthropologists and debated by policymakers and politicians. Real-world concerns about fiat currencies, money laundering, and prostitution quickly arose as the realities of a fully fledged virtual world collided with regulators and policymakers.
However, I believe that we can learn from even more ancient histories. The time before the advent of Virtual Reality. Before the advent of virtual and augmented reality. When there was no internet or the web Before the advent of personal computers and mobile phones. Before television, radio, and movies, there was no such thing as the Internet. An enormous iron and glass building appeared in London’s Hyde Park before any of that. On display in the summer of 1851 was what was to come.
A hidden steam engine powered arc lights, hydraulic presses, a prototype fax machine, mechanical birds in artificial trees, a submarine, guns, the first life-size and lifelike sculptures of dinosaurs, Goodyear’s vulcanised rubber, Matthew Brady’s daguerreotypes, even Britain’s first flushing public toilets. Over 92,000 square metres of gleaming glass enclosures, there were three stories’ worth of alcoves with red bunting and signs proclaiming each display’s country of origin. One satirical magazine dubbed it “the Crystal Palace.”
Almost anyone could immerse themselves in this world of the future, be educated, challenged, inspired, titillated, or provoked in some way.
As the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations was formally known, Prince Albert of Queen Victoria’s beloved consort was the driving force behind the event’s conception. From around the globe, more than 100,000 artefacts will be on display. At least 30 times a year, the queen would attend. “It is my anxious desire to promote among nations the cultivation of all those arts that are fostered by peace and which in their turn contribute to maintain the peace of the world,” she stated in her opening speech. While Britain’s imperial era may have been coming to an end, the Great Exhibition served as a platform for the country to show its strength and lay out a vision for the future. The future would be a modern, industrial one, even if colonies were needed all over the world to make it happen.
There were plenty of expositions and displays in London already, so it was no surprise that people were drawn to them. Babbage was a fan of Merlin’s Mechanical Museum, which featured a large number of automata. The Holy Land and Paris were popular subjects for other dioramas. The Great Exhibition was unique because of its size and the power of the empire that backed it up. To put it another way, it was a whole world dedicated to the future: a world in which almost anyone could be immersed, educated and challenged as well as entertained or provoked in the most creative ways imaginable. It wasn’t a collection of smaller pieces; rather, it was one massive statement that couldn’t be ignored.
Many people panned the Great Exhibition when it first opened. Some were concerned about the Hyde Park elm trees, which had been encased in the enormous building. Others were concerned about the glass’s tensile strength. Many journalists mocked the scandal for months, with one calling it “one of the greatest humbugs, frauds, and absurdities ever known.” The Great Exhibition was seen as a publicity stunt by some in Parliament, who argued that Prince Albert’s motives were tainted by his status as a foreign prince and his desire to encourage and possibly conceal the rise of immigration to Britain. Others argued that the Great Exhibition would attract pickpockets, prostitutes, and spies, and called for the deployment of 1,000 additional police officers.
Many people from all over the country came to the massive glass house, taking advantage of the country’s rapidly expanding rail network. The dire warnings were overblown. The organisers set the entry fee at a shilling, making it affordable for the British working class. That summer, the phrase “See the world for $1.00” became a common refrain.
Crystal Palace Dodgson Experienced
The Crystal Palace hosted a surprising number of members of the era’s literary and scientific communities. Charles Dickens, Charles Dodgson (who would later become Lewis Carroll), Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Michael Faraday, Samuel Colt, Charlotte Bront, Charles Babbage, and George Eliot are among the notable names on this list. As a result of his time there, Dickens’ most recent biographer claims that all of his subsequent work was shaped by his experiences there: It appears that “only magic could have gathered this mass of wealth from all ends of the earth—as if none but supernatural hands could have arranged it thus, with such a blaze and contrast of colours and marvellous power of effect,” wrote Bront. At the Crystal Palace, Dodgson experienced one of these epiphanies. According to what he wrote, “the first impression is one of bewilderment when you enter.” It has the appearance of a “fairyland” to me.
Land in South Kensington
The Great Exhibition came to an end on October 15th, 1851, with a bang. A total of over 6 million people are estimated to have visited the Crystal Palace during its five-and-a-half month run (at the time, the total population of Britain was only 24 million). The Great Exhibition made a tidy profit of £186,437 during its brief stay in Hyde Park (approximately $35 million today). It was used to acquire land in South Kensington, which was later developed into the current museum district of London. Another portion was used to fund a trust that continues to award scholarships to deserving students pursuing careers in science. During the winter of 1851, the Crystal Palace was dismantled and transported to a new location, where it remained until a devastating fire in 1936 reduced it to an iron skeleton. If you’d like to take a virtual tour of the Great Exhibition, the Royal Parks website has a link to it.
Chicago World’s Fair
More than a century of world’s fairs began with the Great Exhibition, creating places of spectacle and wonder that influenced the rest of the world. For example, the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, also known as the Chicago World’s Fair, featured more than 200 purpose-built structures, whitewashed and gleaming and showcasing technologies such as an entirely electrical kitchen with dishwasher, an electric chicken incubator, a seismograph and Thomas Edison’s kinetoscope, as well as searchlight generators and Morse code telegraphy. In less than six months, more than a quarter of Americans would be at the World’s Fair.