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Facebook wants to own the ‘metaverse.’ Want a scare? Read the book that coined the phrase

Michael Lebowitz discusses the original meaning of the ‘metaverse’

Facebook has made yet more announcements related to its intention to become a metaverse company. Every time Facebook drops the ‘metaverse’ word, right after cringing, I think of Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson’s seminal 1992 science fiction epic (and one of my all-time favorite books), writes Big Spaceship’s Michael Lebowitz.

Stephenson coined the term metaverse to describe a fully-rendered virtual world that people could ‘jack into’ with varying degrees of fidelity depending on their money, computing power and/or coding chops. But that’s not always how people are using the term now, which is problematic.

More concerning is that the term is being pushed by Facebook – a company that might as well be vying for best real-world example of science fiction’s evil megacorporation trope (see Tyrell Corp, Cyberdyne Systems, the Soylent Company or Ready Player One’s Innovative Online Industries).

I am no more hostile to the potential of virtual worlds than I was to the web or mobile in their infancy; we live digitally-augmented lives every day. Whether it’s through Google Maps or Roblox, we already have a digital layer of our everyday lives. So why is the term spiking now? My guess is that we’re in the plot (or maybe backstory) of our own sci-fi episode.

If the power Mark Zuckerberg has consolidated to date had been accrued in a more familiar context, it would have been considered hugely troubling. But because it was ‘just the internet,’ we let the power accrue. If we allow that to happen again in our nascent virtual worlds, Facebook won’t just control which content we read and which photos we see (already deeply troubling), but also the rules of commerce, or even of physics itself.

His massive bet on dominating the future of our interactions with one another is more than a bit reminiscent of IOI chief exec Nolan Sorrento in Ready Player One – hell-bent on “controlling the future.”

We have seen this story play out many times over, both in our fiction and in our present-day lives. For a long time, the internet was considered by many to be a huge opportunity for the betterment of the world – for democratizing access to information and disintermediating old power structures. Its openness allowed communities to form that could reduce isolation and provide access like never before: open-source software and ventures such as Wikipedia, Kiva and Khan University thrived. All of that positive innovation was fueled by the internet’s openness, not an imposed order.

Brands already have innumerable ways of reaching people and earning their consideration and, ideally, their loyalty – so many, in fact, that it’s difficult to keep up with them all. Are your customers asking themselves, “Why isn’t this brand in my headset yet?” Does your customer actually have a headset? The answer to both questions is likely a resounding no.

Advertising budgets already funded a massive super-governmental organization that has been proven, time and again, to act against society’s best interests. We have a responsibility to prevent the same thing from happening again. So, I beseech you – don’t adopt the terminology of science fiction without learning the lessons it offers. It’s time to read the book.

Michael Lebowitz is founder and chief executive at Big Spaceship.

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