In 2021 when Mark Zuckerberg launched his multibillion-dollar initiative to develop “the metaverse,” a term and concept gleaned from Neal Stephenson’s kinetic cyberpunk classic Snow Crash, the venture capitalist Matthew Ball explained the idea as “the successor state to the mobile internet.” Accompanying Meta’s roll-out was an 81-minute-long video in which Zuckerberg appears in his tech-bro uniform of long-sleeve T-shirt and spray-on hair, piloting a chunky avatar through a series of poorly rendered 3D environments while describing a vision of revolutionary experiences and collective creativity. “The metaverse will be built by everyone,” the company’s website enthuses.
Lost in the vast commentary about the technical and adoptive challenges faced by architects of this brave new world is what seems to me a more urgent issue—the use of the word “the” with metaverse. By implication “the metaverse” is a unitary environment, a space of being in which we will all somehow be bonded together. As the Wikipedia definition notes “in science fiction, the ‘metaverse’ is a hypothetical iteration of the Internet as a single, universal, and immersive virtual world.”
Such unitary-ness was a central feature of Stephenson’s “metaverse,” which appears to its users as an urban environment organized along a 100-meter-wide road called the Street, wrapped around the 65,000 kilometer circumference of a perfectly spherical, featureless planet, whose virtual “real estate” is owned and sold by the nefarious Global Multimedia Protocol Group. Under this regime of what I call hyperspatial-capitalism, all of space, by dint of its manufactured ontology, belongs to its overlord creators who sell off portions to the highest bidders. We witness here the erasure of any kind of wilderness or any form of commons, and thus the negation of the very idea of communal property.
Stephenson is often applauded for his harrowing depictions of social chaos in anarcho-capitalistic dystopias, and some critics have even suggested that Snow Crash is a parody of cyberpunk. I’ve never been quite sure what to make of his attitude to his most famous creation, though I like to think he intended an element of mockery in the geometric sterility underlying his world. As a coder, Stephenson must be well-acquainted with the obsessive-compulsive tendencies in computer-nerd psychology, and at the time of Meta’s launch he sent out a sly taunting tweet. He originally imagined Snow Crash as a computer-generated graphic novel (in collaboration with the artist Tony Sheeder), and has stated that he spent more time coding bespoke image-processing software than writing the text.
Yet if Stephenson’s view of his creation seems open to multiple interpretations, the same cannot be said for Zuckerberg, who’s zeal for a unitary, corporate controlled digital space risibly echoes that of the Global Multimedia Protocol Group.
Meta’s “metaverse”—always prefaced in Zuck-speak by “the”—is an attempt to reify the concept of virtual space into a blockworld as stolid and homogeneous as it is artistically deadening. Twenty-five years ago when I wrote about the emergence of digital spaces in The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internet, I chose to use the alternative term “cyberspace” precisely because it couldn’t be prefaced by the definite article. I argued for the term William Gibson popularized as a more open-ended flexible designation hinting at newly possible multiplicities.
I drew a parallel with the invention of perspectival representation, which enabled artists of the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries to draw viewers into virtual worlds, “beyond” the picture plane. Both perspectival representation and contemporary VR use the same mathematical techniques—though VR has the addition of motion and near-instantaneous rendering—and perspective painting can be characterized as a kind of early modern virtual reality.
Roger Bacon, a thirteenth century Franciscan monk and pioneering champion of mathematical science, referred to this newly emerging representational technology as “geometric figuring” and argued that painters ought to adopt the style in order to serve as Christian evangelists by giving viewers a visceral experience of seeing Christ and the saints in front of them.
When we look at at a Piero della Francesca or a Raphael, both leading figures in the development of perspectival “realism,” we feel ourselves propelled into an imagined world which geometrically coheres as a unified spatial scheme. But we do not imagine all perspectival images conglomerating in one unitary space or aesthetic schema. Applying, adapting, and evolving “rules” of perspective, Giotto, Uccello, Mantegna, Dürer, and other great perspectival masters created unique virtual worlds whose perceptual power still draws in millions of viewers today.
Now, as technologies of representation evolve further to make possible real-time rendering of 3D spaces synchronous with our bodily movements and gaze, artists again have the potential to conceive new kinds of virtual experiences and hitherto un-dreamed of virtual worlds. Might we be entering a digital Renaissance? If so, we will need to resist not only forces of monopolistic corporate control but monistic models of digital space itself.