Neal Stephenson’s science-fiction writing has predicted (and inspired) innovations from cryptocurrency to Alexa. His breakthrough 1992 novel Snow Crash described a dystopian future of corporate city states, where a hacker underclass hides from reality in a virtual world known as the Metaverse. Several of the book’s concepts — including avatars, virtual-reality goggles, massively multiplayer online games and destructive computer viruses — are now part of our everyday experience.
From 1999 to 2006, Stephenson was an early employee at Jeff Bezos’s rocket venture, Blue Origin, and went on to join Magic Leap, a VR start-up that raised nearly $4bn. He has denied being Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonymous creator of Bitcoin.
Last year, Stephenson and crypto pioneer Peter Vessenes co-founded Lamina1, a company that uses blockchain technology to build an “open and expansive” metaverse along the lines the author envisaged 30 years earlier. This conversation with FT global technology correspondent Tim Bradshaw has been edited for length and clarity.
So many people are trying to lay claim to the concept you invented. What’s your preferred current definition of the metaverse?
There’s lots of people in it. You can interact with them in real time, no matter where they are. They’re represented by audiovisual bodies called avatars, and they’re having shared experiences that are fictional in nature. They’re in fictional spaces, doing fictional things.
It’s not all one unified walled garden. There are different bits of it that are created and maintained by different people and the central metaphor for going from one of those experiences to another is movement through a virtual space. So there’s a map and experiences have fixed locations on that map. You might teleport, you might move very quickly, but there’s always a sense that you’re in an agreed-upon specific location in a larger universe.
If that’s the definition I would contend that there isn’t a metaverse right now.
When we talk about the original conception [of the metaverse], we’re going back to the late 1980s. It was pre-Doom [the breakthrough 3D shooting game], which came out the year after Snow Crash (1992) was published. Doom accomplished things that I wouldn’t have thought possible for another 10 years. That ignited a whole industry. So where we are 30 years later is the games industry is the economic engine and the technological engine that obviously is going to be the foundation of any future metaverse.
Do people know they are tiptoeing into the metaverse when they are playing a video game?
I would guess most are just playing the game. I think people who spend a lot of time playing, especially multiplayer online games, are becoming accustomed to the idea of moving around in shared three-dimensional spaces. Which is clearly the most basic idea of the metaverse.
You recently co-founded a start-up called Lamina1 that uses blockchain technology to build a sort of foundational layer for the metaverse. What made you want to go beyond writing and defining this concept to actually building one?
I don’t have a big master plan for my life. I tend to take things as they come. In 2020, I left Magic Leap. I’d learnt a lot about game engines. I did additional work in the field of virtual production: how you could use game engine technology to bring stories to linear entertainment. So the ingredients were there. In late 2021, the whole metaverse thing exploded and an opportunity came my way to create some of the underlying machinery to help metaverse builders do their jobs in a way that I think is consistent with the vision in my book.
Epic Games built Fortnite and is now expanding its metaverse platform Unreal Engine. Why build the platform first?
Whatever I build, even if it’s incredibly successful, is going to be a small part of a larger metaverse, and that might not be successful. So to roll the dice on being able to create one experience in a reasonable amount of time would be the wrong way to go about it. A smarter approach is to create underlying infrastructure, which needs to be created anyway in my opinion, and then that should enable a lot of people to try to build things.
Once the platform gets going, then there’s value. To use your example of Epic, the value of Fortnite to Epic is more than just the revenue that the game brings in. It’s also a way that they can “dog food” their own technology [tech start-ups call testing their own product “eating your own dog food”] and show people what the technology is capable of in a way that might not be possible if they were doing everything through third-party, arm’s-length kinds of relationships.
Are you using this foundation to determine the rules of the road for the metaverse? Or is the principle of decentralisation that you just let everyone else worry about that?
I think that foundational layer is more about enabling and making things available than deciding how things ought to be. People can come along later and do that. There are a number of basic capabilities that I think the metaverse has to have on an engineering level that are a pretty good match with what blockchains are capable of. So a typical metaverse experience is going to involve being in a virtual space, it’s going to have avatars. The avatars are going to have hair, clothing, accessories. They’re going to be in a space that’s lit and textured and shaded and populated by trees, furniture, buildings, what have you.
It is possible to do all of that in a completely centralised way, where one designer makes every detail of that experience and that’s kind of what we have in games. But I think that to build a metaverse, we’re going to have a situation where people are moving freely from one environment to another, so it’s all going to get mixed up. My outfit, my magic sword and what have you, is going to travel with me from one environment to another. So suddenly, my code, my IP — which was ultimately created by a whole bunch of different designers and content creators who don’t even know each other — that is all travelling with me into various environments. To me, all of that smacks of a decentralised kind of network of interactions and financial transactions that puts me in mind of blockchain and other “DeFi” [decentralised finance] kinds of constructs.
How quickly do you anticipate this metaverse being something we all visit on a day-to-day basis?
There won’t be a metaverse that is used by millions of people until it contains experiences that millions of people find worth having, and making those experiences is quite difficult. The game I’ve played the most in the last year is Valheim, which started as an incredibly small group. However, they’ve synthesised a world: all kinds of intangible elements came together in a way that worked.
What is it about Valheim you like?
A lot is art direction. It’s a beautiful game. It’s got great music, great sound effects, a bit of a sense of humour. The aspect that appeals to me is that you’re completely alone in this world. Every time you launch a new game, it spins up, algorithmically, an entirely new, randomly generated world that is enormous. Unless you invite somebody in, you’re free to explore that world all you want and never have to interact with another human being.
Do we need a headset to experience the metaverse?
The reality is that millions experience 3D worlds through flat screens all the time, so of course, that’s going to be a big part of it and it should be. Having said that, I have no complaint about headsets. It’s going to be both.
The metaverse hype in Silicon Valley is currently taking a back seat to artificial intelligence.
It is nice to let AI have its moment in the sun, because it takes time. The hype cycle moves fast, but engineering doesn’t. Engineering takes time. If you’re trying to engineer at the same pace as the hype cycle, it won’t work. I think of AI in terms of supply and demand. We already have an abundant supply of images: every website is plastered with them. So the ability for everyone to make hundreds of new images and put them up on their social media feeds isn’t interesting to me. Scarcity drives quality and AI art is lacking in scarcity, so it tends to be lacking in quality.
So you’re not considering using ChatGPT as a co-pilot for writing your next novel?
My theory is that when we experience art — whether it’s a video game or a Da Vinci painting or a movie — we’re taking in a huge number of micro decisions that were made by the artists for particular reasons. In that way, we’re communing with those artists, and that is really important. Something generated by AI might seem comparable to something produced by a human, which is why people are so excited. But you’re not having that awareness of communing with the creator. Remove that and it’s hollow and uninteresting.
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