Sep 16, 2022 9:00 AM
Neal Stephenson Named the Metaverse. Now, He’s Building It
Hi, everybody. Elizabeth is mourned, Ukraine is battling back, and new Covid vaccines are here. But this week will be remembered for the Merge, making crypto more useful and maybe advancing it beyond the con-game era.
Neal Stephenson invented the metaverse. At least from an imagination standpoint. Though other science fiction writers had similar ideas—and the pioneers of VR were already building artificial worlds—Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash not only fleshed out the vision of escaping to a place where digital displaced the physical, it also gave it a name. That book cemented him as a major writer, and since then he’s had huge success. But late last year, Stephenson’s ambient, persistent and immersive alt-reality suddenly became known as the next step in computing. “Metaverse” became a buzz word, and Big Tech raced to productize it. Most notably, Facebook, spending billions on its Reality Labs, renamed itself Meta. Everyone from Microsoft to Amazon was suddenly coming up with a metaverse strategy, even though the technologies that might make it happen are still out of our grasp.
At the time, Stephenson was publicizing his most recent novel, with a theme involving climate engineering. “That turned into the ‘Neal, how do you feel about the Metaverse?’ book tour,” says Stephenson. The answers Stephenson provided to that question were a mix of bemusement or, as a WIRED writer noted, disgust. For one thing, the metaverse according to Snow Crash was a somewhat dystopian locale, a fact ignored by the companies telling us that it will be a great place to live. And seeing his fictional creation colonized by profit-seeking growth-greedy goliaths wasn’t fun.
But here’s a weird plot twist. Stephenson is now entering the marketplace with his own take on how his fictional concept might become a real-life make-believe world. He’s partnering with a crypto guy—Peter Vessenes, who heads the Bitcoin Foundation—to start Lamina1, a company hoping to create a scaffolding upon which creators can build an open metaverse.
“It’s like Neal is coming down out of the mountains like Gandalf, to restore the metaverse to an open, decentralized, and creative order,” says Rony Abovitz, the former CEO of Magic Leap, who is a strategic adviser to Lamina1.
Indeed, it appears that righteousness is the branding for this new venture. Vessenes acknowledges that there was initial suspicion that Stephenson was “Kardashian-ing,” jumping on a bandwagon that he serendipitously started. “That’s potentially the first question: Is Neal selling his brand out to some fucking metaverse company?” says Vessenes, who adds that given his own background as a Bitcoin evangelist, the second question was whether Lamina1 was a cash grab. “But when people talk to us they conclude this is a principled effort,” he says. “So then they ask, ‘Is this real? Are you actually going to try to do this?’” Indeed they are, and investors are buying in. “Reid Hoffman wanted to know if this company will work, even if VR goggles are not the future?” After Vessenes affirmed that it would, Hoffman wrote a personal check.
Whether or not the company works, Lamina1 has a compelling mission. The history of computing technology has had an annoying leitmotif of forcing users and developers to choose sides. MS-DOS or Apple. Windows or Mac. Apple or Android. In other cases, platforms have dominated entire product categories, stifling creativity and just plain usability by shutting out rival systems. Remember when Facebook pretty much smothered a plan for an open social platform by refusing to participate? If this were to happen with the Metaverse it would be a disaster. A company that ruled the metaverse would literally own the reality where we work, play, and buy stuff.
That’s what Lamina1 is attempting to avoid. Both Stephenson and Vessenes agree that ultimately there should be a single metaverse, just like there’s a single internet. But that metaverse should be sufficiently flexible to accommodate any number of different experiences and virtual realities. ”If there’s going to be an open source blockchain alternative for people who want to build metaverse stuff, what would that look like?” says Stephenson. “What characteristics would it have as a technology and a social organization?” These are the issues that Lamina1 professes to tackle.
This novelist’s participation in a tech company is not as drastic a pivot as one might think. Stephenson has always had an engineering outlook. People forget that in the very first paragraphs where he describes the metaverse in Snow Crash, he gets geeky on the details, describing how the headset’s lasers beam vectors of color to the eye, and how the experience is enhanced by what we now call spatial audio. For almost all of his writing life, he has split his creative time with fascinating part-time work, at the Blue Origin space company, the innovative IP gobbler Intellectual Ventures, and the augmented-reality pioneer Magic Leap.
Still, Lamina1 is something different for Stephenson—he’s a founder of a company that’s taking on some of the most powerful enterprises on earth. Vessenes says that Lamina1 has but three engineers on staff now, but will build to between 20 and 200 working on its blockchain, along with other specialists in immersive and spatial tech. But Meta alone has thousands. Of course Lamina1’s plan is to simply create the bottom layer of a metaverse. On top of that will come other layers, maybe even a Unity-like system that itself is a platform for games or other apps. All that work will come from countless outside developers directing their labors to the system.
Lamina1 has its own monetization scheme as well—something critical since it is funded by venture capital. The current plan is to pick up the considerable crumbs left behind as big organizations develop their products on the Lamina1’s open rails. “The economics are tied to adoption—the more people use it, the more valuable it is,” says Vessenes, who adds that its revenues might be similar to gas fees on the Ethereum blockchain, a steady flow that ultimately adds up to serious cash.
But none of this works unless developers ignore the lure of working with well-funded giants and sign up to a rebel effort devoted to an open metaverse. An effort cofounded by someone who has won credibility through thousands of pages of geeky glory. “I think Neal can bring moral and philosophical power to the story that money can't buy,” says Abovitz, who now heads a company called Sun and Thunder. “Is the world cynical? Or is the world idealistic? Are people wanting to be open and democratic and creative and working in peer-to-peer ways, or do they want everything fed to them? I’m like, let's grab our lightsabers and give it a shot!”
Yeah, the odds are long. But it’s a quest worthy of a Stephenson novel.
The only downside to Lamina1’s effort is that Stephenson isn’t writing a novel this year. For the rest of 2022, he will be concentrating on this entrepreneurial adventure, forgoing his usual morning routine of churning out pages of prose. “But my publisher will send a hit man after me if I don’t fulfill my obligations,” he says, “So when the calendar turns over to 2023, it’s going to be back to the usual.”
That’s a relief. Even in the metaverse, we’ll need something good to read.
I’ve written about Stephenson several times, including an in-depth profile in 2008. But the first time was a story for Newsweek in May 1999, upon the publication of Cryptonomicon, which remains my favorite book of his. Of course the fact that I was working on my own nonfiction book on cryptography might have had something to do with that.
When it comes to depicting the nerd mindset, no one tops Stephenson. His predecessors in the cyberpunk science-fiction movement (writers like William Gibson and Bruce Sterling) depicted hackers as moody James Deans in leather. Stephenson lays out the way they really think and act—awkward, chatty mensches whose insistence on logic makes them borderline nut cases. That, and his sense of the techno-future—an imaginative vision blasting off from the launching pad of scientific truth and Silicon Valley buzz—has made him compulsory reading in the high-tech world, the hacker Hemingway. "Everybody reads Neal Stephenson here," says Mike Paull, a manager in Microsoft's hardware division. "He's our inspiration."
Stephenson broke into print in 1984 with a little-noticed satire of mega-universities called The Big U. (Though he disavows it, his admirers don't: "I would eat a live iguana to have another copy," one fan writes on Amazon.com.) Then came Zodiac, a tale of eco-activism that won the hearts of tree huggers but didn't sell either. The breakthrough was Snow Crash, a manic depiction of a future dominated by virtual reality and speedy pizza delivery. The artificial world he created, the Metaverse, was quickly recognized by the cyberspace crowd as the most sensible depiction of Where It's All Going, given sufficient bandwidth and the proper business plan. Suddenly, Stephenson was the techie's darling.
Lauren asks, “What’s the best lettuce?”
Thanks for the question, Lauren. I know from your Twitter feed that you are a lifelong foe of arugula, calling it the worst lettuce. Which is wrong, because arugula is really good as a base for a simple salad. I hope you were chastened by the many mean replies you got to your tweet, some of whom spoke rhapsodically of arugula-enhanced sandwiches and even pizza toppings. (Don’t be like Elon Musk and say that these arugula defenders are bots—I sense they are speaking from the heart.)
Still, I wouldn’t call arugula the best lettuce. Some might think red-leaf lettuce, known as a healthy choice, would be best. Others actually prefer iceberg, which has little nutritional value but a kind of retro charm among those who love their martinis just so and order chunks of iceberg with blue cheese dressing in steakhouse restaurants that have caricatures of celebrities on the wall.
The best lettuce, though, is romaine. Sturdy. Tasty. Crunchy in sandwiches. In a salad it won’t overwhelm the other elements. And, surprise, of all lettuces it is the most nutritious. According to the Toronto Globe and Mail, which is Canadian and does not lie, “Compared to red leaf, green leaf, butterhead (Boston and bib types) and iceberg, [romaine] delivers more folate, potassium, beta carotene, and lutein.” It’s my personal go-to lettuce. Though arugula is a nice changeup.
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