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Cyberspace vs. The MetaVerse
What cyberpunk trope will win in the long run?
Two defining books of the cyberpunk genre have differing interpretations of how data, networks, and people all combine in the future. William Gibson would develop the Cyberspace concept in 1982, while Neal Stephenson would describe a different intersection of humans and data in 1992 with Snow Crash - the MetaVerse. With the world currently hurtling towards a massively interconnected network with petabytes of data at our fingers, it is important to understand the origins of these terms to prepare for the future and let our imaginations join the ride.
While previously used in an artistic and architectural parlance, Gibson would put pen to paper and created the imaginary world for us to believe in before computer networking, security, hacking, and data visualization were ever thought about. He coined the more colloquial definition of Cyberspace in Fiction first in his short stories in 1982, and in a longer form classic Neuromancer (1984). Gibson portrayed it in it’s most basic description as:
The matrix has its roots in primitive arcade games…in early graphics programs and military experimentation with cranial jacks. Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts…A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the non-space of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…
His take on Cyberspace was more artistically driven, a collage of beautiful bright lights and colors beamed directly into one’s brain. Cyberspace was infinite in space to the human mind, overloaded with information from everyone, and massively interconnected.
There is no real manifestation of the user unlike an Avatar as in Snow Crash, you are an entity in the space and you are aware of such (via some brain interpretation), but you also can travel anywhere at anytime since there isn’t actually space (aka non-space as above). You are just viewing interconnected data, so any representation of space is purely for the mind to understand.
Cyberspace was experienced through “cranial jacks”, more specifically “dermatrodes”, electrical connectors that attach directly to the forehead and interface with the brain.
All the information from Cyberspace streams directly into one’s brain, becoming a direct link out of reality and into another world, a fusion of man and data. What is interesting is the artistic abstractions of data, 1s and 0s, into organized and flowing, living, representations.
His program has reached the fifth gate. He watched as his icebreaker strobed and shifted in front of him, only faintly aware of his hands playing across his deck, making minor adjustments. Translucent planes of color shuffled like a trick deck… The gate blurred past…He was inside.
Gibson took the world of digital data and used the human analogue visualizations to comprehend this brand new world. Files, computers, security systems, printers could all be interacted with. An entire corporations’ building would be virtualized and mapped out on the network for one to examine and interact with.
Not unlike a computer networking diagram as shown above, but also revolutionary in the time period of 1984 where ARPANET, the Internet’s precursor, was still a growing collection of computers across the nation with only simple file and email access available. To have peripherals connected and accessible (and hackable) was an incredible foresight into modern times, though I don’t think he foresaw how evil network printing would become.
The Internet of Things was an industry push to network everything via small computers, but in many ways has backfired with massive security issues as Gibson predicted, with countless botnets coming online that allowed for DDOS capabilities from consumer devices. These low security, highly available devices suddenly became a hacker’s tool to inflict damage across the internet. Gibson even went as far as to understand the concepts of air gapping, having resources off the network to make them unavailable for hackers to control1.
Gibson’s more imaginative approach to Cyberspace paid off in modern media. The famous green scrolling data of The Matrix is a clear reference to the abstract data representation shown in Neuromancer. Video games such as Cyberpunk 2077 have implemented their creative take digital realm of cyberspace. “Jacking in” was directly taken from the book and is now common description for people who spend all their time on computers. While Gibson’s approach may be too far fetched and too far away, the melding of digital data and the human brain is a concept that Elon Musk’s Neuralink wants to study further. What is more imminently likely, and already starting to become a reality is the Metaverse in Snow Crash.
It is rare to create a parody within a genre and yet manage to move the medium forward in ground breaking ways. While Neuromancer was a dark and gripping tale of a bleak cyber future, Stephenson’s Snow Crash opens with a high octane… pizza delivery scene. Oh yea and the main character’s name is Hiro Protagonist.
Jokes aside, Neal Stephenson has always been a forward looking author and Snow Crash contains a profound list of achievements:
He also has commentary on government hyperinflation, digital wallets (hyper cards), government ineptitude, and robot doggos. We could spend all evening discussing these, but we are going focus on Stephenson's MetaVerse, a term self coined and recently exploded in use thanks to the Web3 movement.
Compared to Neuromancer, The Metaverse has a oddly familiar setup to interface with:
The lens can see half of the universe—the half that is above the computer, which includes most of Hiro. In this way, it can generally keep track of where Hiro is and what direction he's looking in.
Down inside the computer are three lasers—a red one, a green one, and a blue one. They are powerful enough to make a bright light but not powerful enough to burn through the back of your eyeball and broil your brain, fry your frontals, lase your lobes...
In this way, a narrow beam of any color can be shot out of the innards of the computer, up through that fisheye lens, in any direction. Through the use of electronic mirrors inside the computer, this beam is made to sweep back and forth across the lenses of Hiro's goggles, in much the same way as the electron beam in a television paints the inner surface of the eponymous Tube. The resulting image hangs in space in front of Hiro's view of Reality.
By drawing a slightly different image in front of each eye, the image can be made three-dimensional. By changing the image seventy-two times a second, it can be made to move. By drawing the moving three-dimensional image at a resolution of 2K pixels on a side, it can be as sharp as the eye can perceive, and by pumping stereo digital sound through the little earphones, the moving 3-D pictures can have a perfectly realistic soundtrack.
So Hiro's not actually here at all. He's in a computer-generated universe that his computer is drawing onto his goggles and pumping into his earphones.
Keep in mind this is 1991 and Stephenson just described the entire Virtual Reality Apparatus as if he was Palmer Luckey himself. 2K resolution, VR goggles, location awareness and tracking, 3d graphic generation all connected through a portable, networked computer to a shared universe with noise canceling, stereo audio.
Some of this actually isn’t anything new, as the first VR unit was made in 1979 in the LEEP system. But for the author to combine the growing technology and conceive the fully fledged MetaVerse together was incredible synthesis in an era of slow internet (300 bits per second, or 0.0003 Mb/s), and low resolution (~240p as in 91’s Super Nintendo). There are VR video game centers today that offer the same experience detailed in the exact same style in the book, nearly 30 years apart.
Further on Protagonist enters the MetaVerse he gives us a first hand description of the audio visual experience and design of the world:
The only difference is that since the Street does not really exist—it's just a computer-graphics protocol written down on a piece of paper somewhere—none of these things is being physically built. They are, rather, pieces of software, made available to the public over the world-wide fiber-optics network. When Hiro goes into the Metaverse and looks down the Street and sees buildings and electric signs stretching off into the darkness, disappearing over the curve of the globe, he is actually staring at the graphic representations—the user interfaces— of a myriad different pieces of software that have been engineered by major corporations.
Right away we have some stark differences to Cyberspace. The previous is a free for all fire hose of data and information, represented in a mirage of colors and shapes continuously moving and adjusting to the beat of information, the MetaVerse is plainly stated as a piece of software that is just a graphics protocol, in short a video game engine rendering data structures saved as the buildings and street shown to the user.
Hiro, a software developer, continues in precise fashion, describing the exact length of the Street, 65536 kilometers (2^16), how the 256 (2^8) express ports (where people load into the MetaVerse ) are split evenly across the globe, with a further subdivision of 256 local ports. You’ll note that the numbers are binary driven, just like programs in real life. This among many other things hammers home the “reality” of the MetaVerse ; it is a program written in real world constraints by software developers. It is not a magical intersection of data and people, it took time, effort, and engineering prowess to build such a program.
Neal’s vision of the MetaVerse most closely resembles today’s feeble attempts of creation. Current iterations already have been tried in non blockchain implementations, mostly through the video game world. Second Life, RuneScape, World of Warcraft, and Neverwinter Nights all successfully established a shared virtual world with which you could interact with anonymous people and live your online life. But those worlds were all centralized and controlled by corporations for their benefit. Vitalik himself said this was one of his major reasons for creating Ethereum. With the development of the blockchain and web3 integrations now commonplace, the MetaVerse was now inevitable as users can truly own their property securely without outside interference. The “Second Life” now had a database and rigorous security system to go with the experience.
The Worst of Both Worlds
While we currently have scattered implementations of what he MetaVerse is going to look like. Network Effects tend to result in small number of “winners” within a domain and therefore establish monopolies. I do think that the one single MetaVerse to rule them all is a folly for the short and medium term. Ethereum can power these new experiences, but beyond the base layer protocol, there is no standardized approach right now beyond it and users are free to hop between implementations. Facebook’s implementation seems to be rocky, and the plucky upstarts are building but have a long road ahead of them. What is most likely is an eventual interoperable unification of the ‘Verses, akin to differing planets within the Galaxy (Hey, maybe Urbit was correct all along!)
The only way either CyberSpace or MetaVerse take hold is when they offer something greater than what currently exists. CyberSpace offers infinite experiences in the alternate world, billions of data points streaming in with the Brain’s true potential being unlocked, aka God Brain mode. Can the melding of machine and men truly take hold as the decades roll on with our technological progress? Separately, the MetaVerse needs to offer a living experience greater than the normal human’s one. If you live in a first world country it may be a long time before adoption, but third world countries may pick up the mantle faster if the tech becomes cheap enough (think Ready Player One). Of course it is most likely that neither of these really take hold, and the third unexpected option takes place. When things seem so obvious in the future the opposite can actually happen instead.
Regardless, read both books and understand why these two that were published over 30+ years ago predicted so many future topics so well. An eye on the future is critical for adapting to the wild times we live in.
Stuxnet is the story of the USA and Israel creating a computer worm to specifically destroy Iran’s Uranium refinement program. The targeted computers were network air gapped, so they devised a strategy to mass share malware on physical USB that one day someone would plug in with the infected malware and passively infect everyone on the internal network, and then flip the trigger and destroy the uranium refinement process.