How Top Fiction Writers Are Thinking About the Metaverse
A version of this article was published in TIME’s newsletter Into the Metaverse. Receive a weekly update on the internet’s future by signing up. Past issues can be found here.
The relationship between technology and fiction has been symbiotic for a long time. Just as writers dreamed up fantastical worlds based on imagined technologies, those same worlds have inspired engineers, technologists, and scientists—spurring breakthroughs as well as thorny philosophical questions about their work.
The term “metaverse” itself comes from Neal Stephenson’s Snow CrashThe comic strip Dick Tracy Inspired the creation of the mobile phone. Vitalik Buterin, Ethereum founder, spoke to me about last month’s lasting impact on the mobile phone. World of Warcraft Upon his blockchain.
And as both a tech and culture reporter for TIME, I’m acutely interested in the overlaps between those two subject matters: How tech enables artistic breakthroughs (including the use of AI in music) or how culture can shift the direction of tech developments (i.e., NFTs). In this vein, I’m dedicating this week’s newsletter to highlight recent ways in which the metaverse and immersive tech are making their way into futuristic fiction, in film, literature and TV.
These pieces allow us see more clearly the possible impact of new tech; they voice concern about corporate control, and explore the implications of AI-omniscience. The works are hopeful and downright disconcerting. They show both the risks as well as the potential benefits of diving into new worlds.
If you’ve been reading or watching anything else that’s related, please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Candy HouseJennifer Egan (novel).
Egan has been hailed as one of the best novelists in history, and was the author of The NYT Bestseller 2017. Manhattan Beach And the Pulitzer Prize-winner for 2010 A visit from the Goon Squad. It is a quasi-sequel. Candy HouseOn April 5, the release of “The End of Private Life” will arrive. It is about the invention and use of a machine to allow you to transfer all of your data to the cloud. While the machine connects society in unprecedented ways, it also marks “an end of private life,” in which the company that created it monitors your every movement, allowing them to predict your future behaviors.
Are you familiar with this? Metaverse conversations often center on the interplay of increasing connectivity with decreasing privacy. Meta patenting technology to allow you to monitor your pupils to make ad sales in January raised eyebrows. Last month, I spoke with Egan for TIME. She responded when I brought up the topic.
“It’s so incredible to think of how wrong George Orwell got it: It’s not that anyone forces screens into every home, it’s that we invite them. That’s pretty scary, and I’m amazed people would go for that. But my book is completely about how they likely will, because they get other advantages—and we have a tendency not to think about the long term price of things until later.”
But Egan doesn’t see her fictional machine—or other conceptions of the coming metaverse—as necessarily dystopian. “There’s always a sadness and fearfulness in seeing the world change in really seismic ways,” she said. “I read a lot of 19th-century fiction, and hear the same echoes of sadness and nostalgia when people are looking back at the time before the railroads: Because everything was suddenly so connected.”
Here’s the remainder of the interview I did with Egan. It touches on the connection between books and Twitch streamers..
Yang Film on Showtime)
This sci-fi movie, which was written and directed by Korean-American filmmaker Kogonada, is set in a near future in which “technosapiens”—robots so advanced they’re nearly indistinguishable from humans—are a part of everyday life. Kogonada doesn’t focus on the dangers of integration but instead focuses on their humanistic potential: giving an adoptive Asian girl a humanoid sibling might help her feel more connected to herself and others.
Kogonada questions, however, if robots are granted the human characteristics, then what will happen to them? If they’re programmed just like us, then should we treat their dreams, memories and desires with as much weightiness as we do our own? Yang It is amidst AI celebrities, companions and helpers who are quickly filling in metaverse worlds and spamming our social media channels. These beings might not be human, but that doesn’t mean our emotional connections to them won’t be real—or that they won’t feel Things about us, either. “There are emotional attachments that we have to our pets, to our sports teams…and I think it’s going to get more complicated as there become more things that we feel like we connect to on some other, deeper level,” Kogonada told The Verge.
Upload Amazon Prime Video Series (TV Series)
Last month Eva Beylin (director of the Graph Foundation), made a link between the metaverse, eternal life, and the panel I moderated at the crypto conference ETHDenver. “The metaverse, given everything is permanent on-chain and people can interact with it, kind of enables all of us to live on beyond our physical body,” she said.
UploadGreg Daniels has created TV Series titled “The Secret Life of Greg Daniels”.The OfficeThe show goes further. This show envisions a world in 15 years where people are able to transcend their physical bodies and upload their consciousness into an afterworld. You can still video chat with people on earth, and your surroundings in the afterlife are customizable and lavish—if you can pay, that is. Big Tech controls this heaven and keeps it behind a paywall. If their data is limited, low-income residents might find themselves living in filthy basement floors.
“The nugget of the idea is that if you could technologically record people’s minds, and then reconstitute them in a metaverse where they live full-time, then you would basically be able to create heaven,” Daniels told Variety this month; the show’s second season just arrived on streaming. “But if that was the case then human beings would be making it. The profit would come from it. I thought, ‘Oh, that’s a great metaphor.’ Just to talk about how there’s a lot of unfairness already in the distribution of technology and the good things in life.”
Separation Apple TV+ – TV Show
Virtual worlds are seen by some as a means of escape from office life, while others see them more as remote work options. SeparationLast month’s debut was.
This show focuses on a dark company which requires employees to divide their consciousness by implanting a chip into their brains. A man sitting at a bar Friday night wouldn’t know what his week looked like between nine and five.
You might like Upload, Separation Explores corporate power and new technology, as well as the extent to which people will go to escape the dehumanization caused by late-stage capitalism. Judy Berman, in her TIME review, writes that the show poses some big, thorny questions to its audience: “Should humans have the right to subcontract their own brains for what amounts to indentured servitude? What is the definition of a second self? And if so, shouldn’t that person have some right to self-determination?”
If those questions feel irrelevant given the show’s fictional premise, they might not be soon: A neurosurgeon who served as a consultant on the show told Variety that such a technology is “not far off.” But regardless of whether any of these aforementioned devices are ever invented, these works of fiction serve other, greater purposes: to remind us of the breathtaking speed of tech breakthroughs that seemed unimaginable just a decade ago; to remind us that humans should be at the center of any tech story.
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