Three decades later, Stephenson’s metaverse is about to become a (virtual) reality. Silicon Valley giants – from the eponymous name Meta to Google and Microsoft – are working hard designing it. Techies confidently predict that the metaverse will displace the internet. Citibank Forecasts That by 2030, it could be worth $13 trillion and have 5 billion users, or about 60 percent of the world’s population.
“Snow Crash” hit bookstores 30 years ago this month and has sold a million copies in North America alone. (A special anniversary edition by Del Rey will be released in November.) The novel is like a bible to some people in Silicon Valley: Google co-founder Sergey Brin said it “anticipated what was about to happen.”
“Snow Crash” is best remembered for predicting the metaverse. But the description of the real world is an eerie echo of ours. Set sometime in the early 21st century, the United States is ravaged by hyperinflation. There is a lot of inequality. And a virus wreaks havoc in society.
Thirty years after anticipating the future, Stephenson now wants to shape it. Together with the co-founder of Bitcoin Foundation Peter Vesseneshe recently launched Laminate1a start-up that uses blockchain technology to build an “open metaverse” – one that is open-source and decentralized. The project has started attract investorsincluding LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman.
“There’s a legitimate opportunity here to actually do something with the exposure that the concept of the metaverse has gotten,” Stephenson, 62, told The Washington Post. In recent years, he has pondered “whether I should just step back and become a hermit” or “jump into the fray”. In the end, he decided that the opportunity to realize “some old ideas from 30 years ago and some new ideas I couldn’t have imagined back then” was too irresistible to pass up.
“Right now,” Stephenson said, “the metaverse is a primordial soup of many large and small companies colliding with each other.” there is the Decentralland metaverse, which is managed by its users, and the sandbox metaverse, where someone dropped out $450,000 to become Snoop Dogg’s virtual neighbor. And there will be meta metaverse, which could last more than a decade be fully up and running. Ultimately, it is possible to imagine that users will beam from one to the other as if they were going from website to website while browsing the web these days.
Each metaverse offers unique experiences from role-playing to interactive storytelling to esports to live music and who knows what else.
Stephenson’s vision for Lamina1 (which means ‘layer one’ in Latin) is to empower the creators of these experiences. He explained: “We want to create a structure of smart contracts and other tools that will make it easier for people who want to build Metaverse applications to do that in the first place, and then be compensated if it turns out that people like and willing to pay for the experiences they create.”
He wants to create some of these experiences himself. He wouldn’t reveal many details, but said the experiences will be set in “the story universe of ‘Snow Crash’.” Nevertheless, he insisted that Lamina1 would not amount to the Neal Stephenson Show. “What you really want in the long run,” he said, “is for a large number of third-party developers to make their own products and use your infrastructure … to pursue their own goals.”
Although he is best known for writing high concept novels, Stephenson has a long technical resume. He was chief futurist for Magic Leap – an augmented reality start-up – until 2020, and before that he was the first employee of Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ aerospace company.
In 1999, the author and Amazon president, both residents of Seattle, overheard a showing of “October Heaven,” a biopic of NASA engineer Homer Hickam. After that, according to Christian Davenport in ‘The Space Barons’ Bezos said he had always dreamed of starting an aviation company. Stephenson’s response: “Well, why don’t you start today?”
Because of his connections in the tech world – and the fact that his readers include Bill Gates and Jack Dorsey-Stephenson has built a reputation like a guru to tech billionaires.
“Every page he writes is bursting with ideas,” says Jennifer Hershey, who has edited “Snow Crash” and several of his other novels. Rereading “Snow Crash” recently, Hershey was struck by how Stephenson envisioned the current “disparity” between haves and have-nots.
“Snow Crash” revolves around Hiro, a 30-year-old hacker who is hired. In the real world, he lives with a roommate in a 20 by 30 storage unit. But, as Stephenson writes, “when you live in a shithole, there’s always the Metaverse.” There Hiro lives in a mansion.
Yet Stephenson’s metaverse is not a utopia. The physical infrastructure — the cables and servers it runs on — belongs to L. Bob Rife, a sinister tycoon who unleashes a computer virus called snow crash that hijacks people’s brains in and out of the metaverse. The infected lose the ability to think for themselves and begin to speak in tongues.
The phrase “going viral” didn’t exist in 1992, but “Snow Crash” was in fact an elaborate allegory for today’s social media world. “Of course we didn’t have social media in those days,” Stephenson said, but “I wrote about just one long-standing human trait, which is the tendency of the mind to be hijacked by ideas.”
Stephenson pointed out that, as he first envisioned it in “Snow Crash,” the metaverse “isn’t dystopian or utopian,” but “has the potential to be one of those things.” He added, “This is just the nature of the human condition.”
Stephenson may be one of the most prescient of sci-fi authors, but he claims to be unable to predict what will happen next in the metaverse. He offered only one prophecy.
“The moment when surprising things start to happen,” he said, “will be the moment when we start popping champagne corks.”