The Worlds to Come

First we made language. Now we will build worlds.

Welcome to New World Same Humans, a weekly newsletter on trends, technology, and society by David Mattin.

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Snap, which sagely calls itself a camera company, held its annual developer conference this week.

One announcement stood out above the others. And it inspired this note: a reflection on technology, meaning, and the human story.


Watching Snap CEO Evan Spiegel showcase Spectacles this week, I was reminded of the way it felt to type my first searches into a Yahoo search bar in the mid-90s. I’ve spent the last few days thinking about why.

The device Spiegel launched is the fourth iteration of Spectacles, and it’s a significant advance. Earlier versions allowed users to shoot video, import it to Snapchat, and then apply AR effects. The new device, though, overlays effects across your view of the world in real-time. In other words, true AR glasses; the dream is here.

Well, almost. This iteration of Spectacles aren’t yet for sale; they’ll be released as a platform for developers. The battery life is only 30 minutes. And the AR field of view is pretty small.

Still, Spectacles IV are a significant development. To understand the ultimate vision here, you need to see this device in the context of another Snap feature: Local Lenses. Launched in 2020, Lenses makes possible persistent, shareable AR creations built on top of the physical world.

Put Spectacles and Local Lenses together, and the end game is clear. Create new worlds, immerse yourself in them, and invite your friends. The crowded streets, empty fields, and open skies are your canvas. Build and move through a world limited only by your imagination.

It’s this combination that elevates Spectacles above the notorious Google Glass. Glass can overlay Google apps, such as Maps or Calendar, across your view of the real world, but it stops short of making possible an immersive augmented reality.

We’re some way, right now, from a place where all this becomes mainstream. I suspect the latest iteration of Spectacles are still cumbersome enough to be off-putting to casual users. And besides: 30 minutes. But the vision Snap is aiming at is nothing short of momentous.

It’s that sense – of a vastly significant emerging technology, yet to take its final form – that reminds me of those mid-90s first encounters with the early internet.

Back then, it was already apparent to anyone under 25 with a small amount of imagination that the internet was far more than the new communications channel that some grown ups supposed it to be. No, this was a radical new way of experiencing the world around us, and each other. To jump into a Yahoo chat room and watch the messages fly – from people all over the world! – felt something akin to magic. Now, I feel that way when I enter a room in AltspaceVR using the Oculus Quest. Or when I see the latest iteration of Spectacles. That feeling is best articulated as: maybe, when we really figure this out, it changes everything.

Why does Spectacles engender that feeling?

It helps that the technology is superficially exciting: augmented reality butterflies! But this goes deeper. At the heart of it all is something fundamental to who we are. That is, meaning.

We are meaning-making animals. We construct complex representations – both of the world around us and our ideas about that world – and share them with one another. It’s what sets us apart from other creatures. It accounts for our dominion over this planet. You can build a strong case for the idea that it’s this, above all, that makes us human.

If you accept that, then it’s natural to attempt an account of the human story that is built around that fundamental truth. An account, that is, that sees the human story through the lens of our relationship with meaning. What shape could such an account take?

First came language. It is the substrate in which meaning is built. Language changed everything, by allowing us to construct and share complex representations. The result is a kind of miracle hidden in plain view. A local Internet of Minds.

Next came media. Media are human representations at scale. The emergence of writing allowed a single human to generate meaning and share it with thousands of others, or someone 1,000 miles away, or someone 1,000 years in the future. Over time, our media grew more sophisticated. The advent of radio and then television shaped the transformations of the 20th-century: news, politics, entertainment. The internet put all of the world’s knowledge behind a single pane of glass. In 2021, we live in the world that media built.

Today, the media revolution that begun with the Gutenberg printing press has achieved a certain kind of end state. The internet democratised the means of media production; we are all, each of us, simultaneously creator and audience.

So what next? Language, media, and then what?

The answer is worlds. The next step in our journey towards ever more sophisticated representations is to build immersive worlds that we can inhabit just as we do the world around us.

And this step is, in some deep sense, the final chapter, because it’s with this step that our relationship with meaning reaches its Omega Point. With this step, our representations are no longer only words on a page or moving images on a screen; they are worlds unto themselves. That is to say: our representations of the world become worlds of their own. Or to put it yet another way, the boundaries that separate our representations from reality itself start to fade away.

In 2021, this epoch-making shift is latent in early experiences inside Altspace, or in Spiegel’s demo of the new Spectacles. To state this is to match high-flown talk with technologies that are, in their current form, limited and only partially realised. But the same was true back in 1995, when we were typing our first queries into a Yahoo search bar and marvelling at the implications.

It’s early days, but the third stage in our relationship with meaning is taking shape.

The emergence of immersive, social VR and AR worlds is the third and ultimate chapter in a story that began with our first utterances to one another some 100,000 years ago. The implications will take decades – maybe hundreds of years – to play out. But it’s starting now, and we’re here to watch.

And one implication that I’ll be writing more on soon? The future belongs to the world builders.  


Time to Build

Thanks for reading this week.

We’re at the outset of a world building explosion. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

This newsletter will be watching every step of the way. And there’s even a special world building partnership project up the NWSH sleeve: more on that soon.

In the meantime, if this week’s instalment resonated with you, why not forward the email to someone who’d also enjoy it? Or share it across one of your social networks, with a note on why you found it valuable. Remember: the larger and more diverse the NWSH community becomes, the better for all of us.

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I’ll be back on Wednesday with New Week Same Humans. Until then, be well,

David.


David Mattin is the founder of the Strategy and Futures Research Unit. He sits on the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Consumption.