Your Sci-Fi Future
How did science-fiction predict the metaverse, the race to Mars, and the World Wide Web?
Welcome to New World Same Humans, a weekly newsletter on trends, technology, and society by David Mattin.
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Everyone is talking about a longstanding NWSH obsession: the metaverse.
I’ve written plenty on the rise of virtual worlds as domains of authentic human experience. This week, though, my focus lies elsewhere.
I want to examine the hold that the metaverse, both as an idea and a shared reality, is gaining on the popular imagination. And what that tells us about this moment and our collective future.
That means thinking, above all else, about science-fiction and its relationship with the world in 2021.
If anyone was unsure about Mark Zuckerberg’s vision for Facebook, last week spelled the end of their uncertainty. In a quarterly earnings call the Zuck was clear:
I expect people will transition from seeing us primarily as a social-media company to seeing us as a metaverse company.
Zuckerberg has never been so explicit about his belief that the metaverse is the future the internet. His words were quickly seized upon as a milestone in the unstoppable advance of an idea that’s still new to most people, but fast becoming ubiquitous.
Halfway through 2021, talk of the metaverse is impossible to avoid. The idea is used to describe the grand projects in world-building being undertaken by Fortnite and Roblox. It is, say observers, the future of the music industry. It’s at the heart of Facebook’s plans to build a vast social VR world, and of Snap’s obsession with persistent and social augmented realities.
The word metaverse has its origins in an iconic 1992 sci-fi novel called Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson. The book depicts an anarchic, post-collapse United States in which many live primarily inside a giant VR world. As a few people pointed out on Twitter this week, given that context it seems strange that anyone – and Mark Zuckerberg of all people – is so keen to celebrate its arrival.
But scratch the surface, and the metaversal hype train is just one part of a broader apparent symbiosis between sci-fi and the world we now inhabit.
Examples are everywhere. Jeff Bezos cites Kim Stanley Robinson’s epic Mars Trilogy as having helped inspire his Blue Origin space startup. Back in Charter City Dreams, I wrote about the rapper Akon’s plans to build the hyperfuturistic Akon City in Senegal; he calls it ‘the real-world Wakanda’ after the country of that name from the Marvel universe. And hardly a week goes by without a tech news item raising comparisons to some episode of Black Mirror.
So what’s going on? Why, in 2021, does our reality seem to be turning into a science-fiction series? Here’s the common explanation: the world is changing so fast; we live in the future now. Science-fiction is the best guide we have.
There’s some truth in all that. But I’m not so sure it tells the full, or even the most important, story.
First, the apparently symbiotic relationship between sci-fi and newly emerging technologies isn’t as new as some people are making out. Google founder Sergey Brin, for example, has long said Snow Crash helped inspire early versions of the product that became Google Earth back in 2004. Tim Berners-Lee even cited the 1961 Arthur C. Clarke short story Dial F for Frankenstein, which tells the story of a global telephone network that gains consciousness, as inspiration for his work on the World Wide Web.
All this has caused some to ask: rather than simply predicting the future, do seminal works of science-fiction help create it? Again, there’s some merit in the idea. When Berners-Lee says he was inspired by Arthur C. Clarke, we should listen. The inspiration that influential technologists take from the sci-fi they read in their youth is surely part of the reason for the weird symbiosis between science-fiction and reality.
But I tend towards the somewhat determinist view – which I’ve written about before – that the broad evolutionary sweep of technology will be what it will be. That is to say: the World Wide Web would have happened with or without Arthur C. Clarke, or indeed Tim Berners-Lee. What Dial F for Frankenstein did is give Berners-Lee, and then the rest of us, a language with which explain this emerging technology.
And it’s this phenomenon, above all, that is at the heart of the strange relationship between sci-fi and reality in 2021. Science-fiction isn’t predicting the future. Nor, in any deep sense, is it shaping it. Rather, it’s providing us with an intellectual toolkit, a set of narratives, that we can use to describe the changes we see unfolding around us.
Crucially, though, there’s a reason this phenomenon is especially powerful now. That is, why the relationship between sci-fi and this collective moment seems weirdly deep.
It’s because we lack other modes of explanation.
There is a domain of human activity intended to generate useful and compelling narratives that explain the moment we find ourselves in, and what’s coming next. That domain is politics. And currently, at least in the Global North, it is exhausted.
The big story we used to tell ourselves, which was a story of liberal democratic universalism, has fallen apart. You can make a strong argument for characterising this collective moment as, first, a kind of ideological interregnum. We live in the empty space between the end of the old story and the start of whatever will take its place.
Meanwhile, the locus of power in our societies has shifted: away from national governments and towards the New Rome that is Silicon Valley. Our politics has articulated no meaningful response.
In 2021, no mainstream political ideology or movement can make sense of the rise of the new form of socio-corporate power wielded by Facebook, or Google. Nor can they fathom the rise of shared virtual worlds, or the vast implications for all of us contained within the emergence of new and non-human forms of intelligence.
In that environment, it’s no surprise that we turn to technologically-oriented fiction in our attempts to make sense of the world. There’s no denying the predictive success of writers such as Stephenson, who envision new technologies years before they emerge. But the genre as a whole has no magical prescience. Rather, a selection bias is in operation. We inhabitants of 2021 relentlessly hunt down the sci-fi ideas, such as Stephenson’s metaverse, that best help us describe what we’re seeing, and ignore the rest.
The result is a strange sleight of hand. It looks as though science-fiction is inventing the very world we find ourselves in. But that effect is manufactured by our obsessive mining of the genre for stories that help us navigate disorienting change. Bereft of real-world narratives, we turn to fictional ones.
What should we take from all this?
First, it amounts to an argument for the view that science-fiction – along, perhaps, with the conspiracy theory – deserves to be recognised as the most important post-war literary form, an argument made by the great JG Ballard.
But we should also draw a far deeper lesson. That is, that we need to develop new stories to help us make sense of this moment and our shared future.
We need a politics reinvigorated by new visions of where we are now and what we could build in the decades ahead. That means letting go, finally, of an obsolete conservative vs progressive framework that no longer makes sense in the context of planetary ecological collapse. And developing new thinking on how to conserve what is human amid the emergence of new and non-human ways of seeing the world.
In all this, we can borrow freely from science-fiction. But if a handful of novels from the 1980s and 90s continue to supply the best available explanations we have of the world in the 2020s, we should worry. It would signal a devastating failure of our collective imagination.
We are in urgent need of new stories to believe in. New stories that make sense. In the years ahead, let’s write a few we can file under non-fiction.
Thanks for reading this week.
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