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Metaverse: As Good a Word as Any | 2239

In the twilight age of Web 2, Metaverse is as good a word as any for people who wish to re-imagine the future of the internet

Full Show Notes: https://www.thejaymo.net/2022/11/05/301-2239-as-good-a-word-as-any/

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Metaverse: As Good a Word as Any

Back in Episode 2020 ‘The Metaverse as Mediumโ€™ I said:

“The web has been a 30 year long distraction from the business of worlding”.

That statement has resulted in some productive conversations. If you follow me on Twitter youโ€™ll see Iโ€™ve been posting slides occasionally from a talk I’m writing. Called โ€˜The Web Was A Side Questโ€™.

Anyways, today’s episode is an excuse to get some thoughts in order.

I want to talk about the word โ€˜Metaverseโ€™.

I know I know. You are all sick to death of hearing that word already. Facebook’s changed its name, Matthew Ball’s book is a best seller. It’s a hot buzzword and you, me and everyone else is wondering what the hell is going on. I get it. 

The truth is, Metaverse is a word that means a whole bunch of different things to different people. Instead of talking about the Metaverse let’s pick a different word instead.

How about โ€˜Cyberspaceโ€™ ? 

What does Cyberspace mean to you? What did it mean to you? and what does it mean to you now?

If you were at University in the early 00โ€™s and at all interested in art, humanities and the internet. One of the books your tutor (at least mine anyway) would have recommend was โ€˜Hamlet on the Holodeckโ€™ by Janet H. Murray.

Published in 1997, it represents the crystallisation of a – certain kind – of techno optimism. What the internet could have been. The book’s subtitle is โ€˜The future of narrative in Cyberspaceโ€™.

I must admit 18 years ago I only skimmed it as an undergrad, looking for quotes. But I recently read it cover to cover. I’m glad I did. The book is terrific. Itโ€™s alive with possibility still. 

One of the things I realised whilst reading, was that the word Cyberspace was a useful buzzword. Used to describe what people might experience as they moved online in the 90โ€™s. It had its sci-fi origins sure, but it became shorthand for something else. 

Thereโ€™s a documentary about William Gibson from 2000 called โ€˜No Maps for These Territoriesโ€™. In it he talks about what Cyberspace meant to him back in 1982 

โ€œAll I knew about the word “cyberspace” when I coined itโ€ he says โ€œwas that it seemed like an effective buzzword. It seemed evocative and essentially meaningless. It was suggestive of something, but had no real semantic meaning, even for me, as I saw it emerge on the page.โ€

As an aside: โ€˜No Maps for These Territoriesโ€™ features Willaim Gibson obviously. But also Bruce Sterling and Jack Womack, and bizarrely Bono and the Edge. 

Anyways.

Just as it was for Gibson in 82, Cyberspace is also a placeholder in Hamlet on the Holodeck. A placeholder for the internet we could built. The kind of internet we could still build. Replace Cyberspace with the word Metaverse throughout the book and it’ll be just as relevant today..

After a decade of web 2 and platform capitalism. Recent events on Twitter have exposed (I think) that deep down we all know the internet could be so much more. Different from what we ended up with. The word Metavere in the last year has come to represent this.  Being used as a placeholder for this unrealised dream. Web3 and blockchain before it also hyped up words representing a different kind of future. 

The big problem with the word Metaverse – and one of the reasons people have such visceral reactions to it – is its history. Sure, it’s been used by the video games industry for decades, as a dream, a goal. But to most it’s also a word from a Cyberpunk novel published in 1992. Metaverse has 30 years of cultural baggage thatโ€™s dredged up whenever it gets used.

Speaking of baggage, Metaverse is an example of what AI researcher Marvin Minky would call a Suitcase Word. A word with so many different meanings packed inside itโ€™s hard know what’s actually being referred to. A 2017 a technology review article on the same subject uses the word โ€˜Learningโ€™ as an example:

โ€œLearningโ€ is a powerful suitcase word; it can refer to so many different types of experience. Learning to use chopsticks is a very different experience from learning the tune of a new song. And learning to write code is a very different experience from learning your way around a city.

So Metaverse is a suitcase word, Web3 is another. Like cyberspace, both are placeholders to allow people to talk about a different kind of internet. 

Despite Facebook’s whole thing. Its also interesting to consider where the word has exploded into the public sphere.. from. The gaming industry. 

Iโ€™ve talked about the size of online worlds in comparison to social media before. But the reality is the games industry has been connecting millions of people together in code spaces using text, voice and novel interfaces for longer than the web has existed. 

They know a thing or two about this. From social design to the technical. They have built spaces with completely different contexts to the huge platforms we all migrated into away from the web the 2010โ€™s.

In the twilight age of Web 2, Metaverse is as good a word as any for people who wish to re-imagine the future of the internet to use.

If you donโ€™t like the word Metaverse or what it stands for or means to you, it’s just not enough to be against it in 2022. To just have critique and criticism. 

Instead we have to be for something. 

For web we want, not against the one we donโ€™t

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The script above is the original script written for the episode. It may differ from what ended up in the edit.

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About Author

Jay Springett is a Solarpunk, and consultant strategist, currently specialising in the distributed web, metaverse, and world running. He is currently writing his first public book: Land as Platform.

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