No doubt the best satirical reaction to Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement that his company, Facebook, would henceforth be known as Meta came from the keyboard of Caroline Suzuki, who runs the Twitter account for ECW Press, the independent publisher in Toronto. “ECW Press is changing its name to Facebook now that it’s up for grabs,” she tweeted in late October. “We are a company that builds technology to connect your face to a book and we’re excited for our name to finally reflect that. No more ‘What does ECW stand for?’ Simple. Original. Your face — in a book.”
It was in such a book, Snow Crash, that the American novelist Neal Stephenson coined the term “Metaverse” nearly thirty years ago — a term that Zuckerberg has now clipped as short as his trademark hair. Stephenson’s narrator describes the Metaverse as “a computer-generated universe” that takes the form of an “imaginary place” where it is always night, “always garish and brilliant, like Las Vegas freed from constraints of physics and finance.” This is where the novel’s main character, Hiro Protagonist, spends a lot of his time, the alternative being his rented self-storage unit in some hyper-corporatized dystopian California of the future. (One wonders if Zuck has actually read Stephenson.)
Whenever he enters the Metaverse, which he does using his laptop and some specialty goggles, Hiro is among “the hundred million richest, hippest, best-connected people on earth.” And having this option puts him in very different company than the unnamed fugitive narrator of Adolfo Bioy Casares’s La invención de Morel, which helped launch the Argentine novelist’s career in 1940.
The Invention of Morel, wonderfully illustrated by Norah Borges (the sister of Jorge Luis), takes the form of a diary, which a political refugee begins after he reaches Villings, a mysteriously deserted island somewhere in Polynesia. Long before his arrival, someone has built a few structures on the high ground — a museum in the modernist style, a swimming pool, a chapel, and a strange generating plant. But, the fugitive comes to understand, these are not simply abandoned buildings.
The novel’s plot is somewhat indefinable, but suffice it to say Casares’s anti-hero finds himself transported to a prototypical metaverse, a place where he might dream beyond his station in life, a place where he can commune with those who are not physically present, a place where reality and unreality merge: “The situation I am living is not what I think it is.”
Its technological innovations notwithstanding, Villings proves itself a place of delusion and torment. But by the time the castaway realizes that “to be on an island inhabited by artificial ghosts was the most unbearable of nightmares,” it’s far too late. He has become trapped in a virtual world, powered by machines that not even their inventor can understand or control. Ultimately, the diary stops as the diarist’s very soul passes into artificiality.
Steven Lee Myers, a former Moscow correspondent for the New York Times and the author of The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin, once explained that the best advice for navigating potentially dangerous lands is “not to bother reading the books by journalists” but rather to read the place’s novels. Unlike Russia or China, the metaverse is a foreign country that does not yet have a literature of its own. But the prescient imaginations of Stephenson and Casares, among so many others, are enough to help us prepare for Zuckerberg’s next act, as we did not properly do for his first.
How will we treat information and objectivity in a world where artifice is basically the point? Will the surely addictive distractions of the coming virtual environment blind us to the sobering unravelling of the real one? And when we have questions about the metaverse of tomorrow — about how it runs, how it’s governed, how intellectual property is protected or not, how our digital lives are manipulated and sold, how it redefines consciousness itself — will its inventor continue to duck and dive, as he has for years?
“My suspicion may seem absurd,” the fugitive writes near the end of The Invention of Morel, “but I believe I can justify it. Anyone would distrust a person who said, ‘My companions and I are illusions; we are a new kind of photograph.’ ”
That is more or less what Mark Zuckerberg boasted in his over-the-top keynote Meta announcement, as he seemed to step out of a Crate & Barrel catalogue and onto the bridge of an animated starship Enterprise. “Who made this place?” his avatar asked with feigned curiosity, as he floated in zero gravity. “It’s awesome.” The moment was surely deserving of satire. It deserves our skepticism no less.