The limitless successor to the internet, first imagined by Neal Stephenson 30 years ago

Explaining the world, daily
The Economist explains

THE CENTRAL issue in the trial pitting Apple against Epic Games, the company behind Fortnite, a popular video game, is the revenue cut that Apple takes from software developers who sell through its App Store. But on the first day of the trial Tim Sweeney, Epic’s boss, outlined an ambition beyond money. Fortnite, he explained, is “a phenomenon that transcends gaming. Our aim of Fortnite is to build something like a metaverse from science fiction.” That might sound outlandish, but plenty of other tech bigwigs want to do the same. Last month Jensen Huang, the boss of Nvidia, an American chipmaker, told Time magazine that he wants to create “a virtual world that is a digital twin of ours.” What is a metaverse, and how might one be built?

The word comes from “Snow Crash,” published in 1992, the third, and arguably the best, novel by Neal Stephenson, an American science-fiction author. The book’s main character, named Hiro Protagonist, delivers pizza for the Mafia, which now controls territory in what used to be the United States. When not working, Mr Protagonist plugs into the Metaverse: a networked virtual reality in which people appear as self-designed “avatars” and engage in activities both mundane (conversation, flirting) and extraordinary (sword fights, mercenary espionage). Like the internet, Mr Stephenson’s Metaverse is a collective, interactive endeavour that is always on and is beyond the control of any one person. As in a video game, people inhabit and control characters that move through space.

Think of it as virtual reality, or a massively multiplayer online game (MMOG), but limitless. People could play games, but they could also talk, shop, stroll, chat, watch movies, attend concerts, shop and do most things that they can do in the real world—and, crucially, the metaverse would interact with the real world in countless unpredictable ways. This fully formed metaverse remains a long way off. But some MMOGs have already shown multiversal tendencies. Reporters Without Borders, an NGO, built a library in Minecraft, an MMOG, containing works censored in the real world. A clip from the most recent Star Wars film had its premiere in Fortnite. In many MMOGs, people spend real money to buy things.

To Silicon Valley dreamers, this immersive, networked, three-dimensional world will eventually succeed the two-dimensional internet that exists today. It requires infrastructure and processing power that does not yet exist, able to sustain countless live, synchronous connections. But if you consider Fortnite’s expansive world, Facebook’s Horizon—a virtual-reality game in beta-testing—and other investments by big tech firms in similar products, not to mention the way that the pandemic has encouraged millions of people to spend their days immersed in online video, the metaverse is closer to reality than it was when Mr Stephenson first dreamed it up.