Musings on Second Life MIDNIGHT HOUR author interviews
“In the lingo, this imaginary place is known as the Metaverse. Hiro spends a lot of time in the Metaverse.”
A writer’s imagination can give rise to worlds. Fittingly, credit for the term and concept of metaverse goes to Neal Stephenson in his seminal 1992 science fiction novel SNOW CRASH. The word of course has returned to common parlance with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s declaration, “I believe the metaverse is the next chapter of the Internet.” The CEO doubled down on his vision with the parent company rebranding into Meta (“connection is evolving and so are we”), thereby unleashing admiration, dismay and parodies across the current known Internet universe.
But (hu)mankind has had a shot at a computer-generated universe before, namely Second Life — and yes, it’s still a thing and yes, I’ll be participating for the first time on Monday, December 6 noon PT. The topic on The Mystery Hour with Con Sweeney will be the MIDNIGHT HOUR anthology, with editor and bestselling author Abby Vandiver (who also publishes under the pseudonym Abby Collette) and myself.
And while Second Life does have its millions of faithfuls, The Mystery Hour crosses digital worlds so it also livestreams (so to speak) on its YouTube channel.
The origin story of Second Life, the “original” metaverse, is exactly what one might expect: a teenage boy questioning his uniqueness, a primitive PC studying a fractal image, and a Burning Man epiphany while lounging in an Airstream trailer replete with Persian rugs, hookah pipes and trapeze artists.
The Atlantic’s profile of Second Life on its 10th anniversary and VentureBeat’s pulse check on the pioneering metaverse (its 20th anniversary beckons June 23, 2023) sketch a colorful background and the aspirations of an alternate life.
Time magazine also took a second look at Second Life in interviews with its founder and an anthropologist. Its low-key success and longevity may be summed up in a single word: “aimlessness.” Paradoxically, this concept of aimlessness is more powerful — and likely more antithetical — than what investors would like to admit: There’s no agenda, only exploration. There’s a marketplace, but not quite a place to make a living. The safeguards against the kind of toxic profiteering that happens on “free” platforms are, among others, land ownership, capitalizing on the universal concept that you won’t want to crap in your own bed. (Well, OK, that’s not a universal concept nor the impetus, but works for me.)
All this and much more is likely why Second Life chief architect Philip Rosedale doesn’t think the metaverse will ever truly be all-consuming — and frankly he hopes that Meta will not succeed in its goals. As he told IEEE recently, “I’m really concerned that (and I said this all along with Second Life too, so my tone hasn’t changed on this) any single-company, advertising-based, attention-based strategy for building virtual spaces would potentially be extremely damaging to people. I have become much more concerned than I was before. I think that we just didn’t think about all the things that could go wrong 20 years ago. But now with the benefit of hindsight it’s more obvious what we need to be concerned about.”
Yet given the literary genesis of the term metaverse (from a dystopian novel, but let’s just put that downer aside), what is also worth exploring is the metaverse as literary imagination. In some ways, gaming captures this, but gaming has goals: points, body counts, competition. So of course does a book: plot, arc, endings — preferably satisfactory. But as we’ve seen in the world of fanfiction, a truly beloved story never ends. The characters don’t die (even if they died), the places beckon a wandering of the mind. What if the metaverse could become a playground for literary ideas, with people assuming beloved characters and “reacting” in different environments and encounters? What if one assumed simply a digital avatar of the real self and joined these literary landscapes?
Naturally, all this runs into all sorts of copyright issues and the concept of real-world ownership will put a kibbosh on this kind of aimless free-flow of imagination. But one can only dream virtually, no?