When your organisational influences are dystopia: Metaverse, Meta, and Snow Crash

There has been some noise this week after Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement that Facebook are developing a “Metaverse” and are changing their name to “Meta”. And while there are concerns about the function the announcement as a “dead cat” intended to distract away from allegations made by ex-employees of unethical practice, it has also been noted that the concept of the Metaverse has been somewhat lifted from Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992), fact that Stephenson himself had to clarify:

But while Zuckerberg and co may be being particularly overt in naming their new venture the Metaverse, they are not unique in wearing the influence of Stephenson’s novel on their sleeves. Google’s Sergey Brin, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos – all the big hitters cite Snow Crash as an influence on their thinking. Google Earth designer Avi Bar-Zeev cites it as primary inspiration, recognising in his blog the issue with the process of using a cautionary tale of dystopia to design the future.

What is also quite interesting is that Silicon Valley do this quite a lot: there is a long history of tech companies turning to science fiction for inspiration when deciding where to steer us next. So though Snow Crash might be a particularly influential text, it actually just extends a methodology of using imagined futures as a springboard. Barbrook and Cameron chart this phenomenon in their essay The Californian Ideology (1995), citing the science fiction and cyberpunk tropes which intertwine with social and political factors driving Silicon valley.

That essay in turn can be seen expanded on in the brilliant Adam Curtis documentary All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (2011) [available on BBCiplayer if you have access] which in episode 1 chronicles the influence of Ayn Rand’s literature on America’s financial and technological landscape. Rand’s rejection of regulation and institutional authority, and promotion of the heroic individualist entrepreneur is just the path of least resistance for Silicon Valley egotists looking for validation. One of the interviewees in the documentary, Kevin O’Connor, bemuses at the extent of the influence of Rand fandom, stating that he often comes across children named after Rand, or can see her influence in the names of companies. Another interviewee John McCaskey states he did not just act like a Randian hero – he was a Randian hero.

It’s against this backdrop that we come back to Mark Zuckerberg, extending this tradition of showcasing your influences through naming the Metaverse. I don’t think Zuckerberg and Facebook (or Meta) are likely to see any problematic dimensions to naming their new future trajectory after a cautionary dystopian nightmare like Avi Bar-Zeev reflected on above. It’s just what Silicon Valley does – though I am interested in if and why it leans on fictional depictions disproportionately compared to other areas of innovation. Let’s just hope they ensure snow-crash is built out of the Metaverse.

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