He coined the term metaverse three decades ago, but he’s not impressed by Mark Zuckerberg. Author Neal Stephenson is also far more concerned about climate change and wonders if billionaire big tech will ride to the rescue and at what cost?
In conversation with Kara Swisher on Sway, her podcast hosted by The New York Times, Stephenson discusses the perverse relationship between personal wealth and climate survival.
Along with VR pioneer Jaron Lanier, who was also a recent guest on Sway, Stephenson is dismissive of Meta’s conception of the metaverse.
“The idea of holding virtual meetings where everyone’s represented by an avatar,” the celebrated futurist says. “The idea of playing a board game with somebody virtually across the table from you who’s actually far away. That stuff is really old hat. And so it’s hard for me to make out what they claim to be doing that’s new, other than maybe implementing those old ideas on a larger scale for a broader audience.”
While his 1992 novel Snow Crash was a satire on a virtual world owned by corporations, Stephenson thinks the metaverse today is kind of neutral.
“I mean, it’s certainly part of this dystopian world, but in and of itself, it’s just an entertainment medium. It’s not inherently bad.”
What is bad — and a view he shares with Lanier — is the business model behind social media today and tomorrow.
“Every time you input data to a social media site, you’re giving free IP to whoever runs that site. And that can mean clicking on a ‘like’ button or something like that. But even if you choose not to log on for a day and you don’t interact at all, that’s data in and of itself. And AR/VR devices are going to have much more sophisticated ways of extracting information from your usage habits. So they’re tracking your eyes to some extent, your pulse, all of that stuff,” he warns.
“A better system is one that would look kind of the way manufacturing looked after labor unions entered the picture, where the people who have been contributing their free labor have some kind of collective bargaining power. And, as such, are part of the process, and helping to improve the product as opposed to just throwing their data over a blank wall.”
READ MORE: He Conceived of the Metaverse in the ’90s. He’s Unimpressed With Mark Zuckerberg’s. (The New York Times)
His latest book, Termination Shock, describes a world overrun by the effects of climate change and how geoengineering might pull us back from the brink of Armageddon.
Geoengineering is a form of technological interventions in the climate to blunt the effects of having too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In theory that could include artificially generated volcanoes which would spew ash into the atmosphere to block the sun’s radiation and lead to a worldwide decline in temperatures. Stephenson imagines a billionaire building a special “sulfur gun” in Texas to achieve the same effect.
The metaverse may be a wild frontier, but here at NAB Amplify we’ve got you covered! Hand-selected from our archives, here are some of the essential insights you’ll need to expand your knowledge base and confidently explore the new horizons ahead:
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- Don’t Expect the Metaverse to Happen Overnight
- A Framework for the Metaverse from Hardware to Hollywood and Everything in Between
“Geoengineering doesn’t get talked about very much because it’s quite controversial — so that’s kind of where I’m starting from. I’m saying, what if there was somebody who just didn’t care and kind of came at it with a classic kind of mentality of big oil, gas, mining, and what would be the geopolitical fallout from somebody doing that? Because if somebody were to intervene, it would affect different regions of the Earth’s surface in different ways. And some countries are going to do simulations. They’re going to ask themselves, how is this thing going to affect temperature in our country? How is it going to affect rainfall, and then as all nation-states do, they’re going to act in their own national interest.”
The billionaire he portrays is purposefully not modelled on Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos. “Realistically, I doubt that it would be an individual billionaire just unilaterally taking action. But a decade or two down the road, I can easily see a country making a decision that they’re just going to do this because it’s going to make things better for that country.”
Even if someone were to geo-engineer the earth’s climate to materially make a positive difference, the author thinks this is a last resort.
“Geoengineering is just like the tourniquet that you put on the patient’s leg while you’re driving them to the emergency room. You don’t apply the tourniquet and then declare them healed. So they’re both important, but this business of trying to extract unbelievably huge amounts of carbon from the atmosphere and make it scalable and economically realistic, [needs to] have that degree of glamour that might start drawing some good brains into it.
“What may be changing with the whole climate debate is the possibility that the situation that already exists is so dangerous that the dangers of doing nothing may overbalance the hypothetical dangers of taking some kind of action.”
His belief is that the short-term consequences for the planet over the next 50-100 years will be disastrous, but that there’s a glimmer of longer term hope.
“I’m afraid that we may start seeing those or similar climate disasters happening. So that’s going to be bad, no question about it. What I choose to believe is that, eventually, we’ll somehow come up with the business plan or the set of incentives that will make it possible to realize your idea of the carbon capture trillionaire, or what have you. And that people will turn their creative energies and talent for building institutions and creating things into that all- important project. I hope that 100 years from now, the CO2 level in the atmosphere will be back.”