A version of this article was published in TIME’s newsletter Into the Metaverse. Subscribe for a weekly guide to the future of the Internet. You can find past issues of the newsletter here.
Technology and fiction have long shared a symbiotic relationship. Just as writers dreamed up fantastical worlds based on imagined technologies, those same worlds have inspired engineers, technologists, and scientists—spurring breakthroughs as well as thorny philosophical questions about their work.
The term “metaverse” itself comes from Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash; the comic strip Dick Tracy inspired the cell phone. Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin told me last month about the lasting impact of World of Warcraft upon his blockchain.
And as both a tech and culture reporter for TIME, I’m acutely interested in the overlaps between those two subject matters: How tech enables artistic breakthroughs (including the use of AI in music) or how culture can shift the direction of tech developments (i.e., NFTs). In this vein, I’m dedicating this week’s newsletter to highlight recent ways in which the metaverse and immersive tech are making their way into futuristic fiction, in film, literature and TV.
These works allow us to see the potential impact of nascent tech more clearly; they express anxiety about their corporate control and probe into the implications of AI omniscience. They range from hopeful to downright dystopian: they show us both the perils and the benefits of diving headlong into new worlds.
If you’ve been reading or watching anything else that’s related, please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org!
The Candy House, by Jennifer Egan (novel)
Egan is one of the most acclaimed novelists of our time, having written the 2017 NYT bestseller Manhattan Beach and the 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winner A Visit From the Goon Squad. The quasi-sequel to that novel, The Candy House, arrives on April 5, and is centered upon the invention of a machine that allows you to upload your entire memory to the cloud. While the machine connects society in unprecedented ways, it also marks “an end of private life,” in which the company that created it monitors your every movement, allowing them to predict your future behaviors.
Sound familiar? The interplay between increasing connectivity and decreasing privacy is often at the center of conversations about the metaverse. In January, Meta raised some eyebrows by patenting technology that could allow them to track your pupils in order to sell ads. I interviewed Egan last month for TIME, and when I mentioned that development to her, she responded:
“It’s so incredible to think of how wrong George Orwell got it: It’s not that anyone forces screens into every home, it’s that we invite them. That’s pretty scary, and I’m amazed people would go for that. But my book is completely about how they likely will, because they get other advantages—and we have a tendency not to think about the long term price of things until later.”
But Egan doesn’t see her fictional machine—or other conceptions of the coming metaverse—as necessarily dystopian. “There’s always a sadness and fearfulness in seeing the world change in really seismic ways,” she said. “I read a lot of 19th-century fiction, and hear the same echoes of sadness and nostalgia when people are looking back at the time before the railroads: Because everything was suddenly so connected.”
You can read the rest of my interview with Egan, which touches upon the link between novels and Twitch video game streamers, here.
After Yang (film on Showtime)
This sci-fi movie, which was written and directed by Korean-American filmmaker Kogonada, is set in a near future in which “technosapiens”—robots so advanced they’re nearly indistinguishable from humans—are a part of everyday life. Rather than focusing on the danger of such integration, Kogonada focuses on their humanistic power: how giving an adopted Asian daughter an Asian humanoid brother, for instance, might give her a stronger sense of self and familial belonging.
But if you give robots the properties of humans, Kogonada then asks, what happens to the robots themselves? If they’re programmed just like us, then should we treat their dreams, memories and desires with as much weightiness as we do our own? After Yang arrives amidst the rise of AI celebrities, helpers, and companions, who spam our social media platforms and are rapidly filling out metaverse worlds. These beings might not be human, but that doesn’t mean our emotional connections to them won’t be real—or that they won’t feel things about us, either. “There are emotional attachments that we have to our pets, to our sports teams…and I think it’s going to get more complicated as there become more things that we feel like we connect to on some other, deeper level,” Kogonada told The Verge.
Upload (TV series on Amazon Prime)
When I moderated a panel at the crypto conference ETHDenver last month, panelist Eva Beylin, the director of blockchain data company the Graph Foundation, made a connection between the metaverse and eternal life. “The metaverse, given everything is permanent on-chain and people can interact with it, kind of enables all of us to live on beyond our physical body,” she said.
Upload, a TV series created by Greg Daniels (The Office), goes even further. The show imagines a future 15 years from now, in which people can live beyond their corporeal bodies by uploading their consciousness into a visual afterworld. You can still video chat with people on earth, and your surroundings in the afterlife are customizable and lavish—if you can pay, that is. This heaven is controlled by Big Tech and kept behind a paywall. Low-income residents live on a dingy basement floor, and might freeze if their data is capped.
“The nugget of the idea is that if you could technologically record people’s minds, and then reconstitute them in a metaverse where they live full-time, then you would basically be able to create heaven,” Daniels told Variety this month; the show’s second season just arrived on streaming. “But if that was the case then human beings would be making it. It would be for profit. I thought, ‘Oh, that’s a great metaphor.’ Just to talk about how there’s a lot of unfairness already in the distribution of technology and the good things in life.”
Severance (TV show on Apple TV+)
Some metaverse enthusiasts see virtual worlds as an escape from the doldrums of office life; some companies see them as the solution to remote work. Severance, which debuted last month, taps into the anxieties of this crossroads moment of work/life balance.
The show centers upon a shadowy company that requires its employees to split their consciousness in two by implanting a chip in their brain.These employees are lobotomized to an unprecedented degree: their home and work selves are completely separated, so that a man at a bar on Friday night would have no idea what he did all week between the hours of nine to five.
Like Upload, Severance explores the overreach of corporate control in using new tech, and the lengths people go to in escaping the dehumanization of late-stage capitalism. Judy Berman, in her TIME review, writes that the show poses some big, thorny questions to its audience: “Should humans have the right to subcontract their own brains for what amounts to indentured servitude? Does the second self constitute a discreet person? And if so, shouldn’t that person have some right to self-determination?”
If those questions feel irrelevant given the show’s fictional premise, they might not be soon: A neurosurgeon who served as a consultant on the show told Variety that such a technology is “not far off.” But regardless of whether any of these aforementioned devices are ever invented, these works of fiction serve other, greater purposes: to remind us of the breathtaking speed of tech breakthroughs that seemed unimaginable just a decade ago; to remind us that humans should be at the center of any tech story.
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