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Metaverse visionary Neal Stephenson is building a blockchain to uplift creators



Last month marked the 30th anniversary of the publication of Neal Stephenson’s science fiction novel Snow Crash. With its dystopian vision, rollicking prose and futuristic renderings of everything from social media networks to virtual assistants and even alternative currencies — Bitcoin wasn’t to launch for another 17 years — the work soon achieved iconic stature in the tech world. Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Jack Dorsey were admirers, while Google co-founder Sergey Brin called Snow Crash one of the two books that changed his life. 

In the mainstream world, Time magazine’s critics declared it one of the “100 best English-language novels published since 1923.”

The novel also includes the first known presentation of the “Metaverse” with all its immersive and internet-gaming addictiveness. As Stephenson wrote about his protagonist, Hiro, who lives in a 20-by-30 storage unit:

“Hiro’s not actually here at all. He’s in a computer-generated universe that his computer is drawing onto his goggles and pumping into his earphones. In the lingo, this imaginary place is known as the Metaverse. Hiro spends a lot of time in the Metaverse. It beats the shit out of the U-Stor-It.”

Recently, Stephenson brought his creative talents to the blockchain world, teaming up with venture capitalist and Bitcoin Foundation co-founder Peter Vessenes in a project to build a new “metaverse first,” layer-1 blockchain network. Last week, Stephenson and Vessenes sat down with Cointelegraph to talk about their project, Lamina1 — lamina means “layer” in Latin — as well as the Metaverse and blockchain worlds generally.

Cointelegraph: Peter, you’ve said that you envision Lamina1 as a sort of “base layer for the Open Metaverse: a place to build something a bit closer to Neal’s vision — one that privileges creators.” You also talk about employing “creator economics” in building your new blockchain network. What do you mean by that?

Peter Vessenes: We are building it into the mining mechanics, where the nodes are actually going to reward people who are building content. We’re calling it proof of integration. If you make digital objects and they’re used by Lamina1 participants in a game, the system will directly mint you tokens.

Overall, we’re looking to do things with Lamina1 that go beyond just making smart contracts and publishing them on a layer-2 chain somewhere. The Metaverse has its own requirements and needs, like persistent digital object storage for full 3D models. So we need something beyond storing a JPG on the IPFS [InterPlanetary File System].

CT: Neal, in chapter two of Snow Crash, your protagonist has driven his pizza delivery truck into the bottom of an empty swimming pool. A skateboarder generously offers to deliver his pizza for him, to which he agrees while handing her a card:

“On the back is gibberish explaining how he may be reached: a telephone number. A universal voice phone locator code. A P.O. box. His address on half a dozen electronic communications nets. And an address in the Metaverse. ‘Stupid name,’ she says, shoving the card into one of a hundred little pockets on her coverall.”

As best you know, is this the first-ever reference to the “Metaverse?”

Neal Stephenson: Let me answer that by telling a related story. “Avatar,” in its current sense, is a word that I came up with independently in the course of writing that book, and for a couple of years, I assumed that I was the first person who had ever used it like that. But, then I found out there were some guys working on a project called Habitat who had actually coined the exact same usage of it a couple of years before I did. Those guys, to their credit, completely understood that it was an independent coinage. I’m still friends with those guys. 

In the case of the “Metaverse,” that has never happened. No one has ever come to me and said, “Hey, Neal, I was using the Metaverse in 1987, or something like that.” Never say never, of course, but there are actually people who look this sort of stuff up. I got a contact from the Oxford English Dictionary a few years ago. It was for “Anglosphere,” a term I used in the Diamond Age where I talk about the English-speaking cultures and countries of the world. This official contact said, “As far as we can tell, you are the first to use that term? Do you know of any prior usages?” I said I didn’t.

CT: A lot of prominent tech-world figures were influenced by Snow Crash and your other novels. What writers influenced you?

I started out reading a lot of fantasy and science fiction, but then I finally got talked into reading “real” literature by a series of excellent English teachers, books like Moby Dick, which incidentally is an absolutely insane book — with all the nerdy details of a hard science fiction, and also a speculative element to it.

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Then there was a period in the 1970s and 1980s when people were writing this extraordinarily vivid prose that really appealed to me — Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, for instance. The Big Bang moment for me, though, was the publication of Neuromancer in 1984.

Neuromancer is a science fiction novel, but from the very first sentence, it’s also great literary writing. And it isn’t a kind of highfalutin writing, but like the stuff I was talking about a minute ago, the New Journalism movement, you know, vivid imagery. So, that was kind of the moment when I said, “Oh, I didn’t realize you were allowed to do that.”

CT: Peter, you’ve said that you have “a raft of plans to implement Lamina1 quickly as we get the necessary governance, technology, node operators, IP partners, artists, business partners, and funds up and running.” Where do things stand now?

PV: We have a bunch of recruiting going on now, we’ve hired a couple of new executives, we’re in the seed fund-raising round now and hope to be done in summer or early fall. On the immersive compute side, we’re just starting to get serious about building out our first couple of dogfoods [tests of a new product]. So, things are moving, and I think we should have something that people can poke at and play with in mid-September.

CT: You were almost present at crypto’s creation — working closely with many of Satoshi’s immediate successors like Gavin Andresen as you built the Bitcoin Foundation, founded in 2012. For those few spearheading Bitcoin back then, making money was arguably one of the farthest things from their minds, you have said.

Recently, Ethereum co-founder Vitalik Buterin wrote a blog in which he lamented “the blockchain industry’s slow replacement of philosophical and idealistic values with short-term profit-seeking values.” Does Vitalik have a point?

PV: There was this profound energy at the start of Bitcoin. People were like: “This is the future. We’re building it” — and it’s so appealing when you see it. For someone like me, yeah, I may be a little more skeptical, I’m not naturally someone who buys in instantly, but I was just swept up in it myself. 

Vitalik is very unusual. He’s this billionaire guy who lives out of a 30-liter backpack, who is motivated by other things than adding another zero to his net worth. I’ve thought about the senior leaders of these chains over the past 10 or 12 years, and one of the things that I think is important for blockchains if they are going to be successful — they should not be in it as a money grab.

Neal and I have spent almost no time asking: Is this going to be really profitable? Rather the questions are: How is this going to impact the creators that we want to support and build the space that we want to build?

CT: As any industry grows and becomes more mainstream, maybe it is inevitable that you’re going to need people to manage things — accountants, lawyers, financial officers — who also are looking closely at the bottom line?

PV: It kind of is. You won’t get those kinds of people — that older generation of believers — coming into Ethereum now. The money has been made. The first time I saw Ether, it was $7.00. Now it’s $1,500. We won’t ever see $300,000 ETH, I believe. You need to create some green space for this next generation of believers to build their own thing. We probably do have a kind of natural arc on this. Of course, institutions are going to get more easily into something larger and more stable. So yeah, there’s probably some inevitability here.

CT: In Snow Crash, Neal, you anticipate many of the elements of the Metaverse that are present today. But some developments of the past 30 years were unanticipated. You’re surprised that metaverse game players are still using “steampunk WASDE keyboards,” for example. What about some recent developments on the non-technical side, like $300 million of virtual land sold in three hours in the Otherside “world” in May? Did that surprise you?

NS: If you read the book, it is clearly based on the notion of a market for virtual real estate, and there’s a kind of scarcity that’s been created from the fact that some parts of the Metaverse are more desirable for developing a site than others. 

So, it’s implicit in the book as written that there’s a virtual real estate market and that people pay money to control it, and some parcels are more desirable, more valuable than others. So, on that level, it’s all there in black and white.

Whether that particular event you describe is surprising, I would say yes. The book was written a long time ago.

CT: I’m sure you’re asked for predictions all the time about the way the Metaverse and technology in general is evolving, Neal. But are there any possible scenarios that really scare you?

NS: I worry about things that are not directly related to blockchain and the Metaverse. I worry primarily about climate change and about social fragmentation from the fact that people don’t agree on a shared reality anymore. What we’re doing may in some way help to address those things — we intend to make the chain carbon negative, for example. But I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about nightmare scenarios, specifically about the Metaverse, because I don’t find that’s a productive way to start a project. The successful projects emerge from a more positive frame of mind, like, “Hey, this is going to change the world.” 

CT: Peter, during that $300 million sale of virtual land, gas fees on the Ethereum platform skyrocketed. A few parties paid thousands of dollars in transaction fees. Is that another reason to build a new layer-1 blockchain, in your view, to bring down transaction fees?

PV: First of all, I think it’s important to say if you didn’t charge any fees, these chains would be overrun by spam. You have node operators, you have miners, and if you just gave it away for free, you’d have people who say: “Cool, give me 100% of that.”

Bitcoin miners didn’t require fees in the beginning because there just wasn’t a ton of transaction volume, and Satoshi didn’t have a solution to this generalized problem, such as “how do you charge for this?”

What Vitalik [Buterin, co-founder of Ethereum] did with Ethereum was really quite brilliant — this concept of gas and lithium. [He recognized] that any chain is going to have to charge for usage of the resources, or you just have the Tragedy of the Commons.

That said, there are some eye-opening numbers like $12 billion of buy-side demand [i.e., gas fees] for ETH in 2021. That’s good for Ethereum. It means people are using the network. That’s good for ETH holders, but it’s hard for those, like my 15-year-old son when all of a sudden it costs him something like $200 to do anything on the network. 

The plan for Lamina1 is to allow side-chains — similar to what Avalanche calls subnets or Polkadot calls substrates. We’re going to make it very easy for a developer or group that wants to have free transactions or very fast transactions. We’ll provide them a track to do that. They’ll have to go run those nodes and deal with the cost of that themselves, but if they think it’s best for their constituents to have no fees, they’ll be able to do that.

CT: Neal, you’ve given credit to gamers for pioneering the Metaverse. Role-playing video games have brought down the cost of 3D graphics so that almost anyone can access this kind of environment, and you don’t need a lot of expensive hardware like goggles. That said, will the Metaverse always be dominated by gamers? What about more serious use cases, like training surgeons on 3D organ models? Or educational uses, like a virtual class trip to an ancient Greek Agora? 

NS: When Snow Crash came out in 1992, virtually all video games were 2D. But then Doom came out in 1993, and it was the first broadly used 3D game. It spawned a vast industry of similar games. The World Wide Web’s source code was also released in 1993, and suddenly you can look at pictures on your computer.

All those things together pushed millions of people to want to own computers with much more advanced graphics capabilities. That turned out to be that industry’s I Love Lucy moment.

CT: I Love Lucy?

NS: It’s what happened to television in the 1950s, where there was this kind of virtuous cycle where millions of people wanted to watch the I Love Lucy television show, so they bought TVs. The increased sales volume enabled hardware manufacturers like Magnavox and RCA to bring down the price of TV sets, which in turn made I Love Lucy even more accessible and popular. That’s how industries grow.

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Video games have led to incredible, many-order-of-magnitude advances in the 3D processing power you can get out of a device per dollar spent.

CT: Will game playing, then, continue to be the main thing that happens in the Metaverse?

NS: I think what is possible is that 20 or 30 years from now, people who are using immersive experiences will look back on games as: “That’s how we got here.” It used to be, these things were all video games, that’s where the hardware came from, where the toolsets came from, the people who create immersive experiences learned their skills from video games, and so on. And, there will still be lots and lots of video games, but there also will be experiences that will be something more, and I think you see that already if you look at Fortnite, which is obviously a video game, but it is also a social environment.

Edited by Aaron Wood.