Of metaverse, literature and the changing face of modern storytelling

Mark Zuckerberg

In this illustration photo taken in Los Angeles on October 28, 2021, a person watches on a smartphone Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg unveil the META logo. 

Photo credit: AFP

What you need to know:

  • Already, critics note that computer games like Fortnite and Roblox are increasingly having metaverse-like elements.
  • In metaverse, instead of imaginary characters described using words, there will be avatars who are icons or figures representing a person in a video game or internet forum.

“In those days I had two sets of realities; one was the ugly world in which I lived my trapped life and the other, more powerful one, was the world of books I read… It was clear I was using literature as a form of escape; I was using it as a shield against a life of grime and social deprivation... when I went to join the paper, Drum was a curious institution... it was the symbol of the new African cut adrift from the tribal reserve – urbanised, eager, fast-talking and brash... Drum had... an exciting bunch of young writers who considered it... a mark of great honour to get into trouble with the authorities as often as possible while in pursuit of fact and photograph,” so writes Lewis Nkosi in Home and Exile and Other Stories.

The literary reality and way of storytelling that Nkosi experienced through the literature of his days was through the books he read and at Drum magazine, it was storytelling using “fact and photograph”. However, this kind of storytelling is about to evolve dramatically from what Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO announced on October 28, 2021, when he hailed a new world he called metaverse. 

Standing before bright lights, Zuckerberg, he proclaimed a staggering vision of a new world as he announced that Meta would be the new name for the parent company that owns Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.

“In this future, you will be able to teleport instantly as a hologram to be at the office without a commute, at a concert with friends, or in your parents’ living room to catch up,” Zuckerberg wrote in a letter announcing Facebook’s rebranding.

Though Zuckerberg has embraced metaverse and is like the first bull passing others in thundering charge, he is not the originator of the word. Metaverse is coined from the 1992 science fiction novel entitled Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson where the word metaverse refers to what a critic called “a convergence of physical, augmented, and virtual reality in a shared online space”.

Mysterious virtual place

In the novel, Stephenson writes that, “By drawing a slightly different image in front of each eye, the image can be made three-dimensional. By changing the image seventy-two times a second, it can be made to move. By drawing the moving three-dimensional image at a resolution of 2K pixels on a side, it can be as sharp as the eye can perceive, and by pumping stereo digital sound through the little earphones, the moving 3-D pictures can have a perfectly realistic soundtrack. So 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”.

In a case of art imitating real life, the metaverse announced by Zuckerberg is just like in Stephenson’s novel – an enormous, brooding and mysterious virtual place with a maximalist, interconnected set of experiences straight out of science fiction.

Already, critics note that computer games like Fortnite and Roblox (that my son and daughter are already enjoying) are increasingly having metaverse-like elements. In metaverse, storytelling will evolve. Instead of imaginary characters described using words, there will be avatars who are icons or figures representing a person in a video game or internet forum or some other space in metaverse.

I imagine that from Nairobi, if connected with appropriate devices, my avatar could jump in theatrical panache into metaverse and my hologram would instantly appear on a certain spot to enjoy the view of the hills surrounding our village of Bughuta in Taita as they display their golden iridescence in the late afternoon sun. And to see again that path that has always haunted me from childhood and the brown shrubs, knee-high, undulating in the sun. 

Metaverse will redefine what it means to be present in a certain place as one can go anywhere through virtual reality. Zuckerberg described metaverse best in a recent interview where he stressed that it will be built by many companies: “The metaverse is a vision that spans many companies — the whole industry. You can think about it as the successor to the mobile internet... But you can think about the metaverse as an embodied internet, where instead of just viewing content — you are in it. And you feel present with other people as if you were in other places, having different experiences that you couldn’t necessarily do on a 2D app or webpage, like dancing, for example.”

Now that’s audacity!