It’s been roughly a year since Mark Zuckerberg laid out his ambitious plans to found a futuristic new world existing purely in a digital space. Acknowledging this new construct did not yet “fully exist,” the CEO — whose origins lie in far less noble pursuits — encouraged viewers of this announcement to experience the “the successor of the mobile internet” for themselves.
Many were, justifiably, skeptical. It seemed all too convenient, after all, the re-branding of Facebook after years of controversy and regressive decline; a decade marked by dark and familiar colonialistic impulses spurring literal crimes against humanity. The announcement came as merely one channel over, a whistleblower from his own company sat in back-to-back congressional hearings, describing Zuckerberg’s legacy, a company he’d founded at 19, now worth a trillion dollars, as a profit-maximizing machine geared toward discord, polarization, and hate.
Motive or capacity for blending the real world with the digital aside, and regardless of whether it is eventually accessible to all or merely a privileged few, a future dominated by virtual and augmented realities seems, at this point, an inevitability. More than simply being within our technological grasp, worldbuilding, for better or worse, is a historical impetus behind many of humanity’s greatest endeavors. It is the reason for every new frontier conquered. It is, you might say, in our blood.
Herman Narula, as the title of his new book suggests, would wholeheartedly agree — though the lens through which the 34-year-old, multinational CEO sees this future is far rosier than the common technocratic dystopias dominating today’s cinema and young adult literature. Virtual Society: The Metaverse and the New Frontiers of Human Experience contains a plethora of technological prophecies, most designed to fill his readers with hope. (Yes, hope; not gloom, despite how dependably the latter sells.) Escaping the Orwellian trend, Narula augurs instead a future in which the “metaverse” serves all, changing, as he says, “society for the better.”
His most provocative forecast? Look no further than page one: “One day this book will be read by a person without a body.” Despite the goofiness with which Zuckerberg’s own invention appears (not to mention its liminally vacant spaces) Narula’s vision seems, by some baffling means, well within reach. And here he is to tell us more about it:
Gizmodo: You’re the cofounder and CEO of Improbable Worlds Limited, which you with two others founded in 2012. How has the space of metaverse changed when you first started? How has the company evolved from the beginning and what new goals have you set for the company?
Hernan Narula: The term metaverse has been gaining a huge amount of exposure in recent years but we truly saw the metaverse market rapidly expand and open up in 2021. At Improbable our original vision was to create incredible virtual worlds and our recent technological advances have put us in a unique position in the burgeoning metaverse market. Our Morpheus technology solves the barriers of density and presence traditionally met in games and real-time experiences. We have decided to double down on the metaverse and become a metaverse technology company to help our clients explore the metaverse with ambitious projects of their own.
Gizmodo: How did your experience as the CEO of Improbable and initiator of M² influence your research and writing of Virtual Society?
Narula: Pretty much every page of Virtual Society is influenced by the lessons I’ve learned while at the helm of Improbable: the inevitable stops and starts and struggles and epiphanies that have characterized my journey to understand how to build the sorts of virtual environments that can provide the most fulfillment to the most people. The insights I offer in the book derive from my own direct experiences developing virtual environments, as well as from the many conversations I’ve had along the way with smart, thoughtful people across various professional and academic disciplines who have helped challenge my assumptions and hone my thinking. In a lot of ways, this book is the book that I wish I’d been able to read myself a decade ago when I was just starting out. It would’ve saved me a lot of time!
“These other worlds aren’t alternative realities into which we choose to escape: They are more reality. They are found spaces into which we can extend, evolve, and improve our social structures.”
First of all, just a funny thing to note is that just looking up the term ‘escapism,’ Google provides the example “virtual reality offers a form of escapism.” You briefly expand in the above quote why we don’t choose to escape from them, but others do, how do you want to get people to expand that view of virtual reality that is not escapism?
I think it’s important to differentiate between “virtual reality” and the types of virtual worlds to which the excerpt refers. The term “virtual reality,” at least in the way most people use it, is bound up with the notion of visual immersion, usually accessed via goggles or headsets or something similar. But immersion alone is not enough to make a world feel consequential and real. Consequentiality—I’m oversimplifying a bit—is a function of 1) presence, which is conferred by the opportunity to substantively interact with objects and individuals within the world; 2) autonomy, which is conferred by allowing users to chart their own course through the world and make choices that can affect the world itself; and 3) bilaterality between worlds, or having the virtual world be linked in some meaningful sense with the real world. Virtual realities that lack these qualities are escapist, because they are ultimately inconsequential; the things that happen in the virtual world are completely disconnected from the real world. The sorts of virtual worlds that I’m most interested in are those that are consequential enough to feel as real and important to their participants as the physical worlds in which their bodies reside. These sorts of worlds aren’t escapes from the real world; they are, instead, new frontiers of reality.
If not escapism, which can sometimes take on a sort of utopic view, how can we utilize virtual reality in our everyday lives (which can be considered neither utopian or dystopian)?
We’ve always used virtual worlds in our daily lives. Virtual worlds tend to begin as stories: tales told to explain natural phenomena, or to teach moral lessons, or just for entertainment purposes. The most engaging of these stories can sometimes take on lives of their own and become full-fledged worlds that can feel as real and as impactful as the physical world. Think of the role that Olympus played in antiquity. The home of the gods was a virtual world in direct conversation with the real world; a virtual environment that humans called into being with their imaginations and then sustained by the force of their mutual belief. These sorts of worlds have always played an important role in human society. They inspire great art; they promote social stability; they are units of cultural technology that make our lives on Earth richer and more resonant. The digital virtual worlds of the future will function along the same lines. They will exist in conversation with the real world, and the goings-on in virtual worlds will matter here on Earth. In the future, the real and the virtual will be so closely intertwined that it might be hard to tell which is which.
“The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is a priceless work in our world and also, in a sense, a gateway to the virtual world that inspired it, just as the Göbekli Tepe megaliths were effectively gateways to the world that inspired their creation.”
Above is a short quote from the book, could you explain this idea more of “virtual worlds” that are created? If we are thinking of something like spirituality as a virtual or other world, what are other ‘virtual worlds’ that we have created?
Since we’ve already touched on the ways in which spirituality and mythology are linked to virtual worlds, let’s go in a slightly different direction and think about how something like professional sports might qualify as a virtual world. Professional sports are not objectively, inherently important, right? They are constructed social realities, insofar as the outcome of the World Cup matters only because we have all agreed to believe that it matters. There is nothing objectively consequential about the World Cup championship match. If France defeats Spain, for instance, Spain doesn’t suddenly become French territory or anything like that. And yet the football fans watching the match will be profoundly, intrinsically affected by its outcome. People live and die with the fortunes of their teams; people get intellectually and emotionally invested in the world of sport, its past, present, and future. This is an example of world-building. When we take a social construct and choose to believe that it is objectively important—and when there is space for us to have meaningful, fulfilling experiences within that construct—then the construct can become a full-fledged virtual world.
Was there an event or something that you think led us to virtual realities or the metaverse? I guess the question is what was our gateway into virtual reality?
“Virtual realities” precede the development of the digital technologies that are today often conflated with the worlds to which they grant access. Humans have been creating other realities since they first began to gather in groups, and in the book I argue that doing so is a fundamental human ability—one that has allowed our species to survive and thrive over the course of millennia. In the book I talk about the Göbekli Tepe megaliths in present-day Turkey: intricate carved structures that predate Stonehenge and were constructed by a nomadic people over the span of a millennium over 10,000 years ago. Since these structures have no evident practical purpose, it’s fair to speculate that they signify their builders’ belief in some other world—a world that must have been important enough to lead them to settle down and build these structures over the span of 1,000 years. So a nomadic society settles down, and the act of settling down leads to the development of agriculture, and then all of the sudden we’re into the so-called Neolithic Revolution. The line between these points might not be as direct as I’ve implied—this all happened 10,000 years ago, after all—but at the very least it’s easy to see how faith and belief in some “other world” can have direct effects on our own.
What is the next stage after the metaverse? Let’s say we complete virtual reality and we as society are fully immersed in it, what do you think is the next thing we are going to create?
I’d bet that the next stage will be brain-computer interfaces that allow us to directly connect to and thus inhabit worlds that exist only inside computers. Sort of like jacking directly into the Matrix, but without the dystopian connotations. We already know that brain-computer interfaces are theoretically possible; we know that scientists are already performing intriguing experiments with “neural laces” and other technologies that could facilitate direct connections between the brain and a machine. In the book, I argue that if these technologies continue to improve and evolve, then we will eventually get to the point where we’ll be able to hopscotch between real and virtual worlds, with the only difference between “real” and “virtual” being a semantic one. We’ll create our own multiverses, basically, and we’ll toggle between worlds with ease.
Are there limits to the metaverse currently? What do we have to get past to get to the step after metaverse? What are unknown pros to the metaverse that people tend to ignore?
The biggest limit to any virtual world is capacity, or the ability to simultaneously serve lots of people at once without glitching, without limiting access to aspects of or experiences within the world. We have a metric at Improbable, devised by my co-founder Rob Whitehead, that we call communications operations per second, or ops per second. To make a long story short, ops per second reflects the number of separate things that can happen at the same time within a virtual environment. The more ops per second that a world can support, the more capacious and consequential that world will seem to its participants. We’ll need to build worlds that can support billions, if not trillions, of ops per second before we can even come close to worlds that might seem as real as the real world. This is a massive technical challenge and one that we’re nowhere close to solving—but it’s one that we need to solve if the metaverse is to reach its full potential. As for pros to the metaverse that people tend to ignore, one big one eventually will be the enhanced opportunities the metaverse presents to gather together in large groups and experience the collective effervescence of being in the same space at the same time with countless people who all share similar goals and objectives.
Is the metaverse and virtual reality accessible to all? Or how do we make it accessible to all to move on?
The metaverse can and should be accessible to all, but an excessive fixation on high-tech equipment can serve to impede accessibility. We shouldn’t presume that people will have to purchase costly equipment such as VR goggles in order to use the metaverse. I feel like an overemphasis on immersive technology both misses the point of the metaverse and risks perpetuating the digital divide. Better to think of the metaverse as a linked network of useful, fulfilling experiences that you’ll be able to access using technology you already own: your computer, your phone, your television, and so on. We can build a perfectly full, functional, amazing metaverse without ever having to incorporate VR goggles.
I think the particular use of the word “virtual’’ is interesting in both the title but throughout the book as virtual can mean other worldly/ taken in a spiritual sense, or can take on the technological aspect of something like VR. How do these two definitions of virtual intersect or play on each other? Should we be differentiating them?
So the phrase “virtual” often implies a simulation or replica that doesn’t quite live up to the original, right? When your answer to a question is virtually correct, the implication is that it’s still missing one critical component that would make it precisely, absolutely correct. And so the popular understanding of virtual worlds and virtual reality is that these are technologies that are inherently lesser than the real world. But then, on the other hand, there’s something like the Christian concept of heaven, which is effectively a virtual world that’s thought to be better than the real world in every single respect. Humans love to invest in the reality of virtual worlds that they assume will improve upon the real world, while simultaneously sneering at the idea that a digital virtual world could ever be anything but a pale shadow of the real world. The overarching thesis of the book is that we can and should reconcile these two different takes on the concept of virtuality, and that we can and will use technology to create virtual worlds that offer levels of fulfillment and experience that are functionally inaccessible in the real world. It’s not that we’ll use computers to create heaven on earth, per se, but we can certainly try.
“ The arrival of the metaverse marks the beginning of a new age of exploration—not outward, but inward—with the potential to reshape society and open the door to a new understanding of the human species and its capabilities.”
This quote comes from the Penguin Random House page for your book. What can the metaverse and virtuality provide for introspection that other forms of media or personal self reflection can’t provide?
Other forms of media are relatively passive and static when compared with virtual worlds. While books and stories and films and shows can inspire the imagination, a reader or viewer in most cases cannot directly participate in the story or affect the world of the story. But virtual worlds can turn passive stories into active experiences that center the user as protagonist. There’s this field of psychological study called self-determination theory that argues, among other things, that intrinsic fulfillment is a function of autonomy, competence, and interrelatedness; people who regularly experience those three feelings are more likely to be intrinsically fulfilled. If we accept that capacious, high-density virtual worlds will be light years beyond today’s existing forms of media in their ability to provide people with fulfilling experiences, then it’s also fair to presume that exploring and expanding the limits of human fulfillment will indeed lead us to learn more about ourselves and our capabilities.
What is the importance of video games in your life and in our world? And how does that same importance translate into the metaverse and our lives?
I’ve been a gamer since I was a child. But contrary to the stereotypical image of a gamer as someone who wants to withdraw from the world, the games I played as a kid awakened in me a sense of exploration and discovery. They challenged me and fulfilled me in ways that other forms of media or other activities did not; and as I got better at the games I played, the best of these games kept challenging me by offering me new experiences. I think the same is true for a lot of gamers out there; that, far from being these black holes that consume a user’s time and ambition, games offer people levels of fulfillment and opportunities for self-discovery that are easier to find in virtual spaces than they are in a real world that’s so keenly focused on productivity. The best games aren’t an escape from the real world: they’re a lesson for the real world. People want to be challenged, they want to be able to find their own solutions and chart their own paths, and they want to share meaningful experiences with other people. I firmly believe that an optimally valuable metaverse can and must be organized around these principles.
In short, what can people expect from this book, and how do you hope it influences people going forward?
The book offers an alternative to the dominant explanation for the metaverse, as promoted by companies such as Meta and other entities and individuals who approach the concept from a narrow commercial standpoint. I’m excited about the commercial potential of the metaverse, too; I wouldn’t be running a metaverse company if I wasn’t. But too much of the discourse up to now has led with the money to be made in the metaverse without first stopping to establish why virtual worlds are important, why people should be excited about them, and how everyone—not just a narrow band of entrepreneurs and investors—will be able to benefit when the metaverse comes into the mainstream. In terms of how I hope the book influences people, I hope it helps guide their thinking about the metaverse, and perhaps challenges some of their assumptions about the metaverse. Consider it a manifesto of sorts, making the case for the sort of metaverse that will provide the most benefit to the most people.
What are other companies, organizations, people, etc that you admire and why? This can be in the same field as you, or a different field but you just really like their model.
We are excited and energized by the conversations M² is having with pioneering brands from the worlds of sports, culture and entertainment seeking a new form of direct engagement with their fans and communities. We are looking forward to seeing more big names from outside of the Web3 world enter the metaverse in the coming months and years.
Is there anything else you would like to highlight about yourself or the book?
I am very lucky with my co-founders and my team at Improbable. So much of the thinking in the book and so much of what we are achieving @Improbableio comes from their inspiration and their hard work. There is so much more to come – and possibly even another book!