Metaverse terrorism

You materialise outside your house of impossible architecture, and find to your astonishment that it’s raining. It’s raining boxes. Small featureless cubes, decorated with frantically scrolling computer code, babbling pseudo-biblical gibberish as they cascade onto the landscape around you.

You try to walk to the crest of the hill, to see if the phenomenon is merely local, but your body is sluggish and unresponsive, as if you are wading through treacle. Your resolution is suffering, too; your clothes have lost their texture. Familiar nearby landmarks are invisible, not due to being obscured by the rain of cubes but because the substrate on which you are running can’t spare the cycles to render them in your field of vision.

Finally atop the hill, you notice that the boxes are still falling as far as you can see in every direction – which isn’t that far now, as the edge of your vision is creeping nearer to you by the second, and with it the edge of reality itself. A last attempt to teleport elsewhere fails as well – all that is left to you is to temporarily terminate your existence.

That’s not a snippet from a work of fiction, although it easily could be. It’s a slight exaggeration of what Warren Ellis witnessed in Second Life last week. To someone who doesn’t believe in the metaverse as anything more than a much-hyped playground for people with too much time on their hands, it probably sounds like little more than a computer game crashing – and in one respect that’s exactly what it is. But it is also, from the perspective of SL residents, something much more than that. As Ellis himself puts it:

“Last night I experienced a terrorist attack on a virtual planet.”

Hyperbole, for sure, but telling none the less. This attack of self-replicating code has been likened to the hypothetical ‘grey goo’ scenario of out-of-control nanotechnology, and as such demonstrates a peculiar property of worlds like SL – things that couldn’t (or can’t yet) happen here in meatspace can be a serious issue to a virtual world.

Of course, the metaverse has the trump card of being able to log everyone off, fix the bug or vulnerability and reboot again – the commonalities are balanced by huge differences. But the commonalities occur at a very important level, namely that of human social interaction.

Those who’ve read my previous thoughts on the metaverse will be aware that I see their continuing expansion of popularity and influence as inevitable – reading Edward Castronova’s Synthetic Worlds has done nothing to persuade me against that belief. More and more people are going to spend more and more time in virtual spaces. Time, and money.

Where there is human time and money, then there will be politics of one sort or another. In these pioneer days, there are only the crude (but effective) griefing attacks like the grey goo to deal with, analogous to a frontier town being hassled by an outlaw gang – once the sherrif turns up, all is well, and the baddies high-tail it out of the state. But what will happen when virtual society is much more complex?

Well, terrorism, of a sort – the trouble being that terrorism is such a nebulous concept, meaning different things to different people. But rest assured, we’ll take our conflicts and ideologies into the metaverse with us, probably long before other aspects of society – the same thing has happened with the blogosphere, after all. Terrorism that can’t kill or harm anyone has obvious benefits over the more usual sort, of course, but there will be other repurcussions to consider, financial ones being a good example.

Furthermore, it may not be the usual suspects launching attacks on synthetic worlds – according to Castronova, it is nation-states that will have the most to lose from the rise of the metaverse, and hence the most to gain by attempting to control or subdue it. But if the worlds in question are distributed peer-to-peer systems, they can’t simply knock out the hardware that supports it. They will have to move against the metaverse by passing through the membrane and working inside of it. They will probably also build their own synthetic worlds as alternatives to entice their citizens back. In effect, the nation-states themselves will have to become virtual to compete. That’s when everything will start to get really weird.

Ah, you can see why this stuff fascinates me so much, and why I’ve suddenly started generating story ideas that I feel are worth doing something with. I wish I had the time to spend in researching these places properly – from the inside – but that’s not practical at the moment. I’ve popped my head into SL a couple of times, but that’s about it. I’m no ‘resident’ yet. But I think we all will be, and fairly soon too. Read Castronova’s book, seriously.

Oh, the story? Well, I’m glad you asked. Progress hasn’t been astonishingly impressive, thanks to a hectic weekend and a bout of poetry on Monday night, but…

Zokutou word meterZokutou word meter
867 / 7,500


I once read that the upper limit for a story to still be classified as a ‘short story’ (rather than a novelette or whatever) is 7500 words, so I’m using that as a benchmark for now. Working on that premise, hey, I’m over 10% into my first draft! If I keep up this daily rate (an hour and a half’s work), I’ll be doing the first revisions by next weekend. The story is provisionally entitled Ascension, and (as the post above may have suggested) concerns a guy who spends a vast amount of his live in a synthetic world. Wish me luck – I’m going to need it.

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