When Facebook announced that it was changing its name to âMeta,â one of the most damning responses came from writer Lauren Beukes, who is no stranger to appearances of the unreal. Lamenting the technocrats’ penchant for the mundane and the derivative, she tweeted: “Hire better writers, reality engineers!” â¦ Seriously, I couldn’t get away with this in fiction.
Meta is so literal, is not it ? And there are a thousand questions about the ways the unimaginative people who run the business are going to distort virtual reality for the mundane end of their personal enrichment.
That the metaverse descends upon us, however – in one form or another – can now be considered read. This leads to other questions, which those who want to be part of the better world to come should be faced with as soon as possible. Things move fast.
One of those questions that’s been on my mind lately is: What will the books look like in the Metaverse?
The very term comes from a book, of course: the cyberpunk epic of Neal Stephenson in 1992. Snow accident. (This makes “Meta” the second time Mark Zuckerberg has stolen a name for his company.) The premise of the 21st Century Metaverse, which is quite different from Stephenson’s, is that you can explore an endless virtual board in new and exciting ways from the comfort of your home. What place, then, does the original device to offer this experience, magically integrated in paper and ink, have among the pixels?
Writers have played with the idea of ââvirtual reality through the ages, from Plato’s cave (375 BCE) to EM Forster’s new premonitory.The machine stops “ (1909), to Stephenson and beyond. But I have yet to come across a fictional scene where a person enters a fully immersive virtual experience only to access a library, choose a book, open it, and enter a second fully immersive virtual experience that clears the portal of ‘origin. What would be the point of a first person reading experience? The question will remain absurd until an avatar first removes a title from a digital shelf and launches into other worlds through – well, simple digital words.
It will happen.
The thing about virtual reality is that it aims to mimic real reality, so meta-books will provide meta-rooms, so to speak. And that’s where publishers come in. Books are, among other things, prestigious objects. Showing them to others is half the fun of owning them. Two opportunities for publishers thus immediately present themselves in the metaverse: books as digital collectibles; and fingerprints in the form of tokens. To seize these opportunities, publishers must enter the world of Web 3.0.
Not to be too technical, but briefly, “web 3.0” is the term for the network of virtual objects created, or minted, on various blockchains, which is the same technology that brought us Bitcoin. Instead of www addresses, Web 3.0 elements have blockchain addresses that make objects definitely ‘possible’ and traceable, which in turn allows them to accumulate value, like real world objects.
The shorthand for a Web 3.0 collector’s item is âNFT,â and while the technology for typing NFTs from texts is more rudimentary than for images, it will catch up. When that happens, the market for digital first editions, for example, will explode.
Publishers, do you intend to produce limited edition copies of your books in NFT form? What special features do you include in NFTs to make them highly desirable?
When it comes to publishing fingerprints, just as they have websites today, so they will need to have a tokenized presence in the future – tokens being the fundamental strengths of Web 3.0, the things that allow you to connect to the network (just as a website allows you to connect to the current Web 2.0 network).
Publishers, have you started exploring what kind of smart contract is required to create a token for your fingerprint?
We all know the person who collects the classic Penguin editions with the orange bindings, storing them together on one shelf. It’s a beautiful expression of his love for books. Now imagine this person in the Metaverse, looking to add some orange-bound NFTs to a virtual shelf in the living room she created to house her book club. Virtual books have to match the real ones, of course, and the real collector will track them all down to the last. Penguin would be missing out on a tip if he didn’t respond to this replication of online book culture.
Editors, are you missing a tip? Have you already reserved your .eth address?
I see my column hit more questions than answers. If you would like to know more about my thoughts on books, literature, and the new web, let me know. I can speculate endlessly on how bookstores, writers and others in the literary value chain will participate in Web 3.0.
In the meantime, come back to read this book. DM / ML
Ben Williams is the editor of the Johannesburg Review of Books.