Snow Crash, a seminal text in the development of Web3, is notable for its prediction of the concept of the metaverse, but it did not anticipate the current climate of speculation that characterizes the NFT market. While no character in the book is depicted flipping avatars for profit like modern NFT traders on platforms such as OpenSea or Blur, author Neal Stephenson believes that there is an eventual shift away from the pure financialization of digital assets that is crucial for the establishment of a thriving metaverse, where people ascribe value to digital assets beyond their monetary worth.
In his 1992 sci-fi novel, Stephenson introduced the term “metaverse” to describe a 3D virtual realm where people engage with and own items. The metaverse is also portrayed as a popular social scene, complete with status symbols of consumer life. The novel mirrors various aspects of the contemporary digital assets ecosystem, both in terms of ownership and identity. Like some NFTs that serve as profile pictures and convey aspects of one’s digital presence, virtual avatars in the metaverse can be rented, owned, or coded from scratch.
However, the lack of sentimental value associated with digital assets contributes to the volatility of digital asset prices. Stephenson compares digital assets to “Tulip Mania,” a speculative bubble that occurred in Holland in the 17th century. Owners of digital assets should have a say in shaping the assets they own, he argues, to create a personal connection that would bring balance to their incentives to make a profit. By creating opportunities for people to build unique pieces of user-generated content, the economy of the metaverse can become more stable.
Stephenson suggests that personal experiences and connections with digital assets make them less like pure investments and more like personal items. He cites the example of a 30-year-old paperback book with signs of wear and tear, which may have little monetary value but has intangible connections that are valuable to the owner. By creating scarcity through personal connections, digital assets can acquire sentimental value that transcends their monetary worth.
Ultimately, Stephenson believes that a more diverse and stable economy in the metaverse can be achieved by encouraging people to develop deeper connections with their digital assets, making them less like pure investments and more like personal items. In doing so, the metaverse can be a place where people ascribe value to digital assets beyond their monetary worth, and where sentiment, creativity, and personal connections play a crucial role in shaping the digital economy.