From Aristotle to Ariana Grande: the expanding meaning of ‘metaverse’

Ariana Grande’s virtual concerts, held recently within the video game Fortnite, have had excitable tech enthusiasts talking anew about the imminence of the “metaverse”.

The ancient Greek meta means “with” or “after”. The title of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, given by an editor after his death, means simply “the books that come after the ones on physics”, but “meta” in English came to acquire a sense first of “going beyond” – so “metaphysics” acquired a potentially supernatural sense – and then also of self-referentiality, in compounds such as “metatheatrical” or “metafictional”. (It’s all gone a bit meta.)

In cosmology, therefore, “metaverse” has sometimes been used as shorthand for “meta-universe” (1974) to mean the universe of universes, of which there might be infinitely many, for all we know. The tech sense, however, derives from Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash, in which the “metaverse” is a giant shared virtual space consisting of all virtual realities, augmented realities and the internet. As Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg said recently: “Our overarching goal […] is to help bring the metaverse to life.” A bright future, then, of inescapable ambient surveillance and advertising.

Steven Poole’s A Word for Every Day of the Year is published by Quercus.

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