A Notational Universe

2022.10.05 by Josh Erb; 754 words.

What we're talking about when we talk about the 'verse

There's this astroturfed tech mania recently around this concept of a "metaverse." The portmanteau of "metaphysical" and "universe" is meant to invoke a universe that transcends the physical one we currently inhabit. To my mind, one of the defining characteristics of this concept is that the people betting a lot of money on it are also betting on the fact that everyone takes their claims of its necessity as a given.

Here's my extremely concise summary of the need these companies are simultaneously trying to cultivate and fulfill: people want to be able to take their shit with them wherever they go.

They might dress it up in a lot of different ways with a lot of flashy jargon or demo videos, but ultimately that's all it is. The seamless interoperability of all the different digital systems people use. Though, interoperability may be a stretch. Because the way our markets are structured today, there is no incentive for massive digital worlds to be plugged into one another. Instead the emergent strategy seems to be that it is better to become the universe before some aspiring megacorp can beat you to the punch[1].

Now, if you're shoehorning the concept of property and materialism into a purely digital world[2], then this need for interoperability is a natural consequence. After all, in the real world if I buy a T-shirt, I expect to be able to wear that T-shirt wherever I am and not just in places that also happen to be owned and controlled by the same landlord of my T-shirt vendor[3].

I assume this nascent expectation (i.e. you can take it with you) is what the megacorps are trying to anticipate and monopolize before the rest of us catch on. And who can blame them, when you've extracted all possible value from the physical world, your only hope for continued growth is the conquest of the metaphysical one.

If it sounds bleak, it's because it is bleak

Fortunately, you don't need to rely on "innovation" of bloated technology firms in order to experience the continuity of experience that's promised by the metaverse. There exists a mature, battle-hardened technology that will already allow you to keep track of the less tangible things in your life.

I'm talking of course about the written word and the pages of a notebook. This technology is portable, anything written in one notebook can be copied to another an infinite amount of times. It also has localized support for nearly all contemporary languages. It's also resilient to cataclysmic events, such as solar flares or the collapse of the biosphere.

My personal metaverse is the notebook I use to track what I'm working on, my calendar of social events, any new words I've learned, books I've read, routes I'm running, and so on. There are no limitations on the what information I can put into my metaverse. What's more, I can share these with anyone at any time without worrying about compatibility issues or file corruption. Even better, if I track these things in another location (say a dedicated tracking app built on the brittle and quick-to-decay internet), but that location is inevitably raided and stripped for parts by corporate interests, I'm still able to backfill from my notebook data store without any worries.

Empires fall, but my personal notebook metaverse will endure.


Even though I spend most of my time working with and on computers, I feel comfortable saying that current technology is nowhere near overtaking the effectiveness and durability of physically writing things down and carrying them around with you. If someone is selling you a technology that implies it's going to be interoperable with every aspect of your digital and physical life, they're either hoping you don't ask too many questions or they haven't actually scoped their project yet.

My own personal notebooks have come with me between cities, jobs, and languages and I've never had a compatibility issue when accessing their information. I don't expect to abandon them anytime soon.

  1. but I digress...

  2. which is generally a bad idea, but that is not the topic of today's post

  3. this metaphor feels overly convoluted, but then again so is this post, so I'm leaving it

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