In the summer of 2012, when he was in his final year at Cambridge University, Herman Narula joined a queue of computer science students waiting to attend a session on computer graphics. Standing next to him was a student he hadn’t met before, Robert Whitehead. As they started talking they realised they had a shared interest in virtual worlds.
Both had grown up playing games and were used to the idea of commerce in the virtual realm. Whitehead had paid his tuition fees by selling digital goods in the virtual marketplace, Second Life, while Narula had started a bank in the online role-playing game Neverwinter Nights – with less commercial success. “Retrieving a mortgage is really quite challenging when the person who hasn’t paid the loan is a wizard,” he recalls.
That conversation turned into a plan to build a better kind of virtual world, one in which thousands of people could attend events, interacting with the environment and one another in real time. “We estimated it would take about six to nine months”, Narula, 33, told me, speaking over Zoom from France, but concedes that “we were a little bit off on our estimate”: it would eventually take a decade, and a team of almost 1,000 people, to build the technology they envisaged. During that time the company they established, Improbable Worlds, would come to be valued by some investors at up to $2bn.
In recent months, the idea that the websites and social networks we use today will be replaced by a “metaverse” of immersive virtual worlds has become Big Tech’s biggest goal. Mark Zuckerberg is so committed to the idea that he renamed Facebook to Meta; executives at Disney, Microsoft and Tencent have all outlined their plans for persistent virtual worlds. Nick Clegg, the vice-president of global affairs and communications at Meta, says it will take Facebook 10 years to build its metaverse, but Improbable has been “building the plumbing of the metaverse”, as Narula describes it, for 10 years, using its distributed computing technology to bring up to 14,000 people together into a single virtual space.
The massive simulations Improbable builds are not only for gaming or entertainment; its most profitable work so far has been for the British government. By “modelling a whole country” – from power and communications networks and traffic down to the movements of individual people and their behaviour – Improbable’s technology is in “operational and active use today” in areas that include procurement, planning and national security.
For Zuckerberg, the metaverse is something people will experience through a virtual reality (VR) headset, but for Narula it’s not about the display technology: “I don’t think VR is that important for the metaverse”, he says, pointing out that a dull meeting in VR, even with some fun animations, is still a dull meeting. “The real goal of the metaverse should not be immersion for immersion’s sake”, he says, but “presence” – a sense of real agency and engagement. “Presence is when you feel like your actions matter in the world.”
Do people really need to spend more time in digital environments, however present they feel? “The danger is not the convergence of the digital and the virtual world”, he responds. “The danger is in the continued refusal to address the elephant in the room: unelected, non-democratic, globe-spanning digital empires, housing our data, making policy choices about how you and I live our lives, and taking an indefensible tax on every transaction… Our problems with Facebook are not problems with technology. They’re just problems with Facebook. ”
It is exceptionally rare to hear anyone in the technology industry speak with real anger about the behemoths by whom they might one day hope to be hired or acquired. But Narula clearly has no such ambitions: he wants Facebook’s metaverse to fail. “We need to categorically prevent those companies from being the people that own and run anything that even looks like a metaverse.”
When I first spoke to Narula in 2017, he told me that a persistent virtual world with enough people – millions of inhabitants, playing, working, interacting and being entertained – would cease to become a game and become something more like a country. Such a country, he says, must be democratic, and not governed by the incentives of the current internet.
As an example, he cites Wikipedia, which has, with 550 staff and revenues of less than $150m, compiled a six-million-page English encyclopaedia in which misinformation is removed by common agreement, to Facebook, which (with more than 50,000 employees and revenues over $85bn) fails to remove 95 per cent of the hate speech posted on the platform. This is down to Facebook’s incentives, he says: “If Facebook deletes inaccurate information, they lose data for their algorithms to crawl in order to get better at understanding how we operate”.
It is not that social media shows us the ugly truth about human nature, he says, “any more than a crush at a riot is exposing something about human nature. It’s just a context, in which people are behaving the wrong way”.
His rejection of the way in which the attention economy has shaped the modern internet is not, he says, only a concern for his business but for the space in which people fulfil the essential human need for abstraction. From pyramids to cathedrals to football matches, history is the story of “so much energy, money, time and blood” spent “on so many activities that involve thinking of a world beyond”, he says. “I don’t look at the metaverse as some new thing we’re doing. We’re just building another cathedral.”