tales from the metaverse, 2006

Salvatore Iaconesi
5 min readJan 13, 2022

In 2006 I was in my 4th year of AOS, Art is Open Source, the network of digital artists and designers exploring the impacts of digital technologies and the web on human beings.

Dispersion: 3D surfing the WWW universe

In that year, we created a beautiful project titled Dispersion: the world wide web as a universe, with its planets, stars, galaxies and physics’ laws.

The website read:

“The Internet as a universe. Dispersion harvests web links around the web, analyzes them and places them as planets in a digital universe. In this universe physical laws exist, based on similarity and content structure. Galaxies form, arranging similar web content around semantic orbits.”

And that was exactly what happened: you could freely 3D-surf Dispersion’s universe, that was filled with 3D shapes each one of which was a website, and whose size, form, color, roundness etc was connected to some characteristic of the website: the size for the number of contents in that website, color depending on the topic, number of sides depending on how many links pointed to it, etc.

What happened was that some processes on the backgrounds took one web link at the time from some popular websites that listed artworks, designs and the other weird things that, at the time, constituted the Internet, and processed them, turning them into planets and other “celestial bodies” in Dispersion’s universe.

In 2008, when the experiment ended, there were almost 40 thousand websites in the universe, taken from those which were my reference points for the web: Rhizome.org, undo.net, turbulence.org, random-magazine.net and many more.

People could even add their own suggestions while they wandered through the web-iverse.

While you were flying, you could see other people under the form of little grey spheres with an IP address on them.

The universe was not static at all:

“In the meantime some forces operate in the background, creating this universe’s physical reality. The force of gravity does not react to
objects’ mass, but on similarity. The more two objects are similar and
farther, the more they attract each other.”

Planets and stars aggregated, forming galaxies and clusters of similarities and differences. There were also some landmark objects like the enormous sun at the center of the universe and the giant flower moved through the galaxies, spicing things up with a little randomization forces.

the controls to play with dispersion :)

Dispersion evolved slowly and progressively: you could just zip through the cosmos and discover new things by clicking the objects in space, traversing constellations of similarity, or turning throttle up to maximum, and heading off to the other side of the galaxy for a quick change of topic.

Why am I telling you this little story?

  1. Because I think this slowly evolving web universe is kind of cute and it’s a beautiful and innovative concept of serendipitous search engine.
  2. Because I’m pretty annoyed by the mono-definition of metaverse which is becoming a thing today. Metaverses have already existed in all forms and shapes. Maybe in different contexts and using different technologies. But not knowing the history of what already happened makes us fragile, and potentially waste precious money, resources, attention and time. We’re reinventing the wheel, but a square one, and with a flat tire: we should know from history what works and what does not, instead we’re taking the easiest thing to sell of the whole discourse and simply trying to sell it again after enough time so it will be less probable that someone would remember what had happened. And no: we’re not doing it “distributed” either, this time, because we’re talking about private blockchains: we’re just going from one type of private provider to another. Either way: they decide.
  3. (Again on the mono-definition: it’s only good for speculation, because some of the players are actually spending some money to ensure that this is all that people talk about. Healthy ecosystems thrive on diversity, not on mono.)
  4. Because Dispersion is based on open data that uses readable, simple data formats that are based on international open standards, and that means that it would have been a great investment. Instead what we are seeing these days is private operators for which there is no guarantee that they will still be there in 6 months, who have proprietary, not interoperable, closed, non standard data and data formats. When they will disappear, you will be left with nothing.
  5. Item 4 is also valid for code. Dispersion’s code and databases were open source, licensed GPL. This means that at anytime you can use the software, know how it works, make another one, evolve it: anything. Instead, all these “metaverses” that are popping up are proprietary, closed source, not interoperable platforms. Should they fail, bankrupt or simply decide to change business because they have extracted enough, you will be left with nothing.

These are only some of the possible considerations on what is now being called “the metaverse”. A single definition limits the expectation of what is possible and, in the end, is a limit to what is imaginable that is only useful for speculation.

Dispersion is only one — a tiny little one — of the “metaverses” that existed and that could have existed. Second Life was another one, with mechanisms that were similar to the current ones, and from which we should have learned a lot. Instead, the current proposition shows differently.

I think it could be useful to avoid being locked into these and other mono definitions, especially in public institutions, and to take in consideration avoiding the fascinations of the spectacle to reach out for more meaningful and durable experiences.

(And, about durability: this is also an issue of sustainability. Each one of these hypes leaves behind an enormous trail of trash, useless devices, e-waste, energy consumed and also the indirect environmental costs. All to allow a series of operators to speculate and, then, disappear.)