“In the lingo, this imaginary place is known as the Metaverse,” Neal Stephenson wrote in his 1992 novel Snow Crash, whose protagonist, Hiro, spends most of his time in virtual reality. There is a reason that the modern-day and ever-growing metaverse takes its name from Stephenson’s seminal work of science fiction: 30 years later, the book no longer reads as excitingly futuristic, but more like prophecy. If the fictional negotiation between escapism into virtual spaces and a physical world that increasingly struggles to support terrestrial existence felt like a stimulating thought exercise in the 1990s, it feels downright terrifying now, as we crest the rollercoaster and begin the plunge.
If Stephenson hears about plans for the new “cyber-urban” Liberland metaverse, revealed this week by Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA), he will no doubt experience the kind of grim satisfaction that comes from being right about something terrible. The curving cityscape design features the soft, yonic structures for which the firm’s founding architect became internationally famous, and embodies the kind of paleo-futuristic aesthetics that we’ve been worshipping since 2001 (the Space Odyssey, not the year).
But it’s not the design that is troubling about this corner of the metaverse, so much as the fact that it’s meant to be the meta-counterpart to the real-world Free Republic of Liberland. Situated as a sovereign state between Croatia and Serbia on the west bank of the Danube River, Liberland declared itself a state in 2015 and “prides itself on personal and economic freedom for its people.” Per a statement on its website, this includes “limited power given to the government to ensure less interference with the freedom of the people and the nation as a whole.” It is not currently recognized by any other nations.
The citizenry is comprised of 7,000 online applicants, chosen from a pool of 700,000 by the nation’s founder, Euroskeptic Czech politician Vit Jedlička. According to reporting by CNN, the country itself is an uninhabited patch of land stretching a little over four miles, which is politically contested, heavily forested, and contains only badly maintained access roads and an abandoned run-down house. Extremely fitting, since that is exactly the amount of infrastructure that can be supported under the principles of Libertarianism.
But in the metaverse, oh ho! Liberland can flourish, unconcerned with having to maintain tedious infrastructure, since it’s already been provided. Certainly, there are bound to be many Stephenson fans in the mix, spending cryptocurrency, visiting business incubators, and attending a gallery for NFT art shows (just to make things extra insufferable). ZHA principal architect Patrik Schumacher proposes that the metaverse is such a good match for Libertarians because both prioritize goals of decentralization and autonomy.
“It’s a very lively scene of contributors…a lot of IT and crypto and tech entrepreneurs who find the world too restrictive,” he told CNN. (If there is one category of people who are incredibly oppressed and never get to do whatever they want, it’s tech entrepreneurs!)
Plans for Liberland are still developing, but the virtual city hopes to distinguish itself from the rest of the metaverse by creating “certain zones which will be free of collective rulemaking,” according to Schumacher. Again, it is hard to imagine what Libertarian tech bros need to get up to that they are not already rampantly allowed to do, but one suspects it may not be fully legal.
The Liberland metaverse is currently in beta, being tested on two virtual floors in one of the buildings. Invited guests may explore the space as avatars, chat with each other, and share their screens on one of the rooms’ windows. An opening party for 100 attendees is planned for April 13, which is the birthday of the third United States President and libertarian hero Thomas Jefferson (eye roll emoji). In the meantime, if you’d like some light reading, I’ll leave you with another “Snow Crash” excerpt that feels not-at-all relevant, in terms of the toxic culture of doing whatever you want.
“All these beefy Caucasians with guns! Get enough of them together, looking for the America they always believed they’d grow up in, and they glom together like overcooked rice, form integral, starchy little units. With their power tools, portable generators, weapons, four-wheel-drive vehicles, and personal computers, they are like beavers hyped up on crystal meth, manic engineers without a blueprint, chewing through the wilderness, building things and abandoning them, altering the flow of mighty rivers and then moving on because the place ain’t what it used to be. The byproduct of the lifestyle is polluted rivers, greenhouse effect, spouse abuse, televangelists, and serial killers. But as long as you have that fourwheel-drive vehicle and can keep driving north, you can sustain it, keep moving just quickly enough to stay one step ahead of your own waste stream. In twenty years, ten million white people will converge on the north pole and park their bagos there. The low-grade waste heat of their thermodynamically intense lifestyle will turn the crystalline icescape pliable and treacherous. It will melt a hole through the polar icecap, and all that metal will sink to the bottom, sucking the biomass down with it.”
Science fiction, am I right?