The recently released Pluriverse Artifact prompts us to consider the role language as a technology plays in the health of our digital spaces. It presents us with an opportunity to intentionally co-design the future of the web.
In late October 2021, and to the dismay of many, oligarchic social media behemoth formerly-known-as-Facebook publicly rebranded itself “Meta.” In doing so, it sparked a thousand hand-wringing broadsheet articles about what the metaverse means — none helped by charmless videos of Mark Zuckerberg’s virtual avatar, in a dull gray sweater, attending virtual meetings.
By adopting Meta as its new name, many believe Facebook is co-opting an existing idea and attempting to claim ownership over a nascent space — an act squarely at odds with a major cultural ethos within web3 valuing open source, decentralization, and accessible ownership. An extension of the reality distorting effects propagated by its franchises, this move signals a categorically different breed of implicit, memetic perniciousness going beyond usual concerns around privacy or just plain tone-deafness.
In response, the multidisciplinary art and research collective Verses released "A Declaration of Interdependence of Cyberspace." A remix of John Perry Barlow’s cyberpunk classic, the Verses artifact is an assertion of independence from monopolizing forces, a reiteration of our interdependence in societies both on and offline, and an invitation to join a more dynamic “pluriverse.” This marked Verses’ first creation aimed at co-imagining and building a healthier cyberspace.
While a simple redefinition might seem a superficial assertion, name changes carry power. Look at Meta and this rebranding’s significant cultural, political, and philosophical implications.
Simply put, language matters.
Verses is reigniting this ancient semiotic conversation for the web’s rapidly evolving climate. Its members represent the latest in a long lineage of writers and thinkers urging intentional diction.
In his irreverent lexicographic tour-de-force “Authority and American Usage,” author David Foster Wallace bluntly claims “language is…irreducibly public, political, and ideological…actually bound up in with every last social issue…class, race, sex, morality, tolerance, pluralism, cohesion, equality, fairness, money: you name it.”
It’s a beautiful parallel that just as Verses renovates Barlow’s 1996 web1 manifesto for the context of web3, Wallace’s assertions are themselves an expansion on George Orwell’s seminal ”Politics & The English Language,” bridging that conversation from the 20th century to the 21st. Orwell reminds us that “language can also corrupt thought,” thus, “the fight against bad [language] is not frivolous,” but “a necessary first step toward political regeneration.”
Like John Berger notes in his aesthetic meditation Ways of Seeing, “the words we choose represent the way we see the world.” So the dismissing cliché that these conversations are needlessly “semantic” couldn’t be more contradictory. If Facebook is committed to seizing the word “metaverse” and implicitly aligning it with hegemonic authority, walled gardens, and exploitative data practices, then we need a new term that represents our values.
Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie argues that how stories “are told, who tells them, when they're told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.” Therefore, if we’re to avoid what she calls “the danger of a single story” around how immersive and blockchain-powered realities are constructed, we need to seize the narrative.
As Meta’s laid its claim, we too need to state publicly what we want. And instead of a singular top-down iteration of the future, we should lean into a vision of broad participation, public power, and diverse voices.
This month, a space was opened to nurture just that. While their “Declaration” was a restoration of past work, Verses now goes further by releasing an ongoing invitation to collectively co-create new language around the pluriverse.
The Pluriverse Artifact starts from the position that the metaverse as currently defined is not evolution but regression — a restrictive monoculture. Conversely, the pluriverse is “a world in which many worlds fit;” where we trade in flattening homogenization for a resilient ecology of diverse co-existence.
The word “pluriverse” itself comes from the Zapatistas, an indigenous community in Mexico who’ve built a de facto autonomous system of self-governance. Activists and academics who advocate for the pluriverse fight against the material concentration of wealth, decision-making, and power, emphasizing instead a mosaic of alternate and communal worlds.
Inspired by this and feeling that, while certainly different, digital populations also struggle against extractive monopolies, Verses proposes we employ the vision embedded in this word to chart a path toward a different, hopefully regenerative, digital future.
To accomplish that, the Pluriverse Artifact is built as a space where we can all submit composable blocks to seed a set of values and behaviors to form the foundation of a rehabilitated internet.
The framework Verses draws from is that of “pattern language,” originally conceptualized in 1977 by Christopher Alexander to develop composable principles of urban design. Similar to the Sumerian concept of “mes” Neal Stephenson describes in Snow Crash (the novel which coined the term “metaverse”) as “like algorithms for carrying out certain activities essential to the society,” pattern languages are made up of “patterns” — each a backlinked block containing a problem and its solution. Unsurprisingly, the hyperlink-style of pattern languages inspired Ward Cunningham’s WikiWikiWeb, the first user-editable website.
In Alexander’s own words, “each pattern represents our current best guess as to what arrangement of the physical environment will work to solve the problem presented…[and] our degree of faith in these hypotheses…all tentative, all free to evolve under the impact of new experience and observation.” While originally employed to design the spaces of fulfilling physical communities, Verses encourages participants to use this paradigm to co-create digital ones as well.
CCS speaker Packy McCormick shares that “language makes ideas composable. Knowledge, when shared, becomes like a grand, collective, intergenerational collaboration.” Pattern languages allow us to leverage linguistic composability to collectively decide what we want the pluriverse to be.
The current patterns Verses presents to us for definition center around the diversity, power redistribution, and openness signaled by the name “pluriverse” itself. They are interoperability, agency, voice, engagement & attention, privacy, regeneration, commons, and maintenance & care.
At Gitcoin, an internet-native community for building and funding public goods, the importance of the pluriverse is simple: until we take the time to clearly define the diverse publics we are serving and the values we want to stand for, we risk seeing increasingly brazen attempts to co-opt web3 by power-hungry organizations. As co-founder Scott Moore writes, “to build the many worlds we want to see, we must first define the patterns we want to use, the languages they form, and most importantly the foundational values they're derived from.”
At Crypto, Culture, & Society we believe that plurality is powerful and necessary. That’s why we’re committed to both a liberal arts approach to crypto-adjacent topics and experiments in bottom-up learning. In our first-ever Society Journal article, CCS guest Mario Laul submitted that crypto’s “primary challenge is to erect a sustainable alternative to the structures it seeks to replace — or at least meaningfully improve upon — without being co-opted by the powers that be, or reproducing other known institutional failures.” CCS, Gitcoin, and Verses are all projects dedicated to meeting this challenge.
Technology is often axiologically agnostic and successfully recruited in pursuit of diverse values — not all optimal for human flourishing. In events like the Meta rebranding, Microsoft’s recent acquisition, and the advent of digital yuans and dollars, we’re witnessing very real maneuvering to preserve the balance of power. These tools are capable of serving many ideologies and ethics. A hammer can be used to build or destroy. Blockchains can be used to surveil or liberate.
Language is the ancient technology we use to communicate meaning, to create value itself. So, the language we employ to describe other technologies has a direct impact on how the potential of those tools is realized.
We need space to debate and space to dream, and neither can be owned by Barlow’s “weary giants of flesh and steel” and data. It’s for us to decide what we use these new tools to build and co-crafting a pattern language for the pluriverse is a key exercise on this path.
We invite you to visit the Pluriverse Artifact, a co-created, ever-evolving digital essay, and digest, discuss, and contribute to creating an overlapping set of future worlds together.
To multiple futures.
Crypto, Culture, & Society (CCS) is a learning DAO focused on building liberal arts for crypto and exploring web3’s broader societal impact. Founded in 2021, CCS has grown into a full-stack educational initiative hosting workshops, electives, and other programming for its members. The CCS community includes technologists, creators, community builders, educators, and lifelong learners. You can keep up with CCS on Twitter, Substack, and via the Society Journal.