Metaverse got torment-nexused just as robot did a century before

14.46, Friday 18 Feb 2022

This tweet did numbers late last year (111,700 likes):

Sci-Fi Author: In my book I invented the Torment Nexus as a cautionary tale

Tech Company: At long last, we have created the Torment Nexus from classic sci-fi novel Don’t Create The Torment Nexus

Which is (A) hilarious; and, (B) LET’S RECAP the backstory to this tweet, which is about the metaverse:

  • In 1992, Neal Stephenson writes Snow Crash set, as least in part, in a huge virtual reality world called the Metaverse… which is an unregulated corporate dystopia. (Here are some quotes from the book if you want a flavour.)
  • In October 2021, Facebook rebrands itself to Meta and announces that its new mission is to build the metaverse. Lol corporate dystopia etc.

And the thing is that the term “metaverse” is super handy to refer to the concept of: a persistent, social, non-game virtual reality.

Which may be awful (and yes has the potential of awfulness inherent in it) but - in the general sense and not The Corporation Formerly Known As Facebook sense - is pretty cool actually! (My own hope is for something more lo-fi.)

Linguistically useful, then.

Did “robot” go through the same curve?

ATMs were known back in 1967 as “robot cashiers” (mentioned earlier this week).

Back in 1944, more robots…

As told in Thomas Rid’s excellent history of cybernetics, Rise of the Machines (Amazon), the German V-1 pilotless rocket was the world’s first cruise missile, immediately dubbed the ‘robot bomb’ by the press.

In secret, anti-artillery guns were equipped with feedback-powered man-machine interfaces to allow for superhuman targeting, firing shells equipped with radar-triggered autonomous fuses, both brand new. It worked incredibly well, bringing down V-1 rockets in flight before they could reach London.

Rid relates this incredible quote, from General Sir Frederick Pile who was in charge of Anti-Aircraft Command, and therefore the V-1 defence:

“Now we saw the beginning of the first battle of the robots,” Pile observed at the time.


The modern sense of “robot” was at that time only 24 years old, from 1920. I’m amazed at the speed of adoption.

Though to begin with “robot” didn’t just refer to this new technology. There was a whole other layer of meaning… I’ve blogged about the history of “robot” before (2021) but in a nutshell it is this:

  • The 1920 Czech play Rossum’s Universal Robots is about a class of manufactured, artificial people used as factory workers, treated terribly. The play became hugely popular internationally.
  • The word “robot” was taken from the Czech robota meaning “forced labour”.

What the play is about, to me, is what happens to us when we have workers who we regard as non-human artefacts (whether they are artificial or not; the warning is general). We ignore their feelings; we behave as monsters; we are consumed by capitalism; we become, ourselves, inhuman.

So the word “robot” didn’t mean autonomous machine originally – or rather, yes, it did mean that but it ALSO meant: these autonomous machines will turn you into a rapacious uncaring capitalist incapable of basic humanity.

And now we use the word free of judgement or implication. A robot is a robot whether we mean a car factory robot arm or a Terminator or a Roomba.

So there’s a process, maybe, where a linguistically useful neologism shucks off any original valence and becomes a purely matter-of-fact signifier?

And this is fine? Or are words always haunted by their originating critiques and ugly origins? Possibly. Dunno.

It is still weird, however, that the all-in-one meal replacement Slimfast-for-bros food startup Soylent appropriated its name from the movie Soylent Green which is all about (SPOILERS) the titular food being made out of actual people.


That tweet at the top? I couldn’t remember what it was this morning, so asked about it in vague terms on Twitter and a bunch of people came back to me. (Thanks!) A couple came back without a link but replied simply Torment Nexus.

…which indicates that the term has stuck in people’s heads. It has currency already!

I wonder whether it will end up being what we call this valence-flensing process of invention?

Like, something is invented in fiction which is awful and stupid and awful.

And then someone goes and makes it, and it’s maybe awful and maybe not, but it’s in the world now none-the-less.

And in the future, an observer may encounter a stupid and awful but somehow neat idea in a book and predict its coming, saying “Whoa yeah that cool concept is going to get totally torment-nexused,” with zero irony, for some reason speaking like a 90s tousled surfer dude with bleached blond hair, pale blue eyes half closed against the low evening sun.

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