In a Dutch podcast, I heard a prominent tech journalist praise Mark Zuckerberg’s recent Metaverse PR event: finally, the company had presented a grand vision and it looked so cool! In my own tech bubble on Twitter, I saw mostly memes to poke fun at the concept, the presentation and the presenter, and lots of insightful scrutiny.
The COVID pandemic has accelerated the move of work to digital spaces rather than physical ones. Metaverse-enthusiasts often claim that more Metaverse-tech can give us a much better version of digital life. I’m not sure about that.
Though it was refreshing, I will say I was disappointed by the tech journalist’s enthusiasm. Not because Mark Zuckerberg deserves the laughs, or because it somehow scratches an itch ito criticise people who are genuinely trying to make exciting new tech. I mean, maybe… but really, it is because Facebook’s actions prove time over time they require scrutiny. This corporation makes decisions that put their profit above the safety of both people and the societies they live in, and it plays innocent through a clever PR apparatus (see my post on An Ugly Truth). The US Congress and European Commission aren’t looking into their practices because they felt bored. It is because they capitalise on surveillance, hate and misinformation, all of which threaten the basic structures of democracy.
If Facebook (or Meta) claims they will prioritise security, interoperability and improving human relationships, as Zuckerberg did in interviews, such claims need scrutiny. Scrutiny from journalists, from software engineers, from activists and from trend watchers. This company has demonstrated on many occasions to be capable of mostly the opposite of security, the opposite of interoperability and the opposite of improving the quality of human relationships. What would Rohinga muslims or the White House staff think when they hear Zuckerberg say security matters to him? What about web developers who try to build interoperable web apps, only to find Facebook’s staff working on the React framework work around more than with web standards? What about the many societies that are driven apart by an effective machinery for medical and political misinformation? Will they feel their human to human relationships have improved?
As someone with family, friends and colleagues abroad, I have seen struggles with current digital spaces. They could improve by means of technology and better priorities. But should this be lead by the company whose technology and priorities worsened digital spaces so much?
And are more advanced digital environments the answer or does a better world already exist, as in, the real world? Mixing digital and real, as some Metaverse tech does, is super beneficial for corporations that see the web as a place to extract profit from. A Mixed Reality overlay adds not just fun or useful interactions, it adds another thing to measure. More data, for corporations like Facebook, means more profits.
Maybe I would be less sceptical if Zuckerberg had outlined in more detail how this would benefit the world first, or even demonstrate ways to guarantee the Metaverse won’t be just another layer of his data extraction machine. Of course, it is a free world and corporations can profit however they want. Including by building a data extraction machine and getting rich off that. Profit is fine, my company aims for profits too. It’s really Zuckerberg’s failure to address what could go wrong, given so much in his current enterprise has gone wrong, that tires me. It’s the combinaton of that data extraction machine for profit and the undesired impacts of it on society.
For a corporation wanting to extract data for profit, augmented reality is better than reality. For end users, reality itself, I mean, unaugmented reality, might be the better version of the mostly digitial lockdown life that many of us desire. First of all, it’s real, I mean, did you have a chance to experience life music after lockdowns? It’s nice, right? Secondly, it doesn’t require scary filming glasses or uncomfortable and nausea-inducing headsets. Thirdly, you have to worry less about whether your privacy is invaded. And if Facebook or Meta run things, you can be quite sure of that. I won’t be applying to one of the 50,000 ‘Metaverse jobs’ they said they’ll open in Europe.