On Thursday Facebook announced a groundbreaking and innovative new distraction from their PR disaster. As journalists continue to pore over thousands of leaked documents that show the company is fully aware that it is degrading democratic societies, Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook is changing its name to Meta, has a new logo that looks like a Na’vi bending over, and is going to pivot from spreading vaccine disinformation to creating a super-lame version of Second Life.
Zuckerberg promised that in the future we would all work, play and “organise surprise birthday parties” as avatars in Facebook’s virtual-reality “Metaverse”. His examples of how this might work had all the cultural awareness of a Kendall Roy social media strategy.
In one sequence, Zuckerberg arrives on a spaceship – “This place is amazing! It was made by a creator I met in LA!” – before opening up his contacts list, scrolling past 2007’s hottest rapper T-Pain and arriving at a friend who dials in some “3D-street art” from the streets of New York to the spaceship platform. “This is stunning! I love the movement,” say Zuckerberg’s virtual cronies, as they stare at something that looks like a piece of clip art someone might have used on a letterhead for a small-town law firm. Then just as it’s disappearing from view, Zuckerberg purchases it, apparently as an NFT, so it can stay in virtual space forever.
Zuckerberg’s virtual world of play pretend is a way of escaping the destruction he’s wrought on the real one. Facebook has played a major role in fomenting ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, drumming up lynch mobs in India and Sri Lanka, amplifying white nationalism in the US and providing the anti-vaccine movement with a massive megaphone during a global pandemic. Rather than address this ruination, Zuckerberg wants us to all turn our attention to a land of make-believe where he’s friends with rappers and you can watch Instagram stories on a pirate ship.
He joins a cadre of 21st-century robber barons who, having successfully colonized huge swaths of Earth 1.0, are looking to escape to other spheres of reality.
Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are obsessed with physically leaving the planet, ploughing their wealth into a viciously fought space race despite the fact that no one is going to Mars anytime soon. Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, tried a more metaphysical escape, spending weeks at a time at glamorous meditation retreats, practicing total silence, in an effort to escape the noisy, unregulated world of hate speech he platformed.
Zuckerberg has now gone one step further, creating a reality so virtual that Facebook hasn’t yet destroyed it. But his vision of avatar poker games is also fantasy. From Habbo Hotel to SecondLife, Sansar and High Fidelity, there are hundreds of similar VR social offerings which you probably haven’t heard of because all that really happens there is people stand in badly rendered condos saying “is your thing working, mine is lagging”. These kinds of social worlds remain a niche concern (in part because few social interactions are improved by a soupcon of headset nausea).
A case in point: the globe has been living with working from home for 18 months, and in that time there have been thousands of hi-tech offerings that attempt to recreate the office, yet every major company is still opting for the dreary Zoom call. That’s because VR is inherently silly and most work isn’t.
These billionaire side hustles are both real – in that they will have billions of dollars ploughed into them – and utter fantasy. It’s impressive that SpaceX and Blue Origin have achieved low-Earth orbit, but we are not going to move polluting industries into space or colonize Mars. These projects have more to do with…