While the bow tie class debates Section 230, one of the most powerful companies in human history is plotting to trap us in virtual reality. And I mean that literally.
Mark Zuckerberg’s robotic rollout of “Meta,” his new name for Facebook’s parent company, is earning a round of well-deserved mockery (enjoyed on his own products, of course). The tech seems bizarre and futuristic. His utopian promises fall on deaf ears. His Sweet Baby Rays bookend boggles the mind.
Back in July, Zuckerberg expounded on his plans for the “metaverse” in a deeply disturbing interview with The Verge. That same month, Sheryl Sandberg explicitly revealed that Facebook’s “hope is that one day people will host religious services in virtual reality spaces as well, or use augmented reality as an educational tool to teach their children the story of their faith.”
“Faith organizations and social media are a natural fit because fundamentally both are about connection,” said Sandberg.
Note that Meta is cloaking its new technology in the very same language Facebook was pitched to us in the mid-aughts. This fuzzy, abstruse technology will connect us, they say, and that connection will be wonderful. We now know this presumption was naive and destructive, so the oligarchical plan to transfer more of our lives onto their platforms should be regarded as nothing short of an emergency. Worship is just one aspect of everyday life Meta wants us to substitute for virtual reality, monetizing nearly everything we do with deliberately addictive and divisive technology.
Zuckerberg and Sandberg may be high on their own supply, but their motivations are hardly pure. The more time we spend using Meta, the more money and power they amass. They are cynically positioning themselves as the real estate kingpins of the future. They want to be the global landlord of every church and gym and office space.
The more time people spend in the metaverse, the more value virtual property will have. It’s not just about the money either. Their control over virtual spaces will give them more control over our human experience and our culture. Who is their major competitor right now? Physical reality?
We’re still learning about social media’s chemical addictiveness so I won’t argue the research is conclusive. I also won’t argue that the research into social media’s effect on our brains is conclusively negative. There is, however, compelling evidence that social media companies intentionally design their products in ways that hurt us.
This is very serious. Zuckerberg wants to normalize VR worship and VR everything because the more time we spend in his metaverse, the more money he makes and the more control he has. Zuckerberg has spent 15 years proving he’s a terrible steward of money and power. We’ve run the experiment and Facebook failed. We cannot cede more of our lives to this company.
Tech boosters assure us this is all another moral panic, the likes of which we’ve seen at least since the printing press, since the wristwatch, since the novel, since the radio. It’s old, they say. But all of those technologies, even the printing press, are relatively new. In the scope of human history, all of this is extremely new. The last several hundred years are a blip, let alone the last 15 years of the smartphone revolution.
These technological advancements have been incredible for civilization. That doesn’t mean new technologies will always amount to “advancements.” It certainly doesn’t mean we should give Meta and Zuckerberg and Sandberg more control over more moments of our daily lives.
Last winter, I tried a friend’s Oculus, fully expecting to hate it. Instead, I’d bought my own within 10 minutes. I don’t play video games, but the technology was incredible. It was transfixing. The workouts are fantastic. Your stomach will actually drop on roller coasters. It’s a very fun thing to do with friends, sort of like Dance Dance Revolution was back in the day.
I didn’t buy it to play it all of the time so much as I bought it because I was completely amazed. It’s hard to understand how powerful the tech is until you put the headset on. Already, there are apps to transform your work, learning, meditation, workout, and more.
After the first couple of months, it started collecting dust on my shelf. So few people are on Oculus that it’s not life-consuming. There’s no reason for me to be in the metaverse for email or text messaging or social media, so the metaverse is still easy to escape. But if companies and churches and schools start heavily integrating VR into their business, swayed by Zuckerberg’s lofty promises of connection and convenience, that could change very quickly — and bring society along with it. Facebook crept up on us quickly the first time, lubricated by naive and technocratic utopian visions. That process is happening again, right under our noses.