One of the world’s least ethical tech companies spent millions of dollars on a Super Bowl ad to pitch its expensive new virtual reality product to you — and somehow managed to make the Metaverse even more repulsive.
The ad, called “Old Friends, New Fun,” portrays a scruffy animatronic dog who played rock music in an ’80s space-themed arcade. When the arcade closes forever, the dog is passed off into increasingly pathetic situations until it is rescued from a trash compactor and given a pair of VR goggles. In the Metaverse, “Questy’s” is rebuilt, and the dog is greeted inside by legless avatars of his “friends.” He can now presumably rock on for eternity. He has no body and no soul, so we can be sure he’ll fit right into Mark Zuckerburg’s creeptastic virtual social networking domain.
The “Metaverse” our mangy aging rocker has discovered is called “Horizon Worlds.” Think of it like Facebook, but where people can be virtually raped in addition to being verbally abused. And you can buy virtual real estate with cryptocurrency, build stuff (like Minecraft, but you might break a sweat), and have meetings in virtual conference rooms.
If the Metaverse is supposed to be a haven of creativity and teamwork, the very frontier of socializing and recreation, the ad makes it seem like the very opposite. Who wants to go hang out in a cartoonized version of a bygone era jamming with friends who are only present virtually? With no legs? Call me old-fashioned, but if I want to play Rock Band with my friends, I’ll pay a fraction of the cost of a VR headset, buy a couple six-packs of beer, and actually have friends over.
There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a bit of nostalgia, and there’s everything right with having real-life people over in the flesh, bare faces and all. Collaborative online gaming with friends can have its own place in a healthy lifestyle, too, but the likelihood that Meta is profiting off the de-enrichment of reality that’s occurred since masks and social distancing in the Covid era should give one serious pause before diving headlong into VR.
The best thing we learned about Horizon Worlds from the ad is that you have to pay $299 to access it by buying a Meta Quest headset. The second best thing would have been that it is only for those aged 18+ since we know how toxic social digital platforms can be for kids, but unfortunately, the platform is already populated by underaged users, likely logged into their parents’ Facebook accounts.
Social media on a two-dimensional screen is already poisoning our discourse, our friendships, and our children’s minds. It’s addictive, highly surveilled, treats users like monetized packets of data, encourages censorship and rancor at the same time, and gave birth to a particularly virulent cancel culture.
Meta might be trying to work their product into your brain as a video game, but early indications are that it is a more physically engaging 3D version of the Facebook you grew up with and all its toxicity.
It’s not a video game, it’s the “embodied internet,” as Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg has referred to it. The world doesn’t need another semi-public virtual space to pretend like we’re “getting together” and “staying connected” when we’re mostly just wasting time, being provoked or harassed, getting into stupid arguments, and having our data sold to companies who want to advertise to us. What we need is more time in the real world, with real people. The fact that for many if not most people, the real world has gotten considerably less enjoyable over the past two years is no excuse. We can make it better by connecting with people on the most basic, most human level of in-person, face-to-face interactions.
Ironically, Meta’s Horizon Worlds ad shows us that the real world is vastly preferable to a pathetic little cartoon space full of floating torsos. Perhaps the Super Bowl half-time show performed by the hip-hop and R&B legends of the ’90s and early aughts jogged our collective memories of what it was like before Covid restrictions, before smartphones, before Facebook and Instagram and its digital ancestors began to take over our lives. A simpler time, when you called your best friend on the home phone or knocked on the neighbor’s door to ask them to come play.
Meta might have stumbled onto half of a constructive message: We can still resurrect some of the better aspects of the past, but instead of bringing them into cyberspace, which will only depress us (as all computer-facilitated social activity does when we become too immersed in it), we can make the effort of rebuilding them in the real world.
What can you do with $299 instead of buy a VR headset? Throw a block party. Buy some skateboards for your kids. Buy a tent and go camping with friends. Do literally anything that isn’t piddling away precious time in a half-baked virtual world being sold to you by an undiscerning tech giant set on total domination of the digital world.
It’s doubtful anyone will ever regret spending less time in Horizon Worlds, in the same way they don’t regret spending less time on Facebook or Twitter. So, take advantage of all the blessings of physical reality; you just might make the real world a little more enjoyable for others, too.