On Thursday afternoon, Bloomberg Television abruptly cut away from a press conference where Nancy Pelosi was discussing next steps on Democrats’ economic agenda.
Joe Biden had just finished outlining a “framework” for his “Build Back Better” plan, the cost of which was trimmed to $1.75 trillion, just half of the top line figure Progressives hoped to push through Congress.
But something more important was happening. Forget childcare, clean energy and affordable housing. Facebook was changing its name to “Meta” and an eerily lifelike automaton called “Mark” was making the announcement during a virtual presentation at the company’s Connect conference.
“The metaverse is the next frontier,” Mark said, adopting a not quite convincing impression of human giddiness. His elbows were locked in an unnatural bend and although he gesticulated in an effort to accentuate the monologue, his hands never quite synced with the rise and fall of his voice. “From now on, we’re going to be metaverse-first, not Facebook-first.”
It was, for lack of a better word, weird. Like a cross between Lance Henriksen’s Bishop, in Aliens, and Michael Fassbender’s David in Alien: Covenant. And with Adderall.
Jokes aside, there was something entirely apt about Bloomberg interrupting coverage of the train wreck that is Democrats’ bungled effort to capitalize on a singular opportunity to reshape the American economy, to cover Zuckerberg’s rebranding unveil.
Zuckerberg, like Elon Musk, is becoming a demigod right in front of us. I’ve argued (mostly recently in “The Facebook Papers: We’re Not Asking The Right Questions“) that he’s conducting (and on the brink of failing) what might one day be viewed as the first real test of humans’ capacity to merge with AI.
Although he’s (easily) the least likable of America’s tech moguls, Zuckerberg, like Musk, Jeff Bezos and the Google braintrust, is pushing humanity forward. To where and to what end, we’re not exactly sure. But the point is that lawmakers in the US have proven, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they’re utterly incapable of getting anything done, never mind passing meaningful legislation, let alone clearing proposals with the potential to effectuate transformational change in an efficient way.
Zuckerberg famously told Facebook’s employees to “move fast and break things.” The implication is that if you’re not breaking stuff, you’re moving too slow. It should follow that moving slow, while detrimental to progress and innovation, is at least safer. Somehow, Congress manages to encapsulate the worst of all possible permutations. US politics moves slow, rarely makes any progress and breaks things anyway.
I have no opinion on Facebook’s rebranding. I’m not sure what it means to be “metaverse-first” in a business sense. Bloomberg explained that “In Meta’s vision, people will congregate and communicate by entering virtual environments, whether they’re talking with colleagues in a boardroom or hanging out with friends in far-flung corners of the world.” Maybe Sergey Lavrov will show up for good, hearty virtual laugh.
Some media takes were deliberately silly. “Facebook Is Now Meta. What Happens to FANG?”, wondered Emily Graffeo and Vildana Hajric. But even the more serious coverage seemed to skirt the existential questions.
For example, how immersive do we really want this to be? And, relatedly, how invasive are we prepared for the connection to be assuming we develop better technology? It’s one thing to wander around with a clunky headset strapped to your face or a pair of glasses that superimposes a map on the sidewalk or become so wedded to the avatar that strolls around in some cartoon game that you begin to identify more with it than you do the real you. It’s something entirely different if companies, like Meta, start down the road to implants or ingestibles that interact with our biochemistry to change the way we experience reality. Or take us into another reality entirely.
When we say, for example, that we’re going to “congregate and communicate by entering virtual environments,” how literally do we mean that? Do we want to lie down, switch on an implant and experience a virtual world that’s indistinguishable from reality except by being infinitely more enjoyable? What if some of us don’t want to come back? If video games are addicting, a Matrix-like metaworld would be pure heroin. (Think: The sleep dens in Inception.)
Will a new industry emerge for caretakers who maintain the physical bodies of those who wish to stay immersed? How does monetization work? First you monetize the technology, sure. But then do you sell ad space in the metaverse to Coca-Cola? And what about Coca-Cola itself? What if the technology becomes so advanced that it’s possible for our meta-selves to experience the sensations associated with drinking a Coke while immersed in virtual reality thanks to our meta implant which triggers certain chemicals and brain impulses? How much is that worth? Can you die in an ultra-immersive metaverse? Do you sleep when you’re in there? If so, how many nights would it be before you forget the metaverse isn’t real? And how long would it be before millions of other people forget it isn’t real too? What if the caretakers paid to maintain the physical bodies of the immersed decide it’s financially advantageous not to wake up their benefactors? Who supervises all of this? And how long would it be before everyone wanted to be immersed? What happens after that?
Some of that may sound ridiculous. But what I’d note is that escapism is becoming more and more prevalent in advanced, western economies. The alcoholism and prescription drug abuse famously documented by Anne Case and Angus Deaton in “Deaths of Despair” is a manifestation of escapism, for example. So is binge watching a Netflix series. Escapism is already big business. Meta could make it the most profitable venture in history depending on how far they push the envelope, with the ultimately irony being that if everyone is immersed, you’d have no need for the profits because the real world would be entirely comprised of slumbering meta-addicts.
In the US, lawmakers could make reality a more appealing place simply by passing legislation that guarantees good healthcare, an education and equality of opportunity. And leaders around the world could act with the sense of urgency required to ensure that the planet will still be habitable 200 years from now. But generally speaking, elected officials in democracies and unelected leaders in autocracies are failing both when it comes to ensuring life’s worth living for the majority of the people they govern, and in safeguarding the planet for future generations of governed.
Little wonder, then, that those with unlimited resources and an ever expanding trove of data to leverage, are working night and day to get us “out of here” in one way or another, whether through the creation of immersive virtual worlds, the rapid development of private sector space exploration or simply enhancing our existing online experience through more addictive shows to stream, more tailored shopping experiences or more ways to engage (fruitfully or otherwise) with people we’ll never meet in person.
This is yet another example of how a handful of people are monopolizing power and influence in ways that aren’t immediately obvious and that go beyond the size of their fortunes.
Those numbers (the net worth of the richest 10 people on the planet) are largely meaningless at this point. The combined fortune of Musk, Zuckerberg and Bezos could pay for more than one-third of Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan. But why would they bother? They’re not building “back,” they’re building forward. For the “better” or not we don’t yet know.