Facebook, the metaverse and a falsely promised future

 
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Facebook is dead! Long live Meta!

So proclaimed Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to thousands of followers who tuned in to a livestream last Friday announcing the company’s rebrand.

If you’re confused, you’re not alone. In the wake of the announcement, many flocked to their social media platform of choice to post a range of responses—many using the opportunity to joke about the name change, or highlight the ongoing whistle-blower scandal that Facebook—that is to say, Meta—find themselves embroiled in.

So, what does this name change mean for the global media giant, and what—if anything, will actually change as a result

Facebook Lives

First things first, the social media platform you have grown to love—or perhaps more likely loathe—is still known as Facebook. Facebook, Facebook Messenger, even Instagram—all of these platforms are keeping their names. What has changed is the name of “Facebook, Inc.” the parent company that owns and runs all of these platforms and businesses which is now known as “Meta Platforms, Inc.” or Meta for short. In the same way Google transformed into Alphabet, the then-new parent company which now controls the Google search platform, YouTube and dozens of other smaller businesses, Facebook has transformed into Meta to emphasize their broader reach and new goal. Meta is the the name of the new brand which will oversee all their social media apps and other ventures—including their virtual reality headset, the Oculus.

But what is that new goal?

According to the more cynical commentators, the goal is not one of actual substance, but an attempt to distract from the issues that Meta currently finds itself in. Over the past month, the company has struggled to deal with a public relations nightmare wrought by Frances Haugen, a former product manager turned Facebook whistleblower with thousands of leaked documents. Haugen alleges that these internal documents show that the social network has repeatedly prioritised profits and expansion over user safety on issues of misinformation, political division and more on the Facebook platform.

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The ongoing discussion prompted by these allegations has had many calling for stronger regulation of the platform and others like it. Meta’s response meanwhile has been to deny all of Haugen’s revelations. But the timing of the rebrand, coming in the middle of the controversy has some questioning whether it’s just a PR move attempting to reset the cultural conversation towards one which is more favourable for them.

Meta is unlikely to ever reveal publicly whether the current problems plaguing the company have anything to do with the rebrand or not. But the company has its own claims as to why the rebrand has occurred—at it aligns with many of their expansions and acquisitions over the past decade.

The company is positioning themselves as the leading metaverse company.

Into the metaverse

What is the metaverse? you might ask. Is Facebook taking a page from Loki or Into The Spider-Verse and attempting to bring the multiverse into being?

That’s a good question. And while the term metaverse is not related to the multiverse, what it is—unfortunately—is no less confusing than the idea of alternate realities, in part because it does not yet exist.

Broadly speaking, the metaverse (a term taken from Neal Stephenson’s 1992 dystopian science-fiction novel Snow Crash) refers to a movement in technology which aims to integrate or expand the digital worlds we inhabit into the physical one, providing opportunities to connect and merge the two in our daily lives. You may have heard a similar concept described as extended reality—a term which the metaverse has superseded. Overall, it’s a relatively simple concept. What gets complicated is how wide this real/virtual world synthesis may spread, and how it may integrate itself into our lives.

According to Zuckerberg in Meta’s rebranding video, the metaverse will be brought about by augmented and virtual reality technology and will allow you to host conference calls in virtual reality boardrooms thanks to your VR Headset, attend a real world or virtual concert with friends thanks to some handy augmented reality glasses (the likes of which do not yet exist) or even compete in a virtual fencing tournament against real world champions. The metaverse, according to Zuckerberg’s utopian vision, will allow connection on a scale unlike anything we’ve seen, allowing us to engage in experiences—new and familiar—unrestricted by distance or time. If you’ve ever seen or read anything in the Ready Player One franchise, then you’ll be familiar with the OASIS—which is essentially a fictional version of what Zuckerberg hopes to create with the metaverse.

Others online have highlighted the role that current blockchain technologies may play in bringing about this metaverse. Bitcoin will be the currency of the future, and NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens) will be the way in which art and digital assets are bought and sold. These predictions ignore the dangerous impact that these technologies have on the real world, focusing on the future potential instead of the problems of the now.

Which, when it comes down to it, is the broader problem with the metaverse.

An Unwritten Future

In the name change to Meta and the PR spin that came alongside it, the company formerly known as Facebook is planting a flag in a specific vision of the future—one that is a long way off. Virtual and augmented reality technologies are far from reaching the levels that were presented in Zuckerberg’s video vision, something multiple critics have pointed out. Furthermore, recent research showed that only two out of 12 families given access to VR technology as part of a clinical trial would consider buying the technology for themselves. Before there is any hope of even realising this dream, significant technological and societal hurdles must be cleared.

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Of course, Meta is aware of this. The name change signifies that. This is a company which is committed to this idea of the metaverse for the long haul. Come hell or high water, it seems to be the mast which they have tied themselves to. . .

And I can’t think of a group that I find more distasteful to be leading this charge.

Because despite all this talk about the metaverse being a new way to connect people, share experiences and provide a utopian world, there is a core truth that remains at the heart of Zuckerberg’s business—no matter what it is called.

They do not care about us.

More accurately, they do not care about us as people. For Facebook, Twitter, Google, Meta, no matter what the big tech company, one reality remains true.

You are valuable to them only so far as they can extract value from you and transform it into profit.

An Unsavoury Present

This is the issue that lies at the core of the ongoing scandals which Meta faces. A company which prioritises profits over people is not one I want to be defining the future of human interaction either virtually or physically.

Meta is a company which is being criticised for its effects on democracy and society. The name change and new vision for the future do not change this fact. As academic researchers Marcus Carter and Ben Egliston put it: “Appropriately enough, the metaverse under Facebook is likely to resemble the term’s literary origins, a term coined. . . to describe an exploitative, corporatised, hierarchical virtual space.”

How will those who currently have limited or no internet access become involved in Zuckerberg’s metaverse? How will this new world solve the problems in the present one—problems which are sometimes exasperated by the technology companies which aim to solve them. In this way, the idea of the metaverse seems to echo the utopian visions for space presented by other billionaires. But like these visions, there are two main flaws: Zuckerberg’s creation of a new world in the metaverse will not solve the problems in our current one, nor is it fair to assume that this new world will not inherit any of the issues we currently have. On the contrary, evidence shows that technological advances frequently reproduce our flaws and biases—after all, they are being created by flawed human hands.

Perhaps, instead of looking to Zuckerberg’s vision for the future as a salvation, we should look elsewhere.

But where else can we look? For me, it comes back to the idea of helping to change things in the present, instead of pining all our hopes on the futures created by the wealthiest amongst us. When looking at the issues of today, I instead find my compass in a bible verse from Isaiah: “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” Perhaps instead of escaping into the metaverse, we should focus on lifting up those struggling in the real world.

Ryan Stanton is a PhD Student at the University of Sydney studying new media industries, focusing on gaming podcasts. He is extremely skeptical of companies like Meta… but is still a compulsive Twitter user. Yes, he knows how that makes him look…