In a lavish launch that was acutely cultish, even by Silicon Valley’s standards, Mark Zuckerberg addressed his congregation from a virtual mansion—complete with suits of armour, a steam-punk telescope and a floating fireplace. From this supervillain lair, the centabillionaire speaks directly to camera in the overconfident yet painfully awkward manner of a man-child emperor. Via a series of gee-wiz and how-cool-is-that moments, Zuckerberg brings the corporation formally known as Facebook to a new level of abstraction as a new corporate entity known as Meta as part of its quest to ‘build the metaverse’ (a dubious concept discussed below).
This move is a high-stakes gamble: a trillion-dollar company ‘pivoting’ as it throws chips in on virtual/augmented-reality expansion, despite the fact that, so far, its social VR/AR products either have been short-lived failures or have languished for extended periods in invite-only beta phases. Nevertheless, it detects that immense power and profit are to be had from being the first tech-titan to wholeheartedly bring its immense technical skills to the task of creating addictive, compulsive machinery that exploits our psychological susceptibilities, beginning with the fundamental human desire for social interaction, a desire it feeds off while technologically remaking it through its own circuits of surveillance and control.
A common observation is that the timing of this transformation comes as part of a PR attempt by Facebook to distance itself from its own reputation, and to dodge the growing backlash against a company that’s long celebrated its tech-bro ‘move fast, break things’ mantra. To be fair, credit must be given to Facebook for creating common ground between otherwise highly divided Republicans and Democrats. Coming together in rare bipartisan agreement, members of the US Congress and Senate are increasingly critical of Facebook’s vast, monopolistic expansion, its cut-throat business practices, and its role in fomenting ethnic violence, violent fanaticism and poor mental health—to name a few of its misdeeds.
Many of these criticisms intensified recently after whistleblower Frances Haugen revealed a large number of internal documents that showcase what was already known: the company is well aware of the harm it causes, but it continues regardless. The fresh insights from this leak are important, but Haugen’s critiques are very limited, as she explicitly frames her actions as an attempt to help fix the company, not hurt it. Her major point is largely reducible to a dim liberal call for ‘shareholder rights’. Since 2012, Zuckerberg himself has personally controlled 58 per cent of Facebook’s voting shares, and during this time he has seen its market cap increase massively, with share prices going from under $18 to a high of $382. Major investors have become very, very wealthy under Zuckerberg’s reign. Facebook has long been tyrannical in its internal structure, much like Google and other such companies, centralised under the cultish figure of the founder. As such, there is a need to pay close attention to the particular deliriums and perversions of Zuckerberg’s character.A glimpse into this can be seen in the famous ‘smoked meats’ video that depicts the everyman Zuckerberg in a backyard as he poorly attempts to impersonate human social interaction. While … Continue reading As indefensibly foul as this is, Haugen’s call is to trade the tyranny of the founder for the tyranny of the biggest shareholders. This ignores the structural fact that the same powerful corporate entities that own Facebook also own and actively control many other major corporations. For example, they share the exact same top five institutional shareholders with Alphabet, Amazon and Microsoft, just in slightly different orders. Going a little further afield, Facebook also shares four of the top five biggest investors with ExxonMobil and three of the top four with Lockheed Martin. Needless to say, Lockheed and ExxonMobil have very strong ‘investor rights’, but this does not make them ethical.
Another key reason for Facebook’s shift to become Meta has to do with how it reports its financials. The new organisation separates its primary apps—Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram—from the Reality Labs, the VR/AR arm of the company. The restructure is about remaking the company on a more abstract level to provide financial clarity to investors. In this, it has parallels with Google’s 2015 transformation into Alphabet, a move that was lavishly rewarded by investors, with the company’s share price almost doubling in six months, despite no change in its core services. Formulated as a larger conglomerate, Meta is better suited to mix subsidiaries, outsourcing, financial speculation and monopoly power, furthering the company’s ability to vacuum up start-ups, hoard intellectual property, solidify its infrastructural and logistical strength, and further its technoscientific research—the true source of its power.
Into the metaverse?
One question circulating on the web over the last few months is: what is the metaverse?Some answer to this in the mainstream media are remarkably bad. For example, ABC published a woeful article on Meta that digressed into a series of inarticulate pop culture references, while … Continue reading Part distracting PR fairy floss, part B-grade sci-fi and part expansionist business plan, it combines a world-conquering ambition with a stunted tech-bro vision of a glorious future of infinite consumption and control. In throwing down its chips, Facebook announced that it will hire 10,000 new employees in the EU to work on this arm of the company, this being a major expansion of its current workforce of 60,000 employees. Under the heading ‘Building the Metaverse Responsibly’, it claims: ‘The “metaverse” is a set of virtual spaces where you can create and explore with other people who aren’t in the same physical space as you. You’ll be able to hang out with friends, work, play, learn, shop, create and more’. It then excretes a smorgasbord of vacuous buzzwords as it describes how the metaverse will bring about ‘more choice and competition’, better ‘privacy’, and more ‘safety and integrity’ as well as ‘equity and inclusion’. This inclusive quicksand of PR-speak tells us little, though it should raise suspicions in anyone not under the marketing spell of ‘intersectional imperialism’. In a fantastic example of this, Meta’s launch featured an advertisement packed with aggressively inclusive pinkwashing, featuring a carefully curated collection of diverse people—representing various racial, gender, sexual, generational and disabled groupings—all brought together through their consumeristic communion with the cybernetic cult. Presumably those on the Left who are in thrall of identity politics will have to cheer for Meta.
Zuckerberg describes the metaverse as ‘an embodied internet’. In this, he could not be more wrong: the metaverse is precisely about deepening the forces of disembodiment. It is about presenting the illusion of bodies, a fabricated face-to-face that seeks to simulate an embodied encounter through the surveilling, controlling technological machinations of a tech conglomerate. In speaking of interacting online, Zuckerberg wants to get beyond the grid of faces on a Zoom conference call and into a virtual reality that can simulate the presence of another in cyberspace. He describes this as the ‘holy grail of social interactions’. In making this historically loaded metaphor, he conjures images of eternal youth, of miraculous abundance, of a crusader’s megalomania—all stock-standard psychopathological fantasies for the tech-billionaires.
Imagining himself as a contemporary King Arthur, Zuckerberg has had his company work towards this for some time, at least since it acquired VR company Oculus for a sweet $2.3 billion back in 2014. The idea currently manifests in the cutey-creepy Facebook Horizon, a social platform game currently in its invite-only beta testing phase, as well as in Horizon Workrooms, a remote-collaboration tool. A video of the latter in action depicts Zuckerberg’s avatar in a Horizon Workroom showing off to a collection of Facebook executives and tech-journalists. Meanwhile, the meat Zuckerberg is in a room somewhere with a VR helmet on, seemingly babbling to himself.
The expansion of the metaverse is contingent on an increasing colonisation of life-worlds by networked computing-machines. As with other smart devices, its expansion is implicitly following a vanguard model: be taken up by software engineers first, then proceed downwards through the social hierarchy and reorganise the world in the image of the techno-cult. Zuckerberg’s limited imagination is helpful here. For him, much of the metaverse congeals into what he lovingly calls the ‘infinite office’—a techno-paradise of multitasking, disembodied integration and individual productivity. Drawing on a near-future fantasy of ubiquitous VR headsets, Zuckerberg disgorges part of his fantasy to a sycophantic interviewer:
So, one is you will be able to, with basically a snap of your fingers, pull up your perfect workstation. So anywhere you go, you can walk into a Starbucks, you can sit down, you can be drinking your coffee and kind of wave your hands and you can have basically as many monitors as you want, all set up, whatever size you want them to be, all preconfigured to the way you had it when you were at your home before. And you can just bring that with you wherever you want.
Zuckerberg imagines transforming the world into an office, an endless workplace for technocratic labour. Such maniacal bureaucratic fantasies reveal a contempt for grounding, for limits, for embodiment itself. In this, Zuckerberg can be seen as expressing a fundamental ideological beliefs of the present: that technological transcendence and disembodied integration are inherent and automatic social goods. This problematic belief is hugely powerful, widely shared and largely unrecognised. It comes not only from the captains of industry and the consumerism they preach but also from their unruly disciples with more left-wing leanings, such as the ‘fully-automated luxury communists’ and identity-politics zealots. Despite their manifest differences, they share a vision of a flattened world of infinite flows, of one-dimensional cosmopolitan culture and a choose-your-own-reality individualisation. They scorn the messy complexity of grounded existence, of embodiment, of particularities of place. Most of all, the notion of limits is anathema. Indeed, the very particle ‘meta’ means ‘beyond’, in this case implying that the transcending of limits is the new company’s central goal.
Rather, a radical material critique must ask questions of limits, of embodiment, of the appropriateness of technologies. The expansion of the metaverse will intensify the growing chasm that separates symbol-manipulating intellectual workers from the more grounded inhabitants of the increasingly unstable planet Earth. The downside of the chasm includes many of the ‘essential workers’ who provide the care, grow the food, move the goods and build the structures that are foundational to our shared social world. It includes the impoverished and excluded remnants of the working class, generations of people born in less abstracted times, those alienated by too much social distancing, a huge range of Indigenous and migrant communities, to say nothing of entire countries worth of people in the Global South. Not only are such groupings of people most likely to lose out in this environment of rapidly increasingly inequality, but also their more grounded existences are being actively undermined by the global techno-market.
Such processes of undermining are also rapidly degrading the ecological systems that support life as we know it. And, no doubt, constructing the metaverse will mean far greater amounts of data to be stored, analysed and transmitted around the world, thus setting up a material requirement for the production of far more computing-machines. Following existing patterns of production, these new machines will be fabricated in hyper-exploitative conditions and will be composed of minerals and petrochemicals that have to be mined and refined via energy-intensive, toxic processes of extraction. Then, for their short product lives, the infrastructure that enables the metaverse to function will demand massive amounts of electricity, produced largely by fossil fuels, with all the world-burning implications of this. And then, when they succumb to their planned obsolesce and compulsory upgrade cycles, the e-waste will be shipped off for the poorest of the poor to scavenge through. At every step along the way, profit will be extracted and concentrated at the top of the social hierarchy, exacerbating world-historic levels of inequality. At best, it is a blithe assumption that abstract linear progress will continue infinitely to shape the world in the image of the techno-scientists. Seen more clearly, it is actively leading to new levels of alienation, ungrounded social decay and the further intensification of the sixth mass extinction.
All of this sits jarringly with the rapidly deepening global ecological and social catastrophe we’re living in. There have never been more compelling arguments to reduce inequality, to consume less, to live less energy-intensive lives. And yet, here we are, seeing the unveiling of yet another exponential increase in the production and consumption of inequality-intensifying, wasteful gadgets of automated alienation. The stakes are high in this speculative gamble, spilling far beyond whatever becomes of Zuckerberg’s techno-cult ambition.
Timothy Erik Ström, Dec 2020
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|↑1||A glimpse into this can be seen in the famous ‘smoked meats’ video that depicts the everyman Zuckerberg in a backyard as he poorly attempts to impersonate human social interaction. While unpleasant to watch, this video remains an essential meditation on the catastrophic present.|
|↑2||Some answer to this in the mainstream media are remarkably bad. For example, ABC published a woeful article on Meta that digressed into a series of inarticulate pop culture references, while excluding any kind of critical engagement, history or any kind of larger perspective. It mentions ‘critics’ and ‘skeptics’, but whoever they are and whatever their concerns may be were never touched on.|