Mark Zuckerberg has changed Facebook’s corporate name to Meta to reflect the company’s growing focus on creating an all-encapsulating virtual reality known as the “metaverse,” a decision that has elicited a wide array of reactions. For those who consider themselves technologically inclined, Zuckerberg’s decision may be in line with that of a visionary, a progenitor of a new, exciting era of tech. For others, myself included, Zuckerberg’s decision reflects a growing gap between the world of everyday Americans and the world of people like Zuckerberg. In a world where lockdowns and social distancing have become realities, the last thing many of us desire is to live in a world mediated by holograms and finely tuned avatars. Zuckerberg is calling for nothing less than a reimagination of our relationship with technology and this should make us, at the very least, uneasy.
The decision to change Facebook’s name has been met with cynicism on all levels but especially by those in the media. In the wake of immense scrutiny regarding the company’s improper management of user data, as well as recent scandals like the Cambridge Analytica data breach and the recent release of internal documents by a whistleblower, many argue that Facebook is merely trying to give itself a facelift.
However, Zuckerberg’s decision was not merely political, as evidenced by the fact that he had been distancing himself from Facebook for several years — choosing to focus increasingly on acquiring digital platforms, like Oculus.
In many ways, Zuckerberg’s decision to pursue virtual reality reflects the fact that he is no longer content with merely being seen as “that social media guy.” Instead, he is attempting to reinvent himself and join the lofty ranks of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson, who have each preoccupied themselves with putting forth a vision for the future of tech. While Zuckerberg may have lost the space race, his idea of the metaverse is perhaps more daring and unnerving than that of his contemporaries in that it appears to be one that will come to fruition in our lifetimes.
In Zuckerberg’s world, technology no longer simply occupies the “in-betweens” of our lives. Instead, it has become more and more integrated into our everyday existence, making the distinction between our world and the digital one practically nonexistent. Zuckerberg’s world is one in which a morning commute is replaced by a walk to the computer, where arguments are settled through keyboards and headsets and where physical interactions with annoying colleagues become nonexistent. It is a remote, COVID-like world of social isolation that extends into the indeterminable future. It’s a world lived on demand. It is, in some sense, perfect in that it ultimately allows us to alter our surroundings to fit our desires.
However, it’s also a world where our data becomes increasingly valuable. And while Zuckerberg may have attempted to address concerns over data privacy in his most recent announcement describing the metaverse, should we be comfortable with one company having access to so much of our data? Of course, these problems are not necessarily new, but Zuckerberg’s metaverse seems to highlight their importance.
Still, it’s not just Zuckerberg’s access to our data that should concern us, but also the way in which this type of technology molds our worldviews. Even in our current digital reality, we find ourselves looking at images on a screen that claim to show us the “truth” of what’s happening. After all, when we look at photos in the news, some of us may often falsely assume that the image we are seeing accurately portrays the entirety of complex situations. It is for this reason that technology gives us a false sense of connectedness with the world and with others. The more we feel connected — the sharper the image, the clearer the video — the farther we may actually be from the event itself.
The danger with Zuckerberg’s metaverse is the same as that of Thales, the ancient Greek astronomer who fell into a well while looking up at the stars in the sky. Technological innovation can have its useful place in society, but if we idealize it or blindly trust it without first addressing the underlying problems, we risk a long, hard fall into a well of ignorance. After a year of social unrest and a pandemic that has torn us apart, it is more important than ever that we focus on fixing this reality — not the next.