Facebook is to our minds as Exxon is to our air
Getting serious about protecting our mental environment from 'the metaverse.'
What Exxon is to our air, Facebook is to our minds: an unparalleled source of pollution. Both are giant companies with deep political power whose products at one point offered a certain kind of liberation and now threaten whatever well-being we still enjoy. Both have lied and covered-up their evil: the Wall Street Journal’s accounts of the Facebook files (artfully reprised in the New Yorker and last night on 60 Minutes) remind me of nothing as much as Inside Climate News’s chronicle of Exxon’s global warming prevarications, which helped cost us three decades in the global warming fight. If you want to say anything in Exxon’s defense, it’s that for most of their corporate history we didn’t know the danger carbon posed. But what does it say about Facebook’s corporate culture that even now high-level employees spend their time trying to figure out how to “leverage play-dates” among small children for profit? There seemed a bit of karmic comeuppance today when Facebook went dark, with even its employees unable to get in their offices because their badges were disabled.
My preoccupation, obviously, is with the physical environment, and so the main reason I’ve loathed Facebook is for their attacks on democracy: how can we hope to slow the chaotic heating of the earth when the most powerful force in our information universe works overtime spreading nonsense, helping elect know-nothings, and selling our attention span to the highest bidder? (It could, of course, be worse: elsewhere in the world Facebook has helped expedite genocide).
But today let’s take a short break from the ever-present climate crisis to talk about what we’re saving the planet for. At least in the western world, Facebook has about maxed out the scale of its present business. So, of course, it’s thinking about how to deploy its vast cash reserves to profitably remake our future. And the answer it has apparently settled on—the “metaverse”—has to be the single most dystopian idea the human brain has yet conceived. Here’s how the company explains it: “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.” As Mark Zuckerberg says in a long interview with The Verge, his goal is to bring this “embodied Internet” to life, and thinks that his Oculus virtual reality division will play a big role in doing so: with your headset on, you can stay immersed in the internet essentially forever, navigating between work and entertainment and play. “Instead of just viewing content — you are in it. And you feel present with other people as if you were in other places, having different experiences that you couldn’t necessarily do on a 2D app or webpage, like dancing, for example.” This has been his vision since junior high school, says Zuckerberg, but now we have the technology to make it real: “the metaverse broadly is going to help people experience, is a sense of presence that I think is just much more natural in the way that we’re made to interact. And I think it will be more comfortable. The interactions that we have will be a lot richer, they’ll feel real. In the future, instead of just doing this over a phone call, you’ll be able to sit as a hologram on my couch, or I’ll be able to sit as a hologram on your couch.”
This appeals to Facebook, and to other tech firms, because if we will trap ourselves obediently in this world they can make a lot of money. As Kyle Chayka explained in the New Yorker, “in the future we might walk through Facebook, wear clothes on Facebook, host virtual parties on Facebook, or own property in the digital territory of Facebook. Each activity in what we once thought of as the real world will develop a metaverse equivalent, with attendant opportunities to spend money doing that activity online.”
That’s plenty frightening, given the degree to which Facebook and its competitors have already decimated local economies. But there’s something far deeper here, that we should take account of now, before everyone just accepts that this is the world we’re headed for. And that’s the sheer bloody grimness of it all: the vision of people stretched out with their headsets all day, plugged into a vague equivalent of a video game. (Or, if Elon Musk has his way, we’ll have some kind of neural link that makes the headset unnecessary).
To me, this vision is of human variety and spontaneity and beauty finally and decisively defeated. We already spend most of the day staring at the screens that participation in our economy mandates that we use, but at least there’s an edge to them: you can see, literally, outside the box, instead of being swallowed up (and swaddled) in its virtual (and essentially literal) embrace. To tell ourselves that it will be our choice is wrong, and not just because our various bosses will demand it. If they get the technology right, the dopamine engineers at places like Facebook will make the experience simultaneously unrewarding and almost irresistible, just as Twitter or Instagram are at the moment. But at least you’re not inside Twitter.
This may not be the single most abusive use of new technology—the prize doubtless goes to China’s surveillance panopticon—but it’s the sad Huxley to that scary Orwell. We can see it coming because people like Zuckerberg are helpfully telling us about it—and we know enough about the world to understand in our bones it will be ugly. Human nature is as fragile and vulnerable as nature nature; too many people believed humans couldn’t really change the climate, and now we know how wrong they were. Plenty of people will explain that “the metaverse” won’t really matter, that it’s just like playing Fortnite but only more immersive, that people will always be people. But our experience with the Internet so far should be enough to prove them wrong. If looking at Instagram makes teenagers sick with worry about their appearance, just wait for the hologram version. When outside reality literally disappears from view, we’ll be in a hopeless new world; imagine living your life on a Vegas casino floor.
We should figure out ways to stop the tech companies. Breaking up Facebook would be an excellent start—the company is almost sovereign in its power now, and so able to overwhelm debate and discussion. It’s begun to use its NewsFeed to bolster its image, which means this concept will be discussed about as rationally as, say, vaccines. Sometimes I think that if an outage like today’s at Facebook just lasted a week or two, it would break the spell it has cast, and we would blink, and resume life; the company’s engineers are probably good enough to get their enterprise restarted, so we’ll have to find other, more democratic, ways.
It’s true that we need energy, but we don’t need Exxon’s fossil fuel: instead, we can now supply our power locally and relatively benignly. We also need connection, some of it online: but we can learn to do that closer to home, and in limited ways that don’t threaten to overwhelm us. Allowing Exxon or Facebook this much power is foolish and lazy.
We’re coming close to cutting the connection to our former earth, the one with icecaps and winter; that horror should be the most powerful incentive not to also cut the connection with our former selves, the ones that moved through the ‘world’ on our own terms instead of marinating in a corporate ‘metaverse.’ We fight to save the climate in part to save the humans, in part because we are such an interesting, vivid, and difficult species. Let’s surrender neither.