Editor’s Note: Douglas Rushkoff is a media theorist and author, most recently, of “Team Human,” published by W. W. Norton. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Maybe this is what Silicon Valley’s demigods have been dreaming about since the beginning. A profound reversal of the relationship between human beings and technology, a flipping of the real and virtual.
I’m speaking of the project Mark Zuckerberg launched on Thursday. It was the metaverse, he said, and also announced that his company’s name had changed, to Meta, from Facebook.
When I clicked on the link to Zuckerberg’s video announcement, I thought it was a joke at first, maybe a “deep fake.” Someone seemed to have modeled Zuckerberg’s face and gestures pretty well, but the guy in the video was so robotic, surely he must have been an avatar.
But no, this was the real Facebook founder, joining his most trusted employees in pitching the metaverse, Facebook’s proprietary new virtual world of worlds where we are supposed to do our working, playing and socializing forever more.
This isn’t intended to be some casual digital simulation we enter and leave at will. Zuckerberg wants the metaverse to ultimately encompass the rest of our reality – connecting bits of real space here to real space there, while totally subsuming what we think of as the real world.
In the virtual and augmented future Facebook has planned for us, it’s not that Zuckerberg’s simulations will rise to the level of reality, it’s that our behaviors and interactions will become so standardized and mechanical that it won’t even matter.
Instead of making human facial expressions, our avatars can make iconic thumbs-up gestures. Instead of sharing air and space together, we can collaborate on a digital document. We learn to downgrade our experience of being together with another human being to seeing their projection overlaid into the room like an augmented reality Pokemon figure.
The less like humans and more like robots we can be, the more at home in the metaverse we will feel.
In short, instead of making technology more compatible with human beings, these services and experiences slowly make human beings more compatible with technology. In the past, on platforms like Facebook and Instagram, this has meant learning to value fame more than connection, likes more than love, and sensation over meaning.
Dutifully, teens sacrifice their mental health for image scrolling, and our politicians surrender governance for incitement. Yes, we could conclude that our world is pretty accurately depicted in social media at this point, but that is only because our society has lowered itself to the level of these platforms.
Now, just as we’re waking up to ways Facebook has knowingly eroded our social, mental and civic well-being, Zuckerberg is back with a new offering: a way out. Instead of struggling to make sense of or peace in the real world, we can surrender. We can slip on a pair of VR glasses and step out into the metaverse he is building for us.
That’s the whole function of the word “meta.” Back when they taught us postmodernism in college, I remember getting stuck on that word. It’s what all those French philosophers were trying to do to one another and the world around them. By coming up with a “frame” around someone else’s work, they could in effect “go meta” on them.
It’s like when Beavis and Butt-Head – animated characters on MTV – comment on MTV’s rock videos, or when Bo Burnham pulls the camera back to reveal we’re just watching a television set with another instance of Bo. They’ve gone “meta” by stepping outside one world into the larger, embracing one.
Meta does that, first and foremost, by becoming the “holding company” for all of Facebook’s properties - Instagram, WhatsApp, Messenger, Oculus – as well as Facebook itself. Meta is not really a tech company so much as a conglomerate that buys and sells tech companies. A meta company.
But on another level, Meta is the ultimate strategy for Facebook to get out of its many troubles. Facebook is not cool with kids, it’s in trouble with the government and its growth prospects are quite limited compared with Google, Apple and Amazon, which all develop different technologies like AI and robots and cloud services.
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Going meta is Facebook’s escape hatch; it’s Zuckerberg’s way of telling us (and his investors) to forget about all the destruction his platforms have caused, and instead to look at the big picture.
But if you look hard enough, you’ll see it’s not a big picture at all. It’s a tiny network of virtual worlds, connected by a business plan that always leaves its users with less than they started with.
No, to get through the portal to Facebook’s metaverse, to go in the direction that Zuckerberg is pushing us, we must leave our humanity behind.