The Have Nots

One of the curious phenomena of our current moment is the neediness of business leaders to perceive of their work, not merely as something useful or profitable, but as virtuous.

Shortly after the turn of the century, a company I founded became a technology supplier to the U.K.'s Channel 4 network. At the time, the network was running a reality TV show called "Big Brother" in which a number of people were packed into a house to live together and periodically someone was kicked out of the house. The last person standing at the end of the season won a cash prize or some such.

My company provided internet-related technology in the early days of video streaming. I didn't think much of our business deal with Channel 4 because I didn't think anyone would watch a show based on such an absurd premise. When our European sales team told me about an upcoming episode, I just rolled my eyes. The much anticipated moment in the show, which everyone hoped would drive ratings, was when one of the contestants (I kid you not) decided to paint his bare butt orange and sit on a wooden chair to leave a stamp of his butt as a sort of furniture decoration.

The whole thing seemed preposterous. Engaging with Channel 4 seemed to me like a colossal waste of time, to say nothing of our unhappy ancillary role as a minor contributor to the degradation of British cultural discourse. I went on record at the time as saying I didn't see how the show could possibly attract viewers and so we shouldn't count on the trial-run with our technology amounting to anything.

Boy. Was I ever wrong.

I tell this story partly to illustrate the truism that there is no accounting for taste. But I also mean to highlight the fact that I have long been disabused of any illusions regarding whether my own interests are reflective, at all, of the interests of anyone else.

I remembered these events when I read the article at The American Conservative linked to below. The technology world is all aflutter over Facebook's plans for the "metaverse". The article contains portions of an interview with Marc Andreessen in which he offers a moral argument that drawing people into a virtual world is the very picture of beneficence:

“A small percent of people live in a real-world environment that is rich, even overflowing, with glorious substance. Beautiful settings, plentiful stimulation, and many fascinating people to talk to, and to work with, and to date...Everyone else, the vast majority of humanity, lacks Reality Privilege—their online world is, or will be, immeasurably richer and more fulfilling than most of the physical and social environment around them in the quote-unquote real world.”

One of the curious phenomena of our current moment is the neediness of business leaders to perceive of their work, not merely as something useful or profitable, but as virtuous. The technology moguls of our current moment have little understanding of the lives of regular people, but they think they do. And they know what we need.

The metaverse is, first and foremost, an effort to siphon off mind-space and dollars from people who can be convinced to spend more time gazing into the virtual world than living in the real one. The metaverse, if successful, will farm the minds and livelihoods of human beings for profits in a way not unlike the way livestock are farmed for profits.

But who wants to tell people so baldly that you plan to profit by manipulating the most weak minded people in the world? These denizens of the metaverse will be nudged by advertisers into parting with their very limited dollars in order to satisfy the desires those very same advertisers.  But it sounds so shabby when you put it right out there that way. It's far more congenial to say, as Andreessen does in this interview, that it is out of compassion.  The metaverse is a way out for everyone leading lives less colorful than a tech mogul. The hairy unwashed, in Andreessen's view, lead less satisfying lives than the Andreessen's and Zuckerberg's of the world.  And so Zuckerberg et al will rescue them from the mundane and usher them into the sparkling majesty of a brave new virtual world.

I was talking to a friend yesterday who is a technology leader at a company that is building some of the software plumbing needed to enable the kind of digital experience anticipated by the metaverse. This venture-backed company is raising shocking amounts of money in pursuit of its goals. Very - very - large bets are being placed by technology investors. They are betting that the digital experience can be made so compelling - and so manipulative - that the ability of digital advertising to affect human behavior will be ramped up even more.

The picture at the top of this post is from the launch of Facebook's Oculus Rift headset. It was their first foray into virtual reality. To me, this photo has always seemed to capture more than just a moment at the product launch. It acts as a near perfect metaphor for where things are headed with social media: every person in the room, except one, is confined to his seat with blinders on.

I had a friend once who did industrial pig farming, and a picture of him walking through his barn with hundreds of pigs restrained and facing forward to the feeding trough is eerily similar to this photo. Just sayin'.

What Andreessen is doing in his riff on "reality privilege" amounts to an effort to frame the metaverse as an actual moral good. If your life isn't as colorful and carefree as Mark Andreessen's, then you can live in a virtual world instead of the real one. The entire thing is comically self-serving. It's hard to tell whether he is doing this to make himself feel better, or whether he is just offering street theater for the rubes he intends to profit from.

My recommendation: don't live your life, like those guys in the photo, with a TV on your nose.  Have a real life, not a virtual one.

Selling the Metaverse - The American Conservative
You are going to be pushed into virtual reality whether you like it or not.
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