I have been having a lot of thoughts about the staggering amount of money being spent to try to make VR homes, offices and Third Places happen. This money is primarily being spent by Mark Zuckerberg’s vastly profitable chaos-machine company, whose name he switched from Facebook to Meta.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first. None of the arguments or proposed uses for Zuckerberg’s vast project-within-a-company make a lick of sense.
While I am very open to the possibility of pure Folly explaining monumental mistakes, I also feel that billionaires tend not to habitually explain their motivations honestly.
This week there was a very long infomercial released by Meta, starring the SunKing himself, trying to hint to the stock market what on earth they were doing backing this bonfire of capital at the same time as cutting hiring in the face of their first-ever fall in advertising income.
Having watched this exceedingly strange artefact (you can do so too, but believe me, you won’t), I thought I’d tell you what I think is going on.
The key to helping me towards some understanding here, I am embarrassed to say, is Mark Zuckerberg’s haircut.
Mark Zuckerberg has chosen, against all tenets of style or taste, to fashion his head-topping after the Emperor Augustus, first emperor of Rome and founder of the Roman Empire, which was quite a big deal of an Empire before Facebook came along.
Now, this is quite a fashion statement for a person with, effectively, unlimited funds to hire people to make him look good.
“My wife was making fun of me, saying she thought there were three people on the honeymoon: me, her, and Augustus. All the photos were different sculptures of Augustus.”
So the richest man of his generation, with a fascination with the founder of the Roman Empire, has an idea. He will replace the world as it is with a world which can be controlled absolutely, within his own empire.
The metaverse project is nothing less than an attempt to establish a global Pax Meta.
Imagine you controlled and monitored everything that everyone saw for significant parts of their day. Not just looking at a screen, but everything outside it too. Decor, weather, fashion, architecture… and ads. As though people were living inside one of those video game franchises with the product placements, except the products are on their virtual desks or floating outside on animated zeppelins. No competitors exist inside a corporate reality. No other giants can intrude or compete. Imagine Facebook, but for your real life.
This would be an Empire any would-be man of history would think worth burning a fortune for.
So while the huge push for the Metaverse is marketed as a way to talk to playmobil versions of your co-workers’ torsos, we should always remember Mark Zuckerberg’s haircut.
Talking about Augustus imposing the Pax Romana- a military backed imperial control of Europe- he reflected obliquly on the price of Empires.
“What are the trade-offs in that?” Zuckerberg said, growing animated. “On the one hand, world peace is a long-term goal that people talk about today. Two hundred years feels unattainable.”
On the other hand, he said, “that didn’t come for free, and he had to do certain things.”
VR is actually fun if it doesn’t make you nauseous. But I’m not sure I'm willing to find out what “certain things” Zuckerberg would be willing to do to make his Metaverse dream come true. And, judging from the ongoing mass apathy to what is being offered, nobody much else is tempted to find out either.