Facebook, a company that has spent the last 15 years helping turn the real world into a hellscape, will spend $50 million funding research on how to avoid turning a new virtual world into a hellscape, the company announced Monday.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and various of his executives, including soon-to-be CTO Andrew Bosworth and comms man Nick Clegg have spent much of the last few months pushing the idea that we will all soon be living in the “metaverse,” which is most easily described as a virtual world similar to that of the bad-but-popular novel and movie Ready Player One, where we will work and interact with each other in 3D virtual spaces, presumably powered for some people by Facebook’s Oculus virtual reality headsets. Facebook’s big announcements of late have included a clumsy and lame virtual reality workplace and camera sunglasses that are supposed to slowly but surely push us toward this world.
“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. You’ll be able to hang out with friends, work, play, learn, shop, create and more,” Bosworth and Clegg write in the blog post that basically describes what everyone already does on the internet as though it is a new or interesting idea. “It’s not necessarily about spending more time online—it’s about making the time you do spend online more meaningful.”
To this end, Facebook announced it will “work with experts in government, industry, and academia to think through issues and opportunities in the metaverse,” and will spend $50 million over the next two years across a series of research projects designed to examine the metaverse’s economic opportunity, privacy issues, safety issues, and equity and inclusion issues. The company said that it is giving money to a series of organizations that are studying digital storytelling, women’s issues in the metaverse, economic opportunities in the metaverse, and artificial intelligence in the metaverse.
This likely sounds very dumb and also pretty damn rich coming from a company that has repeatedly lied to the public about the role that its reality-warping social media products have played on politics, public safety, intra- and intergovernmental workings, and the way people relate to each other and themselves. Facebook is asking us to trust it to create a new virtual world, when it has not fully examined the role that it has played on both the real world and the internet (which is also the real world).
In recent months, Facebook has misled the public about the role it has played in spreading disinformation and vaccine hesitancy during the COVID-19 pandemic and has found that Instagram has led to anxiety, depression, and risk of suicide among teens. If we take a longer-term view, Facebook has contributed to genocide in Myanmar, has allowed white supremacist groups to fester, was a platform highly manipulated by Russian disinformation groups, and, at its best, is a cesspool of incoherent memes for boomers.
The upshot of this, of course, is that there’s very little evidence anyone wants a metaverse, and virtual reality products like Oculus remain extremely niche and essentially irrelevant.