I don’t want to live in Mark Zuckerberg’s “Metaverse.” I’ve already see what Zuckerberg and Co. have to offer. Regardless of their intentions, the results of living in the virtual world they’ve created have been monstrous.
I embraced the online world far earlier than most. I had my first CompuServe account in about 1986. Before long, I was deeply involved in forums, message boards and bulletin boards. I became part of the early culture of “cyberspace.” We saw ourselves as pioneers — and we believed we were part of something great which would change everything.
As those early nerds days evolved into the fashionable world of social media, I came along for the ride. But over time, I became horrified at what I saw. Those of us who thought we were pioneers in something great were wrong.
We were pioneers who laid a foundation for something which would ultimately cause damage in “the real world.” And now that Facebook and other social media platforms have shown us just how dangerous they can be, Zuckerberg is asking us to double-down on trusting him — by joining him in something he calls “the Metaverse.”
If we have a shred of wisdom remaining in our online-addicted brains, we will run screaming from the dystopian future which Zuckerberg is so eager to sell to us.
There have been positive benefits of the online culture, for the world as a whole and for me personally.
I’ve made friends I never would have made without CompuServe or Facebook or Instagram. I’ve fallen in love because of chance meetings online with women I never would have met otherwise. And I have instant access to information which would have shocked and delighted my grandfather.
But all this has come at a cost, one which I was very slow to recognize. As someone who’s read a lot about communication theory — and about the ways in which new technologies change society in unintended ways — I should have seen this coming. But I was blind to the costs, simply because I wanted to believe in the idealistic fantasy we were promised.
There’s been a lot written about the evils of Facebook as a company, but those complaints largely miss the point which I should have seen much earlier. Facebook and other media platforms have become toxic not because the people who run them are necessarily evil, but because these technologies cause us to treat each other in horribly toxic ways.
The nature of the technology itself dehumanizes the people we deal with, so that we routinely treat people in ways that we would never act in real life.
We deal with two-dimensional (or even one-dimensional) caricatures of demons online. We put masks on our online selves and we make assumptions about others based on the masks they wear. We make heroes out of people who we don’t know. We make monsters out of other people we don’t know.
The worst of real-world tribalism migrated to the online world — and the petty disagreements we might have in real life became fuel for pure hatred when we could direct that hate at two-dimensional cardboard cutouts.
It’s easier to hate people who we don’t have to see and know in the flesh-and-blood world.
(For the briefest of explanations about why this was inevitable, please read Neil Postman’s excellent books, “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business” and “Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology.” For a deeper dive into the theory behind this, read the older works of Canadian academic Marshall McLuhan. I know you’re not going to do any of this, but I’m begging you.)
The people who run social media platforms are technologists and advertising salespeople. Their goal is to make a lot of money. They have no real interest in understanding the social psychology or media ecology behind what they’ve created. And most of their users are so focused on the shiny “free” toys which these services offer that they never think about the consequences. (Users have almost no understanding of how these technologies are changing them.)
What social media platforms have already done is bad enough, but now Zuckerberg is selling his latest fantasy — a virtual reality platform he calls “the Metaverse.” He believes so strongly that this is the future of his company that the corporate name has now been changed to Meta.
This “place” is a virtual world where people can buy and sell and meet and argue — and do a million other things. It will take all of the original idealistic promise of the Internet and mix it with the worst of toxic social media — and it will create even more toxicity. And it will once again reduce the importance of the flesh-and-blood world where we should be focusing our energy.
Far too many people live far too much of their lives on social media platforms. Zuckerberg is offering crack addicts a new and more addictive kind of crack, one which will be more toxic and more addictive. It’s a virtual world where the toxic effects of social media will multiply — and companies such as Zuckerberg’s will make even more money by controlling our lives.
But you have a choice. You can say no to this new addiction before it hooks you.
I stopped using Facebook about 10 months ago, although there is some irony in the fact that I still have to post links to articles from this page on Facebook or else many of my friends would never see them. I realized that Facebook had become too toxic for me — too dangerous even as a virtual environment — and I feel healthier to have left. (I’d eventually like to eliminate all of my social media footprint, but I’m not ready for that yet.)
Zuckerberg is going to sell you an idealistic dream and he’s going to tell you it’s free. He’s a crack dealer handing out “free samples” to the kids of all ages online. We need to disconnect from what we’ve already become too much a part of, not allow ourselves to get deeper and deeper into the control of amoral technologists trying to control our attention for their profit.
We have allowed our real-world relationships to deteriorate in modern culture. We’ve allowed ourselves to live too much of our lives inside of these little screens that follow us everywhere we go. We desperately need to break free, both as a culture and as individuals.
Everything I want in the world exists in the flesh-and-blood world of other people. If I could connect with the right people — to have with me to touch, talk to, hold, and listen to — the online world could disappear forever and it wouldn’t matter to me.
We need to break our addiction before it gets worse. We need to reconnect with the people we love — and with who we want to love. That’s where we will find an emotionally healthy future, not in the “virtual reality” of Zuckerberg’s dangerous Metaverse.