New Camouflage Disguises Meta’s Dystopian Vision

Latest Metaverse Commercial Shows Shift in Branding

Meta Platforms has gone through several false starts in their attempt to convince us that life is impoverished without the metaverse.

Last year they ran a commercial titled" “Quest is Ready | Friends are Ready.” The ad featured two socially isolated men, one white and one black, playing a game using their Oculus Quest headsets. In real life, the men are neighbors who dislike like each other; in the simulated world of meta, they are teammates and friends.

It was hard to figure out the point of this commercial. The take-away seemed to be that the solution to social atomization and division is to escape into a fake world where everyone feels like our friend. Don’t worry if you hate your neighbors; maybe in the metaverse you’ll get along. To adapt the song popularized by Bette Midler, “From a Distance”:

In the metaverse
There is harmony
And it echoes through the land….

In the metaverse
You look like my friend
Even though we are at war.

Meta tried another commercial in February this year. That ad, titled “Old Friends, New Fun,” ramped up the dystopian messaging to the point of nihilistic despair. It featured the loneliness and isolation of the real world (seen through the lens of an abandoned stuffed dog), set in contrast to an idyllic virtual realm of harmony and friendship. With no attempt to disguise their cynicism, Meta offered the metaverse as the solution to the despair of real life.

"Old Friends, New Fun" was not only a flop but engendered public outcry. The comments on Meta’s YouTube channel featured reactions like this:

  • “So dystopian. It feels like mind control.”
  • “If you're circling the drain, and ready to go down, why not circle that drain one more time in Meta!?” asked one person in the YouTube comments.
  • “Reality is a hellscape which my company had no small part in creating.  Please escape to my new surveillance hellscape.”

Since then, Meta Platforms has done some serious rebranding. Their latest commercial has exchanged the macabre vision of hedonist dystopia for high culture solipsism. It indicates a shift in branding from the metaverse as an orgy of escapism to a means for fulfilling our greatest intellectual aspirations: the desire for knowledge, the quest for medical advance, and the longing for historical awareness.

This latest message appeals to a do-goodism that is the exact opposite of the earlier ads. No longer are we told that the real-world sucks and must be left behind for a virtual utopia; rather, now we are told that through the metaverse we can build heaven on earth; we can take education and job training to another level so that our lives in the real world will be enriched.

On one level Meta’s latest commercial is simply false advertising. Virtual reality already exists for education, medicine, and historical simulations. The vision of the metaverse is something entirely different: it is the dream that all these simulations will be connected in a single interoperable ecosystem. When you can walk out of practicing virtual surgery and enter the Roman Senate, then go shopping and carry your products with you into the lecture hall, then invite  friends into your own customized reality; when you can do all of that, then you'll be in the metaverse. This reality does not yet exist and maybe never will.

But the latest commercial does get to the heart of Mark Zuckerberg’s aspirations for the metaverse, which is to render porous the boundary between reality and simulation, between physical and digital. Significantly, the ad opens by giving a nod to the critics: “some people say the metaverse will only be virtual.” It goes on to interact with this viewpoint; however, without explicitly repudiating that the metaverse will only be virtual, they argue that its impact will be real. This is a vacuous claim, but the real action of the argument is aesthetic: they are finally making the metaverse appear beautiful. Meta is tapping into an impulse that has been present since the beginning of cyberspace, which is to mix the mystical longing for transcendence with the rationalistic longing for order. It is a salvation story where the disorder of the real world represents a type of fall from which computer code can redeem us. Nicholas Carr summarized this basic worldview in a recent five-part series on the metaverse:

The world as we know it, the thinking goes, is messy and chaotic, illogical and unpredictable. It is a place of death and decay, where mind — the true essence of the human — is subordinate to the vagaries of the flesh. Cyberspace liberates the mind from its bodily trappings. It is a place of pure form. Everything in it reflects the logic and order inherent to computer programming.

But don’t be fooled. Despite the mystical longing for transcendence, at the end of the day the metaverse is all about big business. Again from Carr:

[Zuckerberg’s] goal with the metaverse is not just to create a virtual world that is more encompassing, more totalizing, than what we experience today with social media and videogames. It’s to turn reality itself into a product. In the metaverse, nothing happens that is not computable. That also means that, assuming the computers doing the computing are in private hands, nothing happens that is not a market transaction, a moment of monetization, either directly through an exchange of money or indirectly through the capture of data. With the metaverse, capital subsumes reality. It’s money all the way down.

Carr's concerns were echoed by Jonathan Pageau and Paul Kingsnorth who noted that behind the metaverse;s twisted religious story of transcendence, and behind the quasi-mystical aesthetic appeal, is the cold reality depicted in The Matrix: the machine needs to harvest your intelligence in order to survive. In the metaverse, we are all products.

Further Resources:

is the author of Gratitude in Life's Trenches: How to Experience the Good Life Even When Everything Is Going Wrong (Ancient Faith 2020). He has a Master's in history from King’s College, London, and is currently working on a Master’s in Library Science through the University of Oklahoma. He is Blog & Media Managing Editor for the Fellowship of St. James and a frequent contributor to Salvo and Touchstone magazines. He operates a blog at www.robinmarkphillips.com.

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