Old Plays, No Fun

Meta Cheerfully Introduces Absolute Despair

If you hoped to recreate the dismal sadness you felt at the end of Marley & Me, or perhaps wished  to cause your Super Bowl party guests to spiral into cycles of existential dread, Meta’s recent Super Bowl ad titled "Old Friends, New Fun," got the job done in 60 seconds.

The narrative centers on an animatronic dog and his band performing Simple Minds’s hit song “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” at an establishment called Questy’s (a fictional Chuck E. Cheese-like pizza place). Within the first twenty-six seconds, the business has been closed down and the dog has been separated from his friends, sold in a pawn shop, hit in the face by a golf ball, abandoned in a ditch by the side of the road, and dumped into a trash compactor.

C’est la vie.

Moments before he is flattened, a good Samaritan intervenes, stopping the compaction and saving his life (or whatever it is that animatronic dogs experience). He is moved to a new position at a space center, where he discovers the Quest 2 VR headset when a patron leaves it on his face. Though his physical location remains the same, he is transported into Horizon Worlds – Meta’s VR platform – where a digital rendition of his head, arms, and torso meets up with the heads, arms, and torsos of his old band at a virtual re-creation of Questy’s.

It’s easy to see the parallels between the animatronic dog and Meta itself, as Garrett Sloane highlighted in a recent article for Ad Age:

The choice of the Simple Minds song can’t help but seem like a plea from Meta, which is going through one of the toughest periods in its history. Last year, Facebook… rebrand[ed] to focus on the metaverse, a concept that Zuckerberg hopes is the future of the platform. Facebook’s current social media services have been criticized for contributing to societal ills, and the company is beset on all sides.

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of the Company Formerly Known as Facebook, has been going through the Silicon Valley equivalent to the book of Job (Robin Phillips wrote a piece on this in October). Whether it be Apple’s new App Tracking Transparency feature proving itself to be a pestilence to data harvesters, the eyeball-sucking prominence of TikTok, or Frances Haugen’s ability to access a microphone, it seems that Facebook’s time as the big shot on the block is coming to a close. All of this doesn’t even take into account that the company’s stock just dropped 25 percent in value.  It makes sense that Meta’s hope for renewal would lie in a future innovation, just as it did when they were founded.

But the symbolism cuts both ways. The ad wasn’t simply intended to tell the story of a company – it’s meant to get us on board as well, and for this reason, we are expected to sympathize with the protagonist.

The dog lives in Questy’s: a world he enjoys and understands, but a world that is dying. We see this in the time-lapse that shows its rapid decay from its heyday. The new world he’s thrown into subjects him to misfortunes beyond his control – he is literally carried out of Questy’s when it closes down. During this period of wandering, we see the attempts made to find a place for him, but he remains a consistent outsider, rejected and passed along. Finally, after being forgotten on the side of a road in the desert, he is condemned to the trash heap, a fitting end to a gut-wrenching tragedy.

Perhaps we can relate to this. The Internet Age is lonely, and it only gets lonelier the more connected we are online. This correlates directly with one of the points Zuckerberg made during his “Connect” message in October of 2021:

Screens just can’t convey the full range of human expression or connection. They can’t deliver that deep feeling of presence. But the next version of the internet can.

All jokes aside about Zuckerberg’s ability to “convey the full range of human expression and connection” (he actually displayed a pretty good sense of humor in the video), these two statements – Zuckerberg’s explicit statement and the latent symbolism of the Super Bowl ad – point to a pair of consistent themes: 1) we are isolated and alienated within our screen-dominated world; and 2) there is something intrinsic to us as humans that desires community and fellowship with others.

This is a pretty astute diagnosis of the problem. I believe Meta’s prescription, however, goes awry.

The dog is physically saved from the trash compactor by the woman, but his true salvation comes when he gains access to the Quest 2 and the digital realm of Horizon Worlds. He leaves his less-than-enjoyable physical existence for an escapist paradise, where Questy’s is not only alive but thriving. His old friends are all there, the restaurant is crowded, and he howls with joy, just like he used to.

The message is this: “The community you seek can be found in the virtual reality we offer you. Turn away from the physical world – you have no autonomy there. Put your hope and trust in the Metaverse, as we have. Together, we can build our own Heaven out of 1s and 0s.”

The ever-lurking loneliness and isolation we experience and the feeling of being carried down paths against our will is not an illness unique to the 21st Century, but it would be nearly impossible to craft an explanation for our current state of social and psychological destitution without acknowledging the very technological air we breathe. We can’t inhabit a mediated environment without finding ourselves deeply affected by it in some form or another. To quote Father John Culkin, “We shape our tools and thereafter they shape us.”

As Andrew Sullivan wrote in a fantastic piece back in 2016:

By rapidly substituting virtual reality for reality, we are diminishing the scope of [interpersonal] interaction even as we multiply the number of people with whom we interact. We remove or drastically filter all the information we might get by being with another person. We reduce them to some outlines — a Facebook “friend,” an Instagram photo, a text message — in a controlled and sequestered world that exists largely free of the sudden eruptions or encumbrances of actual human interaction. We become each other’s “contacts,” efficient shadows of ourselves.

The issue with Meta’s suggestion that we wade deeper into the murk of technological connectedness is that it is precisely this ability to filter each other and ourselves that has atrophied our ability to connect with one another in the first place. It’s as if a tobacco company announced that smoking a pack of cigarettes a day would protect against carcinogens. In the asynchronous world of the Internet Age, there’s no need to improvise, to read subtle body language, to even share a physical space with a fellow citizen – we can simply reduce each other down to the scraps of information available online and assemble them into whatever depiction we’d like. The effects of this are evident: polarized political camps, ideological fantasies, an inability to see nuance, jolting rates of depression.

Meta knows we’re a dissatisfied society, and they think the tool they’re creating can fix it (or at least profit from it). It orients us the wrong way, toward an inward-facing focus on our own preferences, rather than allowing us to learn how to balance those desires with the often-conflicting desires of those around us. This tends toward pride, selfishness, and intolerance, not true relationship with others. What kind of “community” can grow out of this?

Contrast this Meta world with the physical world. In the real world, we deal with disagreeable people and have to figure out ways to coexist and sometimes even work together. We have to balance the improvisational nature of conversation with the awareness that we have an enormous pimple on our forehead and forgot to put on deodorant that morning. We have to deal with unpleasant temperatures, smells, tasks, and the general mundanity of normalcy. And I believe we’re better for it.

There’s a humbling effect to life in the real world – it isn’t engineered to cater to our every desire. We have to practice patience and learn how to focus on the other rather than ourselves. We experience the natural consequences of our actions, and hopefully, if we pay attention to them, glean insight. Through this learning, we become people capable of actually having connections with others.

Meta offers us a safe, customizable, inconvenience-free environment as a cure for the longing we feel for community. But it is only in the world that Meta discards, unpleasant features and all, that the cure to our isolation and loneliness can be found.

was raised in northern Wisconsin and graduated from Wheaton College. He works as a writer and runs the humor newsletter The Sometimes Gazette. Ben lives in Indiana with his wife, Tess.

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