The Kid Who Would Be Emperor
It’s been well documented that as a child, Mark Zuckerberg spent hours playing world building games such as RISK and Civilization – imagining constructing a thriving society built in his image. He also loved learning about the world’s greatest conquerors – Roman emperor, Augustus being a lifelong favorite. While few people are able to turn their childhood fantasies into a reality – by advancing the ideas of social networking first coined by Six Degrees founder Andrew Weinreich in the mid 1990’s, Mark Zuckerberg connected the world and its many advertisers in an addictive ecosystem that has proven to be equally worthy of merit and scorn.
Facebook’s mission to connect the world ran up against a core ethos of moving fast and breaking things and the ethos easily won the battle. Just as growth is the impetus at the heart of capitalism, so is growth the true mission of Facebook and its growing family of brands. And just as the unchecked growth imperative of capitalism led to the industrialization of slavery, child labor, gender pay gaps, and environmental degradation – so has Facebook’s pursuit of scale created societal division, isolation, cyberbullying, and further environmental degradation. But since Facebook is just a technological platform devoid of a soul, morality, or scruples – it has enabled the best and worst of what we, the data providers and primary products being sold, bring in with us.
So far, Facebook and its founder have had to respond to governments around the world when trouble has arisen due to problems created by its priorities and practices. They are the embodiment of don’t ask for permission - ask for forgiveness up until now. While remaining robotically calm in the face of direct questioning by politicians – inside, Zuckerberg seethed at having to answer to people he deemed his intellectual and political inferiors. But he had a plan to escape from ever being held accountable again.
Enter the Metaverse
In 2012, Zuckerberg authorized a spending spree that would net Facebook the Instagram, WhatsApp, and Oculus companies and platforms. It quickly became apparent that of these three acquisitions, the crown jewel was Oculus. The potential of virtual reality and the ascent of augmented reality would untether the internet from computer and phone screens and instead put the user inside of this new virtual world. But alas, as Zuckerberg lamented, this technology was at least a decade away from broad-based accessibility. In the meantime, he would manage his flock well and in time, lead them to the virtual promised land.
The near-decade since Oculus was acquired has been a litany of public affairs disasters for the company even as the stock has outperformed all expectations. Whistle blower accounts from September 2021 have illustrated how little the company’s leaders have worked to anticipate problems their solutions might create – from fomenting hate speech and division to potentially electing the most morally bankrupt President in American history due to allowing their data to be coopted by Russian hackers and domestic interlopers like Cambridge Analytica. Mass murders have been broadcast on the platform and governments have been toppled by mass protests fomented and planned within Facebook. Even worse – some of this has been done intentionally by right wing executives well positioned to influence decision making during crucial junctures. Meanwhile, Zuckerberg, a self-appointed war time CEO, to coin a phrase he learned after reading an article by Ben Horowitz, has been on a never-ending apology tour to appease shareholders concerned that all the bad press will tank their precious investments in the company.
In the background, however, Oculus was transforming into something potentially bigger than any innovation before it – the enabler of the metaverse. Anyone who has seen The Matrix or Ready Player One can grasp the concept of a reality within a reality where people go to escape from the doldrums of everyday life into a limitless fantasy land where anything is possible. What few have considered, however, is what if the company to invent such a reality was a company with such a shoddy track record of protecting its users as Facebook. For them it’s a no brainer. Facebook has more user provided (and/or stolen) data than any company in history and they have learned important lessons from the things they’ve broken while moving fast – primarily user and government trust – advertisers don’t seem to care, investors are fully on board, and governments can’t stop them from growing.
Meta’s Potential Impact
Early in his tenure as Facebook’s CEO, Zuckerberg was taken under the wing of the man whose innovations have shaped the first twenty years of the new millennium – Steve Jobs, deceased CEO of Apple. Zuckerberg has long sought to be seen in the same mostly glowing light of his luminary. But to do so, he would need a second act far more audacious than that of his mentor. When Steve Jobs returned to Apple after his embarrassing ouster in the late 1980’s, he gave the world iTunes, iCloud, iPods, iPhones, iPads, iMacs, and Apple Watches to help people enhance their creativity while upending the status quo via technology. Meta, however, might just render all of Job’s hard work obsolete in a single stroke.
Apple’s products enabled our transformation into phone addicts, but they were built on a platform of the backbone of the Internet combined with data plans paid to cellular carriers. Meta will eliminate the screen interface all together and immerse us in a virtual world where phones, computers, televisions, and watches will be made obsolete. When a user puts on a wi-fi connected Meta headset they will be transported into the metaverse where the possibilities for interaction, connection, and commerce, among other things, will be available on steroids.
We are in the age of reinvention and this age has quickly chewed up and spit out the innovations that came before it. Apple, Google, Amazon, and Netflix for example are primarily responsible through their innovations for the slow deaths of the taxi industry, bookstores, movie theatres, shopping malls, health clinics, cable tv, music and video stores, and landlines, etc. But the metaverse will be far more potentially deadly to status quo industries.
Imagine a metaverse built on the back of Facebook’s extensive infrastructure where people spend at least 10-12 waking hours each day. Don’t find that scenario likely? Did your company adopt the iPad as a business tool when it came out? Businesses will flock to the metaverse, especially in a post pandemic world. They will invest heavily in the construction of their virtual reality real estate where the global headquarters truly is global – in that it houses the entire global workforce in a single virtual space. There goes at least 8 hours right there. People will attend meetings in the metaverse; they will read and write virtual email on virtual keyboards connected to virtual monitors; they will create presentations and collaborate on projects using virtual software applications built for the metaverse; they will attend virtual conferences and summits; they will participate in virtual learning and development programs.
Our personal lives will be consumed by these enhanced virtual interactions as well. Everything from dating to travel to shopping will happen primarily in this new space. Real estate will take on a virtual meaning, as people rush to purchase and enhance their virtual worlds and avatars. And as more and more people spend more and more of their lives in a virtual world, services in the physical world will start to wither and die. Physical travel, real estate, laptops, malls, airlines, cars, amusement parks, and telecom are likely victims. But the biggest victims may be the government and society itself.
The Fate of Humanity
When you enter Zuckerberg’s metaverse you will cease to be encumbered by geographic and societal boundaries. As a citizen of the metaverse you will only be subject to the rules and regulations of Meta itself. In this world inside our world, you can work anywhere, travel anywhere, interact with anyone, say anything, and do things that are not possible in the physical world. Why pay a government tax for infrastructure and a military when war ceases to exist in the virtual world where you spend all your time? Why get a driver’s license when you can teleport to the other side of the universe at a moment’s notice? Why worry about being cancelled or held accountable for any damage you do in the metaverse when there is no real-world implication of such an act?
In his book, The End of Power, Moises Naim details the erosion of borders, political influence, religious regulation, and military power. Importantly, while technology plays a role in this process, it is happening anyway due to other global forces such as economics and climate emergencies. A successful implementation of a metaverse controlled by a single company could lead to the next imperialist empire – one helmed by someone who often fantasized about being a ruthless conqueror and usurper of democracy.
A 2019 study for the Internet Association believed it to be worth US$2.1 trillion to the United States’ US$20.5 trillion yearly GDP which even the investigators found to be a low estimate. Now, imagine how much revenue will flow into Meta’s coffers due to their being the sole source for virtual world access on Earth? Just as every company will have to pay to have a home in the metaverse to work, they will also pay to advertise and sell their goods and services to people in the metaverse as well. How much will Meta charge Disney to host a global (virtual) premier of the new Marvel blockbuster in 2028? Who will regulate pricing policy within the metaverse? Who will protect consumers from fraud, identity theft, and other metaverse crimes?
There are other larger implications as well. What will happen to identity in a virtual world where you can literally be anyone at any time? What will happen to authenticity and truth? What about the people left out of the metaverse due to lack of infrastructure or worse, Meta waging war on governments who fail to acquiesce to their whims? History tells us that innovation may be good for the haves but the have nots always suffer more in the short to medium term. What about health and wellness? What might be the long-term impacts of living in a virtual world on the human spirit, psyche, and physique?
Well, the great thing about being an Emperor is that you don’t need to answer to anyone but your own ambitions and desires. Mark Zuckerberg is building a world of his own. We have a choice whether to join him there or not.