Voices: Why the metaverse will be Mark Zuckerberg’s downfall

For a weekend that has seen one billionaire potentially destabilise the safety and integrity of a global communication platform to satisfy his own hubristic lack of impulse control, it’s nice to be able to revel in the schadenfreude of another billionaire’s abject failure. Sometimes the universe just has a way of working itself out, you know?

If you haven’t heard already, the share price of Meta has fallen dramatically, after the company reported weak results and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that he would not give up on the metaverse project. Specifically, the company’s share price fell below the $100 dollar mark, meaning that it lost a frankly impressive 25 per cent of its value.

In case you aren’t aware, the metaverse is a virtual reality platform that Zuckerberg has touted as a technological breakthrough in the future of online communication, but in practice looks like if Wii Sports was made for the N64. Apple CEO Tim Cook has summed up the core problem with the platform (other than the fact that it’s graphically on par with a fake video game you’d see in a low-budget Nickelodeon show), saying that at the end of the day, people don’t really know what the metaverse is.

How is it any different to other forms of VR chat? What are its advantages over texting, or Zoom? Why does it look like if the 1992 Stephen King movie The Lawnmower Man was about doing your taxes?

What’s particularly funny about the whole thing is that Meta is already struggling, with Facebook and Instagram both underperforming. Zuckerberg can’t keep his regular techno-dystopia running properly, and here he is committing even more of his company’s resources to a cut-rate version of Second Life (with all the weird sex stuff taken out). It would almost be admirable in its tenacity, if it wasn’t just another example of an unremarkable rich kid deciding that it’s his duty to plunge us even deeper into cyberpunk hell.

I understand Meta’s impulse to expand its portfolio: Facebook is basically a virtual retirement home at this point, and Instagram is just a poor man’s DeviantArt. It’s not like there’s been much success in diversifying those platforms, either. Nobody likes reels, Mark; if I want to watch short, terrible videos I’ll just use TikTok like a normal person.

I think the biggest problem with relying on the metaverse as the future of your company is that VR still hasn’t really taken off as a viable platform. My brother let me play some games on his headset recently, and while it’s definitely cool, it’s hard to imagine that it’ll ever supplant screens and controllers as my primary source of virtual play (let alone work, which Zuckerberg seems to be pushing as one of the metaverse’s big selling points). For starters, you need a lot more floor space than the average person has access to in order to even play the damn thing.

Don’t get me wrong: when I say VR is cool, I mean it. If you’d have told 10-year-old me that there would one day be a fully-realised version of an interface that only existed in science fiction, I’d have lost my mind. But I think that’s a big part of the problem. So many of these big tech innovations at the moment seem like the product of an over-budgeted sci-fi nerd trying to make their Star Trek dreams a reality.

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You see this with Elon Musk, too. When he isn’t making it easier for fascists to stay on Twitter, he’s promising self-driving cars and trip to Mars. Except when we actually get them, the self-driving cars are kind of dangerous (and a bit crap), and the mission to Mars looks a little pointless when we we’re living through a simultaneous economic and climate collapse here on Earth. They’re the aspirations of people who saw the hastily thrown together dreams of science fiction authors and screenwriters and said to themselves “what if I could buy my way to that reality?”

The other major problem is that when it comes to those sci-fi universes, money is rarely a motivating factor; which means that when you try to create those platforms and devices under a capitalist framework you automatically run in to problems. The holodeck didn’t make Riker watch ads before every shameful, perverted simulation he ran. The food replicator didn’t charge a subscription before it made you a sandwich. A lot of the time these are egalitarian, left-wing, post-scarcity dreams that are being produced according to an extremely right-wing, greed-motivated ethos.

Maybe one day I’ll eat my words. Maybe one day I’ll be strolling around my virtual apartment, wearing my Sonic the Hedgehog avatar, and I’ll say to myself “Mark Zuckerberg was right to pursue his insane fantasies, and I was wrong to ever doubt him”. But as long as those avatars look like animatronics at a haunted amusement park, I’m not going to hold my breath.