The Reality Labs division of Meta Platforms, the multinational tech conglomerate formerly known as Facebook, lost US$4.3 billion in the fourth quarter of 2022—bringing total losses for the year to $13.7 billion—according to an earnings report posted on Wednesday, February 1. The purpose of Reality Labs, and the meaning of the company’s rebranding as Meta, is what CEO Mark Zuckerberg has described as his “holy grail”: technology that will allow users to meet, socialize, work, and play games in an immersive “metaverse” of augmented and virtual reality. Meta will, Zuckerberg says, create “an embodied internet where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it,” and where the defining quality of the experience is a “feeling of presence.” So far, there’s very limited evidence of consumer demand for this technology. Meanwhile, the company laid off 11,000 employees in November. And yet Meta remains committed to the course. Where’s it headed?
Siva Vaidhyanathan is the Robertson Professor of Media Studies and the director of the Center for Media and Citizenship at the University of Virginia—and the author of Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy. Vaidhyanathan sees Zuckerberg’s investment in the metaverse as an extension of his original vision for Facebook—and ultimately, an expression of his belief that virtual and augmented reality can realize that vision without Facebook’s social and psychological downsides. Meta’s losses and layoffs, Vaidhyanathan notes, stem mostly from transitional business issues; its bet on the metaverse is still open. But the question, he says, isn’t just whether the metaverse is something consumers will want; it’s whether it’s something human beings will be willing to sustain deeper into the century—any more than they were able to sustain totalizing, collectivist visions of human consciousness in the last.
Vyse: Facebook was one of the biggest companies in the world when it reoriented itself around the idea of the metaverse. How do you understand the transition?
Vaidhyanathan: Like any company, Facebook was looking at emerging challenges to its business and considering its strategic options for the long term. But fundamentally, the metaverse represents Mark Zuckerberg’s fullest vision of the future—and what he sees as his company’s opportunity to shape it.
There’s actually a lot of continuity between how Zuckerberg saw Facebook from the beginning and how he sees Meta now. He started Facebook with the idea that it could engineer a digital environment where people anywhere could connect—whether to engage in hobbies, share music, support sports teams; to forge different kinds of communities together; even to find the love of our life.
At the outset, he wouldn’t have anticipated some of the more negative things people ended up doing through Facebook—like propagating false information, spreading anger and hatred, and driving political polarization—which have ended up in turn defining a lot of its legacy in the world. Zuckerberg seems to have earnestly believed that the more we’d live through Facebook, the better off we’d all be.
And despite all the negative things people ended up doing through Facebook, he has the same idea about Meta: that he and his teams can design an environment that will allow human beings to flourish—to be better educated, to be better entertained, to treat each other better. Facebook’s mission was initially, “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected”—eventually, “to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” That’s Meta’s mission statement today.
Vyse: So, how did the idea of a “metaverse” come into the center of this vision?
Vaidhyanathan: Somewhat infamously, the idea comes from science fiction—originally, from a book by Neal Stephenson called Snow Crash. For Stephenson, and for other writers who’ve built on the idea, the metaverse is something that blurs and ultimately erases the lines between what’s virtual and what’s real. Notably, it was almost always a dystopian, anti-humanistic idea—with deep social and psychological costs for the world. That’s certainly been striking to people who understand the source of the idea.
In Meta’s interpretation, of course, the metaverse represents a future that promises a massive realization of human potential. To begin with, that means a focus on investments in consumer-level virtual-reality platforms, for social or professional purposes—that enable people to be in the same room at the same time, where they might now just be chatting on Slack or meeting on Zoom—or for gaming.
It was almost always a dystopian, anti-humanistic idea—with deep social and psychological costs for the world. That’s certainly been striking to people who understand the source of the idea. In Meta’s interpretation, of course, the metaverse represents a future that promises a massive realization of human potential.
The company is also investing in augmented-reality technologies, which incorporate the virtual into our experience of the non-virtual world. That might mean words and images projected into our eyeglasses—so that as I walk around, I’ll see, say, street names or historical markers in my field of vision.
But what Zuckerberg ultimately wants is to fuse the augmented and the virtual, so the lines between them aren’t entirely clear—so we can engage with the world in an augmented way and then easily move into a fully virtual environment. That might start with a headset and eventually shrink to eyeglasses. For people who are sightless or sight-impaired, it might involve implants or the sort of mental-simulation technology that creates the illusion of sight. Which could be miraculous or shades of Stephenson’s metaverse, or both.
Vyse: How do you interpret Meta’s struggles as a business?
Meanwhile, however, the company has had to correct for some over-investment in its workforce and infrastructure from the early days of the pandemic, when it seemed Covid would bring about substantial lifestyle shifts around the world. That turned out to be really a two-year shift with some retrenchment. And then, with the prospect of a global recession, and advertising overall receding, Meta and other companies in its sector are girding for a dip in revenue over the next couple of years. None of which is particularly unusual or radical.
What is unusual or radical is Meta’s major shift in resources and attention. This is a shift away from being an algorithmically driven social-media platform, reliant on advertising revenue, to a company that will have multiple revenue sources: the sale and lease of hardware and software, plus subscription services, along with advertising—as they roll out these virtual-reality and augmented-reality systems … which, in the end, consumers might or might not ever really want.
Vyse: And that’s the question?
Vaidhyanathan: It’s two questions, actually. There are two big questions that everyone at Meta has to face right now—and that everyone who invests in the company, or even pays attention to it, has to be thinking about.
The first is: Is Meta making things people really want?
What Zuckerberg ultimately wants is to fuse the two, so the lines between them aren’t entirely clear—so we can engage with the world in an augmented way and then easily move into a fully virtual environment. Which could be miraculous or shades of Stephenson’s metaverse, or both.
This is a company that’s always trusted its gut—especially Mark Zuckerberg’s gut. And in fairness, Mark Zuckerberg has rarely been wrong. It’s an impressive record. But it doesn’t mean he won’t be wrong forever. And in this case, the platform systems and technologies happen to be much more investment-intensive than anything they’ve ever projected before.
Then the second question—and the much bigger question—is: Is Meta making things people will really want to want?
What if at least some of these platform systems and technologies actually do work for us and make their way into our lives? What then? What are the consequences? What are the benefits and what are the costs? Are we going to bring further fracturing and distraction into our lives? Are we going to see the maladies we already experience from living through our phones transform into the maladies of living through our virtual-reality helmets?
Will that mean a better life? Are we not already seeing just how poor, even soulless, our lives tend to be when we live through our phones? How antisocial social media is? We already have a sense of this. It’s a feeling people live with. It’s not perfectly quantified yet, and it’s not necessarily perfectly diagnosed. But I think we intuitively know it hasn’t made our lives better.
And yet now we’re looking at the possibility of even deeper immersion in a commercial platform for even more hours of the day. At some point—whether it’s on account of Vitamin D deficiency, or diabetes, or depression, or whatever else—we’re all going to have to start asking much harder questions about the choices we’re making, individually and collectively, with the devices we’re attaching to our bodies.
Vyse: So we don’t yet know what people will want. Do we know anything meaningful about what they want to want? You say it’s not perfectly quantified yet—but what do we know?
Vaidhyanathan: Without specific data on the question, what we can see, around the world, is widespread public criticism of how the company has run itself over the past six or seven years—largely based on its perceived erosions of democracy, on its perceived enabling of hatred and even violence, or on its clear contributions to the coarseness of public discourse and public deliberations.
Now, Facebook didn’t create any of these things, but it’s amplified them; it’s amplified the more extreme thoughts and feelings people have—because it’s designed to. So there’s been a lot of public scrutiny based on that, and a lot of journalistic scrutiny, and a lot of scholarly scrutiny. And from there, there’s been a lot of attention from leaders of all political persuasions and regulators—even, I’d add, leaders who’ve benefited from Facebook’s influence on politics.
At some point—whether it’s on account of Vitamin D deficiency, or diabetes, or depression, or whatever else—we’re all going to have to start asking much harder questions about the choices we’re making, individually and collectively, with the devices we’re attaching to our bodies.
At the same time, it’s important to remember that in many parts of the world, Meta’s platforms are indispensable to people’s lives. In Pakistan, in Bangladesh, in Myanmar—or Sri Lanka or the Philippines or Brazil—you can’t live without Facebook or WhatsApp, without being disconnected from everybody and, in many cases, unable to do business. It’s not like in the United States, for example, where you can choose Facebook or WhatsApp or Instagram, or not choose them, among all sorts of other platforms. So this question is complicated globally.
Vyse: Do you think there could be a humane metaverse?
Vaidhyanathan: It’s a big question. But I think the answer is, no.
The ambition of the metaverse, as I see it, isn’t unlike the ambitions of the modernist architects of the mid-to-late 20th century, who thought they could design whole cities—like Brasília in Brazil or Chandigarh in India—in ways that would transform the people who lived in them. The idea was that the buildings in these cities would be so unadorned, so stark, so caustic, that we’d have to create lives and connections together that would be the basis for a better society. None of that worked—or really came close to working—and yet here we are again, with a lot of very well-funded engineers and designers doing the same thing with electronic technologies and digital environments.
But ultimately, any totalizing vision that encompasses our consciousness is, in my view, always dangerous and foolish. We haven’t learned that just from dystopian science fiction or certain modes of modernist architecture; we’ve learned it from the traumas of ideological attempts to remake society and the world as a whole. If you have a totalizing vision for human consciousness, then you’re closer than not to the kind of thinking behind the worst of human hubris in the 20th century.
Now, could some technological components of the metaverse end up being humane? Yes, if they’re developed incrementally, deliberately, and carefully as tools we can use in discrete ways to make our lives better. If your goal is to make tools that humans can use, rather than virtual or augmented worlds that absorb them—tools they can use maybe to enhance schooling, maybe to enhance creativity, maybe to support a better quality of life and human flourishing in other ways—that could be positive. If you’re not trying to revolutionize everything, then you might actually succeed; you might actually make our lives a little better.
The problem is that the tech industry continues to glorify the idea that its leaders and leading institutions should invest billions of dollars in the aspiration to transform human consciousness and experience. They never seem to learn that it doesn’t go well.