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Jennifer O’Connell: If this is the future of work, you might just want to quit now

Setting safety and privacy boundaries should not be up to Mark Zuckerberg

This week offered a few revealing glimpses of what the future of remote working will look like. It will be, its architects promise, "transcendent", "seamless", "playful", "joyful". "We will be able to bring our humanity with us," says Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella.

For those of us who regard the phrase “fun team-building away-day” as the second most alarming in the English language – after “bring your true self to work” – this is code red for humanity stuff. If this is the future of work, you may just want to quit now.

First the bad news. Working in the metaverse – which is the name being adopted for the internet's next iteration, incorporating virtual and augmented reality – will still involve non-stop video calls, according to the visions outlined this week by both Microsoft and Facebook. The slightly worse news is that, rather than staring a grid full of dead-eyed colleagues, you'll spend your days in virtual conference with their dead-eyed, legless avatars instead. (Literally legless as opposed to drunk, though that would certainly make it more bearable.)

The launch video suggests there are still a few details to be worked out. Where are their legs? Do they come in a later version? Why do they look drugged?

Microsoft’s vision, which it plans to start soft-rolling out to users of Teams early next year, is designed to be as familiar and non-threatening as possible – not a small ask, considering we’re talking about a dystopian corporate hellscape filled with floating, gurning avatars of your colleagues. Microsoft imagines a world where these avatars can drift freely around virtual boardrooms – which are either depressingly or reassuringly similar to actual boardrooms – jauntily high-fiving one another and using “whiteboarding” as a verb. The launch video suggests there are still a few details to be worked out. Where are their legs? Do they come in a later version? Why do they look drugged?

Zuckerberg’s vision

Mark Zuckerberg’s vision is more long-term and more ambitious. His avatars have legs. He paints the future he sees unfolding over the next decade as a pilot episode for a new CBeebies series, in which virtual husks of humanity dressed like children’s entertainers will meet for poker games in grown-up playrooms decorated as spaceships or forests filled with flying koi fish.

The video opens with Zuckerberg in his “homespace”, presumably to reassure us that he does actually have an inner life. Decor-wise, everything is greige. There’s a large indoor rock in his virtual sitting room, perhaps a clever nod to his reputation for having the personality of a lump of granite. His wife Priscilla interrupts him to share a video of the couple’s Hungarian sheepdog, Beast, “going crazy”. “Aw, I love that guy,” says Zuckerberg, gamely impersonating a human.

This is not, however, a pitch for children’s TV show, it’s a pilot episode for the future of humanity. Spoiler alert: whatever happens at Cop26 in Glasgow, we’re doomed.

In Meta’s metaverse – ‘Meta’ being the new name for Facebook, cunningly designed to distance it from all that awkward vaccine misinformation/fostering extremism stuff – users can swap actually living for hyper-realistic simulations of life in a universe curated to their personal taste. The price, of course, is that the users are still the product. The most telling phrase in the entire one-hour video presentation is when Zuckerberg refers to “all-day immersive experiences”.

That’s why he’s investing $10 billion a year into building this – so he can blast people with non-stop opportunities for commerce, data harvesting and self-loathing. Taking a break, he suggests elsewhere, means “teleporting to a private bubble to be alone”, not switching off. Since you can just “make things happen by thinking about them”, presumably even your private thoughts are fair game.

I'm not convinced a critical mass of people will see spending their working day wearing a dorky headset and bumping into furniture as a useful upgrade on sitting at a desk

For all the hype and hubris, none of this technology exists yet, and the reality will end up being more prosaic. I started my working life on a DOS computer so clearly I am not Meta's target market. Still, I'm not convinced a critical mass of people will see spending their working day wearing a dorky headset and bumping into furniture as a useful upgrade on sitting at a desk. Even "if those dreams become realised, you'll probably end up buying crap and yelling at people through a head-mounted display, instead of through your smartphone," as Ian Bogost put it in the Atlantic in an article entitled The Metaverse is Bad.

Still, the scale and timing of the announcement are revealing. The company has been under consistent pressure since Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen went public a month ago with allegations about how the company priorities profit over public good and intentionally fosters hateful content. She was at the Lisbon Web Summit this week calling for Zuckerberg's resignation. The Facebook investor turned critic of the company Roger McNamee was there too, demanding felony charges against Zuckerberg.

Norm-setting

Zuckerberg, of course, made no reference to any of this. In the video, there is one excruciating, heavily scripted section with former UK deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, in which they talk about the "norm-setting and new forms of governance" and make noises about the importance of building in privacy and safety from the start.

This shouldn’t even need to be said, but establishing the boundaries of privacy and safety should never be the job of any one individual or any one company. It certainly shouldn’t be the job of a man with Zuckerberg’s track record.

We have already outsourced far too much of our technological, environmental, economic, political, cultural, creative and psychosocial development – our "norm-setting", as he puts it – to a small cohort of Silicon Valley elites. Unlike the thinkers and creators of previous generations, some of our most prominent – Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos among them – are more notable for what they destroyed rather than what they created.

Zuckerberg explained this week that ‘meta’ means ‘beyond’, which is so apt for a man who sees himself as beyond regulation, morality or ethics that you’d have to wonder if he’s deliberately trolling us. Terrifyingly, I think he’s deadly serious.