Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

Zuckerberg’s revenge

Tech barons are building the future for us

Artillery Row

Is it possible to experience sympathy for Mark Zuckerberg? In the drama of public life, the Facebook founder has long occupied the role of a crudely drawn villain, famed for his scheming ambition, insecurity and reptilian style of communication. Facebook itself has something in its history to anger everyone, whether it be enabling human traffickers or censoring press reports about the Biden family. Yet it’s hard not to detect a twinge of pathos in the latest chapter of the Zuckerberg story.

It is almost exactly a year since, on 28 October 2021, Zuckerberg changed his company’s name to Meta Platforms, signalling his intention to develop the next generation of immersive Internet technologies, known collectively as the metaverse. In that time, he has energetically preached his vision of the coming age of virtual reality, whilst pouring billions into research and development. This rebranding exercise has been a shambles, to put it mildly. Zuckerberg’s increasingly desperate efforts to plug his metaverse idea have made him seem less threatening than ridiculous.

Meta’s flagship VR platform, Horizon Worlds, has become a prolific source of memefodder, thanks to graphics that compare unfavourably with video games from the 2000s. The headsets have been compared to having a smartphone or plastic brick strapped to your face. In August, Zuckerberg tried to sell his vision to Joe Rogan listeners by pitching himself, rather unconvincingly, as a sports and martial arts nut (“I also find, just wrestling around with friends, it’s awesome”).

By most accounts the cringe peaked at a promotional event in October, where Zuckerberg & Co. (or rather, their cartoon avatars) tried to present the Horizon virtual space as the future of remote office work. This merely made the metaverse seem incredibly mundane and depressing — virtual reality now includes whiteboard functions and Microsoft 365! — whilst raising the question of why businesses would conduct their meetings in a setting that recalls children’s animations like Bob the Builder.

A normal CEO might be getting the Truss treatment from investors

An especially surreal moment came when Zuckerberg proudly demonstrated that his virtual avatar has legs (Horizon famously embodies its users as floating torsos), only for it to emerge later that the legs in question had been rendered using special effects.

All this has taken a heavy toll on Meta’s financial prospects. In the year since its big rebrand, the company’s stock market value has plummeted by almost three-quarters, including a 25 per cent drop last Thursday alone. The market now values the company a staggering $700 billion less than it did last October. Yes, this is part of a wider tech sell-off, but no one has fallen as far or as fast as Meta. The tech giant is now smaller than Home Depot, which is basically an American version of Currys.

British onlookers might expect such hapless leadership to result in defenestration; that is what happened to our Prime Minister Liz Truss, after she offended the financial markets by making big bets on a dodgy premise. Part of Zuckerberg’s tragedy is that he has insulated his pet project from accountability. Though a normal CEO might be getting the Truss treatment from investors under such circumstances, a special arrangement has allowed the Meta chief to keep majority voting rights on the company board.

Perhaps a better parallel from the world of politics would be Chinese autocrat Xi Jinping, whose power is similarly undented by the recent flight of investors from China Inc. The gossip leaking from fortress Meta does hint at a dictator’s vanity, though the pettiness of it all is more banal than sinister. According to a deleted LinkedIn post by a company artist, it took four weeks and 40 attempts to develop a profile picture for Zuckerberg. Employees are reportedly labelling metaverse assignments with the acronym MMH: Make Mark Happy.

Viewing this as a Succession-style drama of corporate megalomania misses an important element of the tale. It seems Zuckerberg really believes in the metaverse, not just as a commercial proposition but as a utopian vision of the future. He thinks that, not long from now, we will spend our time socialising in the Sistine Chapel, beaming in for live concerts, visiting the surface of Mars, and designing an infinite number of entirely new spaces, all from the comfort of our own homes. He sees the creation of this sublime destiny as his personal bequest to humanity.

In other words, the silliness of Zuckerberg’s efforts belie the fact that he is yet another tech billionaire thinking in grand civilisational terms. The metaverse is his answer to the cosmic pissing contest between Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, who portray their space ventures as launching the inter-planetary future of the species. Of course, Musk has now taken over the world’s most badly functioning sewage system, Twitter, apparently “to help humanity” through the creation of a digital town square. These projects suggest a more profound kind of egotism than the mere pursuit of profit and power, an egotism that shades into genuine idealism. 

Wealthy businessmen have long occupied themselves with aspirations of building a new world. In the 19th century, industrialists such as Robert Owen in Scotland, Titus Salt in England and George Pullman in Illinois designed model communities to serve as templates for a more just and enlightened society. Numerous British textile magnates, not to mention American tycoons like John D. Rockefeller, ploughed their money into collections of rare artefacts and grants to educational and scientific institutions.

The difference is the scope tech barons have to enact their fantasies

The tech barons of our own era have the same impulse to treat civilisation as their personal progeny; the difference is the scope they have to enact their fantasies. The Zuckerbergs and Musks of this world do not produce textiles, oil or railroad cars like their predecessors did. They create systems and platforms which serve as the architecture of modern life. Their philanthropic imagination is magnified by the experience of reordering the lives of millions, and addled by the mystical dreams of Silicon Valley techno-futurism. These men are designers run amok: they recognise no limits on what plans they might devise.

They can also fantasise on this scale because there is little stopping them. We are sometimes shocked at the power amassed by the plutocrats of the industrial age, but it is in our time that political institutions have been too sclerotic to impose meaningful constraints on technology and capital. What passes for a billionaire’s folly today is not a speculative garden city somewhere in the countryside, but ambitions to house a trillion people in space, or to turn life on earth into a glorified version of The Sims

If history actually obeyed our narrative models, Zuckerberg’s metaverse delusions would signal an impending self-destruction through hubris. Instead the tech moguls can afford their vanity projects, because they are still positioned to reap the profits of a growing digital world. Meta’s recent nosedive reflects terrible publicity more than a critical problem with its existing business model. Even if Zuckerberg fails, something like the metaverse will eventually emerge, if only because so many children are already using metaverse-like gaming platforms such as Roblox. Meta’s childish aesthetics may seem stupid to us, but ultimately the children are its real audience.

Meanwhile Google continues pumping cash into artificial intelligence, and Microsoft pushes on with its own VR headsets, having signed a massive contract to supply the US military. Zuckerberg is not the only one who thinks there is a race underway to claim the technological territory of the next few decades, and that ten billion spent now is peanuts compared to the future earnings at stake. 

We can laugh at the floundering billionaire all we like, but the joke is really on us. We will be as powerless to determine the course of the next tech revolution as we were with the last one.

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