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Labor

Behold, Mark Zuckerberg’s Latest Effort to Make the World Worse

Zoom is bad enough, but Oculus' new product adds creepy cartoon avatars and a virtual whiteboard into the mix.

A screenshot of the Facebook Horizon Workrooms project from Oculus
Oculus

What’s perhaps even more horrifying than the idea of a never-ending pandemic? The notion that we’ll never, ever get back to normal social interactions, and the interactions we do have will be increasingly stilted and heavily mediated by Facebook, with us watching ourselves as legless cartoons in a virtual room.

That’s the vision Facebook laid out today with the introduction of Horizon Workrooms, a project from its subsidiary, the virtual reality company Oculus. According to CNN, the Horizon Workrooms app is free for users of its Oculus Quest 2 headset, which starts at $299, meaning it is not at all free. The idea, per Oculus, is about “transform[ing] your home office into your favorite remote meeting room,” which, yes, is just what everyone wants!—to make the already porous line between work life and your home life completely invisible.

Here’s how CNN describes Workrooms:

Workrooms allows up to 16 VR headset users to meet in a virtual conference room, with each of them represented by a customizable cartoon-like avatar that appears as just an upper body floating slightly above a virtual chair at a table. The app supports up to 50 participants in a single meeting, with the rest able to join as video callers who appear in a grid-like flat screen inside the virtual meeting room.

Headset-wearing meeting participants can use their actual fingers and hands to gesticulate in VR, and their avatars’ mouths appear to move in lifelike ways while they speak. A virtual whiteboard lets people share pictures or make presentations.

I say this a lot but I always mean it: what absolute hell!!!

As a bonus, here’s a video of what the terror-avatars look like, complete with cameo from a horrifying animated Mark Zuckerberg, whose body moves in ways no body should ever move:

But it gets worse. After a flopped release of the original Oculus headset—people use it mostly for gaming but, like Google Glass (remember that?) it didn’t really catch on in the mainstream world—this is Facebook’s splashy re-launch into the VR space, and Zuckerberg is happy to tell you his ultimate goal is the dreaded “multiverse.”

Per the New York Times (emphasis mine):

Mr. Zuckerberg sees the project as part of the next internet, one that technologists call “the metaverse.” In Mr. Zuckerberg’s telling, the metaverse is a world in which people can communicate via VR or video calling, smartphone or tablet, or through other devices like smart glasses or gadgets that haven’t been invented yet.

There, people will maintain some sense of continuity between all of the different digital worlds they inhabit. Someone might buy a digital avatar of a shirt in a virtual reality store, for instance, and then log off but continue wearing that shirt to a Zoom meeting.

[…]

“Technology that gives you this sense of presence is like the holy grail of social experiences, and what I think a company like ours was designed to do over time,” Mr. Zuckerberg said, after the glitch was fixed and his avatar’s mouth was moving again. “My hope is that over the coming years, people really start to think of us not primarily as a social media company, but as a ‘metaverse’ company that’s providing a real sense of presence.”

Just what every society needs: generations of young people so demoralized by IRL living that they retreat into Online.

Setting aside the dystopian implications, this is typical boss-level bullshit that gives up the game, as so many other bosses are doing as they try to hustle people back into their physical offices. After a year of all us privileged, creative class people doing our work at home and productivity not dropping one iota, they need to make a case about the intangibles we’re missing out on by not commuting in—and then home from—from The Office.

Anyone working for a big corporation has heard such arguments recently: that you just lose the spontaneity and collaborative atmosphere and je ne sais quoi if we’re all working at home, and also that having everyone report to an office is a central part of the company’s identity, what makes it special. The notion goes that you might stand up from your desk, go pitch an idea to your boss, talk about it at length, maybe pull in another staffer for their opinion, and walk away enlightened, with the idea better than ever. Or, more spurious yet, that in-person meetings are inherently more productive or create a better environment for people to share their ideas in front of their team. Neither of these things ever, ever happen. They are simply untrue!! They are fictions crafted by bosses, who know they have no leg to stand on in making these arguments, which their workers also know full well after a year of proving the counterargument.

Working in an office is about surveillance and control. It’s about the fear that your boss walks by and sees your screen the five minutes a day you appear to be on, say, Facebook. It’s about us all giving ourselves over to the notion that it’s a unifying good to spend an hour on the subway in the morning and the evening and get dressed up only to stare at the same screen we have at home. So forgive me if I don’t feel like what I’m missing out on is the ability to change my legless avatar’s shirt so it better fits my mood, or feel I’m being misunderstood in a meeting because you can’t see my cartoon hands gesticulating.

What we’re looking for—during the pandemic and now—is freedom from work. Better wages, more vacation, better hours, more protections—and most importantly, unions. Anything less than that is a pale imitation, and one that should absolutely not be trusted.