Facebook and Oculus: The Revolution will be Virtual!

I’m no particular stranger to virtual reality, having grown up in the 80s and 90s when we had scores of shitty television shows and movies promising a future in which strapping an oversized pair of bionic ski-goggles to our heads would either deliver us into a holodeck-worthy simulation of reality or allow us to somehow surf the internet by flying through a Tron-esque world of floating circuit boards and blinking lights. My own personal fascination with so-called virtual reality culminated in staring at a little red Mario playing tennis for about thirty seconds, after which I decided that I’d had quite enough of the whole affair.

Apparently, not everyone abandoned their fascination with idea quite so thoroughly, as the whole virtual reality fad has undergone something of a resurgence in the past few years, starting with the successful crowd-funding of the original Oculus Rift a few years back and culminating with the recent purchase of said developer Oculus by Facebook for $2 billion. In the meantime, Sony and Microsoft had already jumped onto the bandwagon by developing their own version or acquiring other nascent VR developers. Of course, a cynical person would say that these moves were less about “embracing the future” so much as hedging against the idea that people would decide they like playing VR video games (on a competing platform), just as everyone once decried that the future involved motion controls, which lasted until about the time that everyone got bored with their Wii’s, but not before I ended up with a mostly unused Kinect gathering dust above my television (for the record, I didn’t purchase it for myself).

To the extent the Rift was originally designed with the (mostly) express intent of playing computer games, it makes Sony and Microsoft’s motivations understandable, but raises a pretty big goddamned question about what Facebook’s angle is. The acquisition resulted in a rather large schism among those who were actually following the technology, with supporters optimistic that Facebook could provide the resources to truly deliver the technology to the masses, while skeptics argued that Facebook’s vision of VR would involve the virtual equivalent of Billy Mays shoving a bottle of Oxy-Clean in your face while you’re trying to browse the internet. Meanwhile, the financial analysts collectively shook their magic 8 balls and pulled an “informed opinion” out of their asses.

As far as I’m concerned, they’re both right (everyone but the analysts, who are fucking idiots, in any event). Until the day comes when the world realizes that online advertising is actually almost completely ineffectual and economic Armageddon ensues, it’s Facebook’s long-term prerogative to use every platform at their disposal to shovel advertising into our heads. In the meantime, Facebook at least has the resources to deliver a mass-produced virtual reality experience to the masses. Of course, the most relevant question is whether anyone actually gives a shit, aside from a relative handful of VR devotees.

Naturally, Facebook’s response to the acquisition was some glib, self-serving statement declaring virtual reality the “most social platform ever and (will) change the way we work, play, and communicate”, as is their wont. The first natural reality-check of this argument is the simple fact that regardless of how impressively social or virtual (or whatever combination thereof) the experience is, until someone invents an actual holodeck, the market will remain relatively limited by the number of people who are willing to essentially strap a pair of computer monitors to their heads to do anything, virtual or otherwise. If anything, recent history has already proven this out somewhat, as the fashionable trend has been the transition from 24” computer monitors and 50” big-screen TVs to handheld devices, as evangelized by the legion of hipster assholes who crow about being able to conduct their entire existence via a 3-inch iPhone screen.

More importantly, however, this statement underscores Zuck’s fundamental misunderstanding of Facebook’s influence on the world and, more to the point, socialization. It could be argued that Facebook’s greatest impact was that it turned the entire world into a giant fucking high school and condemned us to suffer existences defined by our involuntary participation in the popularity contest of Life. However, this is actually a by-product of Facebook and its ilk’s institutionalization of the passive relationship.

To be fair, passive relationships have existed since the invention of the greeting card, but Facebook has managed to revolutionize this concept by reducing to it a practically effortless and equally mindless exercise that redefines the concept of “friends” as two people who are at least vaguely aware of one another’s existence. Before the enlightened era of “social media” (whatever the hell that term really means and I resolutely believe that there’s a special place in hell reserved for the marketing asshole that coined that phrase), maintaining an actual friendship was a lot of goddamned work that occasionally involved active participation in a mutual exchange of pleasantries and feigning interest in each other’s journey through life.

By removing active communication as a prerequisite to maintaining a relationship, we can now have as many “friends” as we like for the price of an occasional tap or click to “Like” someone’s picture of their kids or pets or wish them a “happy birthday” when a little pop-up notification tells us to. And our “socialization” is then essentially reduced to broadcasting a self-indulgent monologue of our own lives, hoping that our “friends” will occasionally validate us with a “Like” on our own pictures of our kids or brunch (which the terms of the Social Media Compact demand in return for us “Liking” their shit).

Of course, a cynical person would consider Facebook’s modern conceptualization of “social” as superficial bordering on farcical, but in an increasingly attention-deficit and narcissistic society, an “enlightened” individual would call it efficient. And thus, we can have many friends and be “social” with each of them without the need to meaningfully interact with any of them. And this efficiency, in turn, gives us time to meaningfully interact with the much smaller subset of “friends” who we actually give a shit about, often through the form of an Instant Message, which allows us to carry on an interactive two-way “conversation” with someone without actually having to pay attention to them. And this, in turn, frees us to ultimately spend more time in the real world, experiencing life and socializing, in the flesh, with our real friends, while pausing every few minutes to document our experience on Facebook, “Like” someone’s picture of a grumpy cat, or send an IM to another friend.

This is not necessarily an indictment of the social paradigm espoused by Facebook and its ilk. Being misanthropic by nature, I’m the poster child for passive communication and I largely consider the evolution of the social singularity with bemused detachment. But in bearing witness, virtual reality seems entirely antithetical to the prevailing trend, in that it fundamentally demands a level of interaction with our virtual friends that we’re not accustomed or inclined to. But despite the seemingly apparent contradiction of VR and the contemporary definition of “social”, I suppose the convergence is probably inevitable, and so I welcome the vision of virtual reality and social interaction as brought to me by Facebook: sitting at the bottom of the ocean while one of my friends, assuming the avatar of Alex Trebek, reads a Buzzfeed quiz to me, another dines beside me on a recently-Instagram-ed dish of eggs benedict, and I ignore them as I browse the internet and IM my other friends on my virtual smartphone while the virtual equivalent of an annoying Best Buy employee asks me if I want to purchase an extended warranty for it.

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