Why the Metaverse Ain’t Gonna Happen
Analogical and digital communication, pt 2
Anyone who’s had the rare non-pleasure of encountering a car salesman who’s just finished a sales workshop may undergo the following:
If the salesman is sitting down, a likely situation if you’re at a car dealership, he’ll shift his body towards you. He’ll sit with his arms resting to his sides with his palms open. He’s in empathetic, receptive mode, ready to sincerely understand your concerns and reservations about signing a contract for several tens of thousands of dollars.
If you’re not too anxious to attend to the moment, you might feel there’s something incongruous emanating from him. What your feeling is, rather than his body language transmitting empathy and understanding, it’s exposing a pretense of empathy and understanding. He’s not sitting naturally, but is employing a technique he just learned in the workshop. If you’re creeped out by someone, subconsciously, it’s often because you’re spotting an incompetent con.
Most people do not attend sales workshops that teach fake emotions. The other kind of incongruity is easier to spot, when words and body language contradict each other, such as, when you meet her ex, your words say “glad to meet you,” while your smile is fake.
Thank you, subconscious
Imagine you’re reading one of those difficult books. Could be fiction or non-fiction, in either case, it’s the kind of book where you have to read the paragraph five times to understand. Now imagine, these paragraphs are coming at you in fractions of a second—no chance to read slowly or reread. Now assume this was happening, simultaneously, with multiple books. That’s what it’s like to “read” the body language of one or more people near you. And we humans are pretty good at that because our subconscious has been trained (the potential, genetically inherited) since birth to get good at that.
Look again at the car salesman. He’s consciously presenting a gross (non-subtle) version of his understanding of empathetic body language. But just as the difference between a fake smile and a genuine smile isn’t in the mouth but rather the eyes’ region, he’s unlikely to get his body language just right. That difference will creep you out as do fake smiles.
Zuck’s last stand (we can hope)
We already have, as others have pointed out, limited versions of virtual reality (VR) that work well. They’re called, massively multiplayer online (MMO) games, such as World of Warcraft. The very few top games have multiples of tens of millions accounts, but most of the even popular ones are played by less than a million. Compare to Facebook’s current 2.85 billion accounts.
These MMOs work because the interaction among participants is limited to a narrow scope of behaviors—nearly always, cartoon battles with other players or a player group. Conversing and cooperating with other players is motivated by forming a group to battle other groups and is usually limited to discussing tactics or exchanging banter.
If not before, most of us have done the Zoom or FaceTime thing during the recent Covid pandemic. If video conferencing felt like conversing through a keyhole, that’s with good reason. Recall a few paragraphs up, where I describe our facility to field enormous amounts of analogical information from gestures. To perceive the onslaught of rapid, numerous gestures, we need presence.
If you’re extremely familiar with someone, a close relative or friend, that is, if you have years of context with someone, you don’t need the same level of presence to be comfortable. You’ll be able to sense quite a lot in even in a phone call just through a familiar voice. But Zuckerberg is suggesting we’ll be living much of our social and business life in his metaverse.
If I was being cynical, I’d suggest Zuckerberg was looking forward to the metaverse to level the playing field for people such as he, those who aren’t good with people, those who aren’t sensitive to the onslaught of subtle gestures. But my take is more damning. I think Zuckerberg and his ilk don’t know any better. They’re insufficiently sensitive to others to understand the interactional deficits of a metaverse.1
Apple now, and likely, soon, Google, are suppressing Facebook ads in their apps. You don’t lose 2.85 billion users, suddenly, but you lose the users for whom Facebook ads are targeting, the users with money. Once they go, advertisers follow to the next trending platform.
There are many users who believe Facebook is the Internet, primarily in countries when the population has little disposable income. Users with middle income and above subsidize those who contribute little or nothing to Facebook’s income.
Zuckerberg, to keep his empire dominant, is hoping his ad-addled metaverse replaces a fading income stream. That ain’t gonna happen. Our species are not going to replace the richness of intended analogical communication of everyday life with a signal-impoverished metaverse.
To Zuckerberg and his metaverse aspirations, I’ll add the billionaires who want to live in space. No coincidence that the philosopher-king wannabes want to escape to and rule an alternate plane where their interpersonal deficits can be camouflaged.