In 2011, professional basketball player Ron Artest changed his name to Metta World Peace. “As I started to evolve as a person and things started to influence my life, I started to fall in love with meditation and Zen and Indian culture” Metta Sandiford-Artest (his name now) said in 2019.
The basketball world scratched its collective head at the change. At the time, Artest was growing out of years of developing a reputation for belligerence (as well as top-notch defense). He had once punched a Detroit Pistons fan who had come onto the court to confront him. For years he was the most likely player on any court to draw a technical foul.
Now the entire world is scratching its head over Facebook changing its company name to “Meta,” a prefix derived from the Greek word for “after” or “beyond.”
CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who studied Latin and Roman antiquity in prep school, opted against the Latin equivalent, “post,” most likely to avoid conflating a global surveillance and advertising company notorious for undermining democracy and human rights with a noted breakfast cereal brand or Washington, D.C.-based newspaper.
While Metta World Peace’s name clashed with his on-court reputation even if it better described his Zen state of mind at that moment, “Meta” does the opposite. It’s a fulfillment of the company’s long-term vision and extension of its character. World Peace countered his record and reputation with his name change. Meta is doubling down on everything that Facebook is and has become.
“Meta” is an explicit proclamation of a plan for the company. Zuckerberg has been describing and moving his company toward this vision in various ways and forms for almost a decade. His dream—his delusion of grandeur—was never supposed to stop at the edges of our phones.
Not satisfied with algorithmically managing our social, cultural, and political lives, Zuckerberg has been acquiring and developing technologies that push the Facebook way of doing things into currency, virtual reality, and commercial interactions. With “Meta” and the broader plans he outlined last week, Zuckerberg has essentially declared that he wants to dominate life itself. He wants to do so totally, pervasively, constantly, and commercially.
If you like the ways that Facebook and Instagram seem to read your mind or listen to your voice because of its pervasive surveillance, behavioral data collection, predictive machine learning, and addictive design, then you are going to love living in a metaverse. It would, after all, add biometric data, eye-movement analysis, and a much richer set of behavioral cues to the mix that guides algorithms to guide us.
If you appreciate the increasing power that Zuckerberg’s company exerts over your uncle’s politics and views of the world, you and he are really going to appreciate the ways Meta’s embedded values are going to guide his social, commercial, and intellectual life.
If you are appreciate how addicted your teenage son is to games, imagine how immersed he will be once he discovers virtual reality pornography with a powerful recommendation engine guided by the interests of other young men.
And if you like how excessive Instagram use has affected your daughter’s self-image, you are going to love how the constant stimuli of immersive messages in a metaverse affect her.
Zuckerberg has long dreamed of building what I described in my book, Antisocial Media, as “the Operating System of Our Lives.” For more than a decade he has been buying companies and technologies to layer onto Facebook, adding capability to execute financial transactions, search, host video, and launch virtual reality worlds. He’s long coveted the status that WeChat has in China: The all-knowing eyes of power through which everyone must perform the tasks of daily life, from summoning and paying for a cab to using a vending machine to booking a medical appointment. Now Zuckerberg has put a name to his vision, and one far more evocative than the one I chose. Instead of borrowing a 20th century computer analogy, he has lifted a dystopian vision from science fiction and given it a utopian spin—or so he thinks.
“Meta” is supposed to evoke the “metaverse,” a concept described by science fiction writer Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel Snow Crash. Think of the “metaverse” as a vast combination of virtual reality platforms, through which people experience things beyond their immediate, “real” environments, and augmented reality, through which viewing the real world would include supplemental prompts and information, perhaps through eyeglasses, perhaps through some other yet-to-be-invented interface. The best use case for this layered consciousness, the ability to have one’s body in one place while having one’s attention split among different interfaces and stimuli (with a complete breakdown in context) seems to be, in Zuckerberg’s own words, “you’re going to be able to have a message thread going on when you’re in the middle of a meeting or doing something else and no one else is even going to notice.”
I’m no tech entrepreneur, but it seems to me that investing billions of dollars through thousands of highly trained experts to solve a problem no one seems to want solved is a bad way to deploy resources. But resources like money, training, and labor are highly concentrated among a handful of global companies, Facebook among them. So they get to make such silly choices and we have to live with them.
It’s important to clarify that this is not a name change or “rebranding” as much as an ideological declaration of intent. Imagine if, at the dawn of the British East India Company’s expansion into the Indian subcontinent in 1757, someone had rebranded the company “the British Empire.” That would have been audacious. So is this.
So it’s not a public relations move, a reaction to all the powerful and critical scholarship and journalism that has revealed over the past decade the toxic nature of Facebook. Despite his occasional hand-waves at all the scrutiny, Zuckerberg is unswayed in his confidence to shape and govern our lives for us. Despite the flurry of investigations, leaks, complaints, articles, books, investigations, and general indignation, Facebook usage keeps growing at a steady pace and the money keeps on flowing. Zuckerberg has never received a signal from the marketplace that he should ever be more modest or change how he has always done things. Let’s be clear about this vision: While it’s being built on the rails of the old internet is not another, or updated, internet. The nodes of the new network would be human bodies. And most of the essential infrastructure would be entirely proprietary.
The change to “Meta” also is not a rejection of the name “Facebook.” The main application and site, what company insiders call “Blue,” will remain “Facebook.” Over time, we might expect Instagram and WhatsApp to fully merge with “Blue,” leaving one main app, fully federated with elements that serve up images and videos in Instagram-like (or TikTok-like) interface and an encrypted messaging service that offers WhatsApp-style functionality. So don’t expect stasis. But don’t count on “Facebook” fading from our tongues any time soon, any more than we have stopped using and saying “Google” despite its overall company name change to Alphabet.
While Meta might be the most overt declaration of this intent to construct a “metaverse” through which it can monitor, monetize, and manage everything about our lives, it is not alone, nor necessarily in the lead, in this effort.
Alphabet has been building its surveillance and predictive guidance technology into vehicles, thermostats, and “wearables” like eyeglasses for more than a decade. It continues to push the Google way of harvesting data and structuring our relationship with geography and knowledge into more elements of our daily lives.
Apple sells the very heart-rate and activity-monitoring watch that I have on my wrist right now, promising to protect all my personal data from the other big, bad data-dependent companies like Alphabet and Meta. Its long-term goal is the same, while its strategy is different: Build a metaverse of trust with wealthy, first-world consumers who care about privacy. It’s building the gentrified metaverse.
Amazon is directly investing in data science and virtual reality projects that other firms might develop but Amazon could bring to market. Meanwhile, the company pushes Echo and Echo Dot surveillance systems onto our kitchen counters and convinces us that the convenience of ordering up music and products with our voices is something we can’t live without.
Meanwhile, billionaire crank Elon Musk is fulfilling his own delusions of grandeur by funding artificial intelligence and virtual reality projects he hopes to control.
Basically, we have at least four of the richest and most powerful companies in the history of the world racing to build a massive commercial surveillance-and-behavioral-control system they are sure we would not want to live beyond or without. They are boys selling toys, but they are deadly serious. And we just might fall for all of this, just as we have fallen for everything else they have sold us.
There is a scant chance that we are going to muster the political will to predict and limit the unintended consequences and concentration of power that are sure to follow this race to build and dominate a metaverse. We would have to be willing to collectively and globally defer immediate gratification for long-term security. We have not been willing to do that to save the Arctic ice caps and the coral reefs of the world. We should not be confident of our will or skill when it comes to slowing down Mark Zuckerberg or his ilk. The boys with their toys always seem to win.