Mark Zuckerberg recently took his metaverse playground to the next level. Sort of. Futurism nicely summarizes why the slick metamorphosis of his avatar, from a legless Lego-knockoff to a photorealistic rendering, was much closer to a one-off than a peek into the product’s future. There’s little chance, for example, that your webcam will produce anything like the digital avatar Zuckerberg and podcaster Lex Fridman demoed.
Still, let’s assume Zuckerberg remains serious about the metaverse, that AI hasn’t stolen all his attention and transformed his former pet project into a zombie that feasts on shareholder value. Furthermore, let’s assume the latest demo eventually becomes reality for everyday users, and even that those users sidestep avatar hackings and hijackings, and everyone pirouettes over all the pitfalls of privacy and security. The question remains: what’s the point?
Since we’re feeling generous, let’s ignore the obvious answer, that Meta’s metaverse gives the company—an advertising business—a whole new world to populate with ads. Suppose instead, one theory goes, Zuckerberg envisioned the metaverse as an antidote to Covid.
Ironic, right? Zoom and Teams calls served most of the world well enough during lockdown, and still gave us a clear takeaway: People hate being separated. If was any doubt, the resurgence in tourism in 2023 demonstrates people want to be together, they want to go places. A more finely tuned digital escape, one reached with screens and cameras strapped to your head, hardly looks like a product the market is clamoring for.
At any rate, there are already lower tech, cheaper and, frankly, more interesting options: wildlife cams. These are miles away from TikTok, where the content does not veer, it swerves head-on, to the performative. Therein rests the draw of the wildlife cams. They allow us viewers to join into animal world vicariously, yes, without the wind and water or the danger. But it is difficult to watch and not feel some awe, some admiration, and perhaps some kinship with our non-human brethren and sistren.
Zuckerberg’s latest attempt to render us in the digital realm brings me back to the early days of the Internet. For all the online meetings of strangers that turned into marriages and for all the novel ways folks sitting in their offices traveled to foreign lands, perhaps we knew the shortcomings of technology at the outset. Perhaps we kidded ourselves, or said this time it would be different, that this time we could find a way to create real, tangible connections between people. Perhaps this technology could help us generate and sustain empathy across space and time.
Different media provide different points of leverage for artists and writers to exploit as they attempt to foster empathy (if that’s their aim). While their success depends partly on the disposition of the consumer of that story, photograph, or film, it also rides on the artist’s talent and how well they tackle the simple and intractable fact that media turn subjects into objects.
Photographs first and films later have proved especially potent at objectifying. The proliferation of pornography is the paramount example of this. According to Mary Harrington of UnHerd, in November, 2022, Pornhub, the most popular online porn site “was visited 10.2 billion times, making it the fourth most popular destination on the web”. She goes on to note:
Today’s young people, conditioned by handheld access to the reward cycle of violent pornographic stimulus and orgasmic dopamine hits, are maturing into adults who expect sex to involve violence. Sexual choking is endemic among teens and young adults. In a 2021 survey of approximately 5,000 American college students, 58% of women reported having been choked during sex. This is often non-consensual and inspired by porn. A survey commissioned by the BBC in 2020 found that 71% of British men under 40 have slapped, choked or spat on a partner during sex, with more than half stating that porn had influenced their desire to do so.
This kind of behavior stems from, and is easier to inflict, when we make a person into a thing.
The 2002 Paul Schrader film Auto Focus is about Bob Crane, the star of Hogan’s Heroes who became infamous for his recorded sexual exploits. In his review, Roger Ebert—and I find I’m going back to his reviews more because he often considered movies in the way they connect to us—made an interesting point. He noted that “From its earliest days, home video has had an intimate buried relationship with sex.”
What is particularly interesting is that both film and photographs have enabled subjects to objectify themselves. Bob Crane not only filmed his sex life, he was also known to watch his own home movies, turning an experienced life into an observed one.
The connection between home video and sex that Ebert pointed out hints, it seems, at a more fundamental relationship between film technology and sex, demonstrated not only by Bob Crane but the numbers of amateur porn sites populating the Web, including home movies.
Porn is built to a degree on the need to be lusted for, and new technologies have enabled that at a once unimaginable scale. But while amateurs, for instance, who submit their own photographs to sites find satisfaction in the knowledge they’re being seen, on some basic level their satisfaction also comes from seeing themselves. Porn, with this marriage of sex and technology, has enabled us to turn ourselves into objects for others. This wasn’t something easily done before film and never on the scale the Internet allows. Without a drive to do that, to objectify the self, there would be no one submitting their favorite shots.
The same holds true for non-porn platforms. TikTok and Instagram are not explicitly pornographic, but it would be wrong to deny they’re built on and succeed because of the bond between sex, objectification, and technology. They are also, notably, driven by users submitting their own material, often of themselves. They are, in other words, two massively popular examples of the many platforms for objectifying ourselves.
Is Zuckerberg aware of this inherent characteristic of our communication technology? Does he care about it? In the metaverse, are we each just another object? Or is he, perhaps, hopeful that in the metaverse we can finally overcome the objectifying nature of technology and form enduring bonds of empathy?
On that front, the wildlife cams might not do a much better job. But they will do much less harm. And for much less money.