Why Facebook’s Virtual Reality Is As Problematic As It Is Promising

As the first day of Facebook's 2017 developers conference called F8 has ended, you can watch the keynote opened by Mark Zuckerberg here. This blog post covers my thoughts as I've been watching the keynote featuring the usual Silicon Valley marketing lingo. I'll tell you why I think that today's official message of Facebook must be uncovered as a dangerous hoax and why virtual reality is as problematic as it is promising.

Like last year, the first day of F8 was all about virtual (and augmented) reality as well as the artificial intelligence algorithms underlying it. One year ago, Zuckerberg got on stage, passing faceless, VR-gear-wearing crowds and today, for reasons I'll outline at the end of this post, I was reminded of Apple's legendary 1984 Macintosh commercial citing George Orwell's dystopia "1984".

After Facebook has been live broadcasting a murder just a few days ago with its video streaming feature, Zuckerberg opens the keynote talking about how important it is to build communities in today's devided world. Communities are undoubtedly important but I question Facebook's motivation. Facebook's interest is not to bring people closer to each other but to bring them closer to Facebook itself.

"Think of how many things could be digital instead of physical", says Mark Zuckerberg talking about making hardware such as chess boards or TV screens obsolete thanks to omnipresent augmented and virtual reality. Obviously, the digital world has its benefits for consumers, like more access to free information or the ability to connect with distant friends and customers with the help of Facebook and other platforms. In so many ways I am really excited about all the capabilities digital tools have given me over the last decade. However, for the platforms at the heart of the digital transformation, going virtual offers even more benefits.

Platforms like Zuckerberg's Facebook are hungry for data and creating luring virtual worlds is the perfect way to gather ever more data about its users. Why equipt the physical world with sensors to collect data about your behavior if they can build virtual worlds that turn everything you do into pure data? As soon as you enter a virtual reality your every move and interaction is nothing but data that feeds Facebook's hunger for information. In the (admittedly taken out of context) words of Zuckerberg himself: "The future is delicious."

What Zuckerberg and his management team showed off at F8 today are not "meaningful" features for the world but meaningful attempts for Facebook as it tries to convice you to uncover ever more of your thoughts, connections and goals by entering Facebook's virtual reality.

To me it was noticeable that Facebook is eager to convince you that pimping your pictures in funny ways like we know it from Snapchat for example makes your everyday life more "engaging" and "meaningful". But to be honest: That's bullsh*t. Facebook needs you to believe that your life is meaningful so that you share as much of it as possible. This is the psychologically based fuel of Facebook's numerous platforms, its profiling algorithms and eventually its revenue streams. The more time you spend in Facebook, the more money Facebook can make out of you.

It comes with no surprise that the latest VR product by the social network giant, Facebook Spaces, wants to offer everything that "captivates" you, says Rachel Franklin, Head of Social VR. With Facebook Spaces, "Technology lets your humanity shine through" as Rachel puts it and "that's why VR has the potential to be the most powerful social platform." In other words: With immersive VR, virtual worlds become increasingly credible and acceptable alternative realities - maybe even with alternative facts.

Progress in AI powered computer vision, which is the basis of all the AR tricks demonstrated at F8, makes it easier than ever to alter the real world and create the one you want. This will inevitably lead to a challenging debate about where the frontier of reality resides in the future.

Today's Facebook VR features might seem silly. But as the Facebook employees on stage at F8 mention repeatedly: "This journey is only 1% finished."

Facebook today is already very powerful when it comes to filtering what kind of news or friend updates we are getting to see and therewith what kind of information we are given and which are left to remain unseen - we've all heard about the filter bubble. Facebook together with Google might have become the greatest filters and gatekeepers the world has ever seen. If one day they should also dominate VR with all it's reality altering tricks up it's sleeves, they will control even more of what you see, experience and what you interact with as they take you out of your world and pull you into theirs.

Of course, VR has its benefits and possesses the potential to transform entire industries as well as to create new ones. But as much as it is promising it is also endangering consumer's autonomy and privacy because it creates the ultimate tracking environment.

That's why today I thought of Apple's commercial from 1984 as I was watching Mark Zuckerberg outlining his vision. While the ad shows a woman revolting against a dystopian master and liberating the people, I become increasingly skeptical if today's tech giants are still liberating or if they've begun mastering the people.