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“In the lingo, this imaginary place is known as the Metaverse”*…

Ethan Zuckerman on the history of enthusiastically working to make a dystopian vision real…

In a booth at Ted’s Fish Fry, in Troy, New York, my friend Daniel Beck and I sketched out our plans for the metaverse. It was November 1994, just as the graphical web was becoming a thing, and we thought that the 3-D web could be just a few tweaks down the road. In our version of the metaverse, a server would track the identity of objects and their location in virtual space, but you’d render the objects locally, loaded to your hard drive off of a CD-ROM. It made a certain sense: Most users were on sub-56k modems, and AOL was shipping out enough CD-ROMs to pave Los Angeles each week.

To be very clear, Daniel and I were in no way being original. We were hoping to re-create the vision that Neal Stephenson had outlined in his 1992 book, Snow Crash. We were both (barely) self-conscious enough to understand that Snow Crash took place in a dystopia, and that Stephenson was positing a beautiful virtual world because the outside world had become so shitty that no one wanted to live in it. But we were young and naive and believed that our metaverse would rock. (Stephenson, of course, wasn’t being entirely original either. His vision of the metaverse owed a debt to Vernor Vinge’s 1981 True Names and to a series of William Gibson novels from the ’80s. Both of those authors owed a debt to Morton Heilig’s 1962 Sensorama machine, and on and on we go, back in time to Plato’s shadows on a cave wall.)

Daniel and I got a chance to actually build our metaverse about six months later, after we both joined Tripod as graphic designers and “webkeepers.” This was well before Tripod became a competitor to GeoCities, offering free webpages to all. (It was also before I accidentally invented pop-up ads. Sorry again about that.) Instead, we were a lifestyle magazine for recent graduates, providing smart, edgy, but practical content—“tools for life”—while hawking mutual funds to 20-somethings. When that business model didn’t take off (can’t imagine why), the half-dozen folks in the “tech cave” revived the metaverse idea…

We sold our CEO on the idea by telling him that the MOO could be a simulation of life in the big city postcollege, bringing onto the site new users who wanted to experience New York City while still in Ann Arbor or State College. And remember, this was 1995: The photos we used to represent this metaverse of ours were taken on chemical film! Which we then developed at a photo-processing lab! And then scanned on a flatbed scanner!

The MOO was really cool, in theory. Most people weren’t building HTML-enabled multiplayer spaces in 1995. It got us our first round of venture-capital funding, demonstrating to our investors that we weren’t just kids translating mutual-fund propaganda into HTML. We were technology innovators. We were building things no one had ever seen before.

But here’s the thing: The MOO was garbage. On a good day, I could give a demo that made it look smooth, slick, and fun to use. But our CEO couldn’t. And that was a problem. It wasn’t his fault. The MOO was buggy and quirky and demanded that you think of the world as a set of six-sided cubes made up of webpages. Our boss pulled the plug on the project, telling us, “I know it’s the future, but if I can’t use it, I can’t sell it to investors.”

I watched other metaverses rise and fall. An Icelandic firm, OZ Virtual, introduced a metaverse with 3-D avatars in sexy streetwear dancing on an infinite dance floor, which felt like the future for a few days. OZ Virtual used VRML, a format for specifying 3-D objects in an HTML-like language that was all the rage for a few months in 1996. Netscape supported it via a plug-in, and Blaxxun built a 3-D chat space. Don’t remember these moments of web history? Neither does the web, for the most part. Wikipedia’s thorough, but not comprehensive, timeline of virtual environments misses our MOO, the Icelandic dance club, and half a dozen other early virtual experiments. (By the way: “Blaxxun”? That’s another Stephenson reference, to Black Sun Systems, the fictional company that created Stephenson’s fictional metaverse. Very creative, guys.)

And then there was Second Life. When Linden Lab launched this metaverse in 2003, there was a brief burst of enthusiasm where otherwise serious entities, such as businesses and universities, bought and built out their own islands in Linden’s proprietary world. (Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, now the Berkman Klein Center, had its own island.) The learning curve to build objects in Second Life was steep, the universe was populated haphazardly, and the Second Life client demanded a very fast computer and a very patient user…

So, after watching metaverses spring up and crumble for 27 years, and after building one myself, I feel fairly well equipped to offer context for what Mark Zuckerberg is trying to do with his firm’s pivot to “Meta.” In his heavily produced keynote video for Facebook Reality Labs, Zuckerberg starts by acknowledging that this is a bizarre time for the company to be launching a new product line—Facebook is under more scrutiny than ever for its ill effects on individuals and societies, and for the company’s utter unwillingness to address these issues.

But why bother with that mess? Or, as Zuckerberg put it: “Now, I know that some people will say that this isn’t a time to focus on the future. And I want to acknowledge that there are important issues to work on in the present. There always will be. So for many people, I’m just not sure there ever will be a good time to focus on the future.” Allow me to translate: Fuck you, haters.

Let’s be frank about this: Facebook’s metaverse sucks. From the first images in which legless torsos sit around a conference room, staring at a Zoom-like videoconferencing screen, to Zuckerberg’s tour of his virtual closet, filled with identical black outfits (see, he’s got a sense of humor!), Zuck’s metaverse looks pretty much like we imagined one would look like in 1994. Look, I’m playing cards with my friends and we’re in zero gravity! And one of my friends is a robot! You could do this in Second Life 10 years ago, and in somewhat angular vectors in VRML 20 years ago…

The metaverse Zuckerberg shows off [is] promising future technologies that are five to 10 years off. But it still looks like junk. The fire in his fireplace is a roughly rendered glow. His superhero secret lair looks out over a paradise island that’s almost entirely static. There’s the nominal motion of waves, but none of the foliage moves. It’s tropical wallpaper pasted to virtual windows. The sun is setting behind Zuckerberg’s left shoulder, but he’s being lit from the right front. Even with a bajillion dollars to invest in a video to relaunch and rename his company, Zuckerberg’s team is showing just how difficult it is to create a visually believable virtual world.

But that’s not the problem with Zuckerberg’s metaverse. The problem is that it’s boring. The futures it imagines have been imagined a thousand times before, and usually better. Two old men chat over a chessboard, one in Barcelona, one in New York, much as they did on Minitel in the 1980s. There’s virtual Ping-Pong and surfing, you know, like on a Wii. You can watch David Attenborough nature documentaries, like you do on Netflix. You can videoconference with your workmates … you know, like you do every single day.

Zuckerberg isn’t building the metaverse because he has a remarkable new vision of how things could be. There’s not an original thought in his video, including the business model. Thirty-eight minutes in, Zuckerberg gets serious, talking about how humbling the past few years have been for him and his business. Remember, he’s not humbled by the problem of Russian disinformation, or the spread of anti-vax misinformation, or the challenge of how Instagram affects teen body image. No, he’s humbled by how hard it is to fight against Apple and Google.

Faced with the question of whether Facebook’s core products are eroding the foundations of a democratic society, Zuckerberg takes on a more pressing problem: Apple’s 30 percent cut on digital goods sold in its App Store. Never fear, though: With a Facebook ecosystem, Facebook developer tools, and Facebook marketplaces, the custom skin you buy in one video game will be wearable in another video game, just like Mark’s black T-shirt. Just as long as that video game is in Facebook’s metaverse. (Meta’s metaverse? Meta’s verse?) And if you want Mark’s actual digital shirt, it will almost certainly be available as an NFT, which the launch video promises will be supported. Did I mention how dystopian this all is?

Facebook can claim originality in at least one thing. Its combination of scale and irresponsibility has unleashed a set of diverse and fascinating sociopolitical challenges that it will take lawmakers, scholars, and activists at least a generation to fix. If Facebook has learned anything from 17 years of avoiding mediating those conflicts, it’s not apparent from the vision for the metaverse, where the power of human connection is celebrated as uncritically as it was before Macedonian fake-news brokers worked to sway the 2016 election…

Neal Stephenson’s metaverse has been a lasting creation because it’s fictional. It doesn’t have to solve all the intricate problems of content moderation and extremism and interpersonal interaction to raise questions about what virtual worlds can give us and what our real world lacks. Today’s metaverse creators are missing the point, just like I missed the point back at Ted’s Fish Fry in 1994. The metaverse isn’t about building perfect virtual escape hatches—it’s about holding a mirror to our own broken, shared world. Facebook’s promised metaverse is about distracting us from the world it’s helped break.

It was terrible then, and it’s terrible now: “Hey, Facebook, I Made a Metaverse 27 Years Ago,” from @EthanZ.

For a nuanced (and provocatively-“optimistic”) look at what a metaverse like Facebook’s could yield if in fact it worked (and then morphed), see Corey J. Whites‘s (@cjwhite) Repo Virtual.

And as (and for the reasons) noted in an earlier post, see “The Metaverse Is Bad,” from Ian Bogost (@ibogost)

* Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash

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As we think twice, we might send adventurous birthday greetings to Giovanni Battista Belzoni; he was born on this date in 1778.  The 14th child of a poor barber in Padua, he was a barber, a Capuchin monk, a magician, and a circus strongman before finding his true calling– explorer (and plunderer) of Egyptian antiquities.

Belzoni’s call to action came when he met a British Consul-General named Henry Salt who persuaded him to gather Egyptian treasures to send back to the British Museum.  Under extremely adverse conditions he transported the colossal granite head of Rameses II from Thebes to England, where it is now one of the treasures of the British Museum. Later, he discovered six major royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings, including that of Seti I, and brought to the British Museum a spectacular collection of Egyptian antiquities. He was the first person to penetrate the heart of the second pyramid at Giza and the first European to visit the oasis of Siwah and discover the ruined city of Berenice on the Red Sea. He stumbled into the tomb of King Ay, but only noted a wall painting of 12 baboons, leading him to name the chamber ‘Tomb of the 12 Monkeys” (because hieroglyphs had not yet been deciphered, he usually had no idea who or what he had actually found).

Belzoni had two habits that have contributed to his legacy:  he was a lover of graffiti signatures, and inscribed “Belzoni” on many of Egypt’s antique treasures, where the carvings survive to this day.  And he carried a whip: which, given that he was one of the models for Indiana Jones, became one of that character’s hallmarks.

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“What might once have been called advertising must now be understood as continuous behavior modification on a titanic scale, but without informed consent”*…

Illustration by Anders Nilsen

“Which category have they put you in?”

This sinister question—at least, it was meant to sound sinister—headlined the advertising copy for The 480, a 1964 novel by Eugene Burdick. His previous best sellers, The Ugly American and Fail-Safe, had caused sensations in political circles, and the new one promised to do the same. Its jacket featured the image of a punched card. The title referred to 480 categories of voter, defined by region, religion, age, and other demographic characteristics, such as “Midwestern, rural, Protestant, lower income, female.” Many readers recoiled from the notion of being sorted into one of these boxes. The New York Times’s reviewer called The 480 a “shock novel” and found it implausible.

What was so shocking? What was implausible? The idea that a company might use computer technology and behavioral science to gather and crunch data on American citizens, with the nefarious goal of influencing a presidential election.

In the 1950s and 1960s this seemed like science fiction. Actually, The 480 was a thinly disguised roman à clef, based on a real-life company called Simulmatics, which had secretly worked for the 1960 campaign of John F. Kennedy. Burdick had been a political operative himself and knew the Simulmatics founders well. The company’s confidential reports and memoranda went straight into his prose. And the 480 categories—listed in an appendix to the novel—were the real Simulmatics voter types, the creation of what one of its founders called “a kind of Manhattan Project gamble in politics.”

Simulmatics was founded in 1959 and lasted eleven years. Jill Lepore mentioned its involvement in the Kennedy campaign in These Truths (2018), her monumental history of the United States; she was already on the trail of the story she tells in her new book, If Then. Lepore is a brilliant and prolific historian with an eye for unusual and revealing stories, and this one is a remarkable saga, sometimes comical, sometimes ominous: a “shadow history of the 1960s,” as she writes, because Simulmatics stumbled through the decade as a bit player, onstage for the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the Great Society, the riots and protests. It began with grand ambitions to invent a new kind of predictive behavioral science, in a research environment increasingly tied to a rising defense establishment amid the anxiety of the cold war. It ended ignominiously, in embarrassment and bankruptcy.

Irving Kristol, the future architect of neoconservativism, dismissed Simulmatics in 1964 as “a struggling little company which, despite the fact that it worked on a few problems for the Kennedy organization in 1960, has since had a difficult time making ends meet,” and he wasn’t wrong. Today it is almost completely forgotten. Yet Lepore finds in it a plausible untold origin story for our current panopticon: a world of constant surveillance, if not by the state then by megacorporations that make vast fortunes by predicting and manipulating our behavior—including, most insidiously, our behavior as voters…

The ever-illuminating James Gleick (@JamesGleick) unpacks the remarkable Jill Lepore‘s new history, If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future: “Simulating Democracy.”

See also: this week’s Bloomberg Businessweek, and for historical perspective, “Age of Invention: The Tools of Absolutism.”

* Jaron Lanier (see, e.g., here and here)

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As we think about the targets painted on our chests, we might recall that it was on this date in 2011 that Facebook introduced the Timeline as the design of a user’s main Facebook page.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 22, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Got no checkbooks, got no banks”*…

 

Trinidad and Tobago, the tiny twin-island nation off the coast of Venezuela, has struck gold. Its newly re-released $50 note (TT) earned top billing in this year’s competition convened by the International Bank Note Society (IBNS).

Designed in partnership with the British banknote manufacturer De La Rue to commemorate the 50th (golden) anniversary of the country’s Central Bank, the $50 note shows familiar takes on its national symbols like its coat of arms, a red hibiscus flower, and a red capped cardinal bird, its wings fanned out like a palm tree. The back of the note depicts a smiling carnival dancer, collaged in front of the 22-story Central Bank and Ministry of Finance twin towers, which are the tallest buildings in the entire country…

Read the whole story and see the runners-up at “The world’s best banknotes of the year.”

* Irving Berlin, “I Got the Sun in the Morning”

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As we reach for our wallets, we might recall that it was on this date in 2012 that Facebook went public.  The IPO was the biggest in technology and one of the biggest in Internet history, with a peak market capitalization of over $104 billion.  Some pundits called it a “cultural milestone”; in any case, a great deal of money was “printed.”

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

May 18, 2015 at 1:01 am

“If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all”*…

 

Facebook has analyzed its well-known meme, “List 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take more than a few minutes, and don’t think too hard. They do not have to be the ‘right’ books or great works of literature, just ones that have affected you in some way.”

It gathered an anonymized sample of over 130,000 status updates matching “10 books” or “ten books” appearing in the last two weeks of August 2014 (although the meme has been active over at least a year). 63.7% of the posters were in the US, followed by 9.3%in India, and 6.3% in the UK. Women outnumbered men 3.1:1. The average age was 37.

Here are the top 20 books, along with a percentage of all lists (having at least one of the top 500 books) that contained them.

  1. 21.08 Harry Potter series – J.K. Rowling
  2. 14.48 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
  3. 13.86 The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien
  4. 7.48  The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien
  5. 7.28  Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
  6. 7.21  The Holy Bible
  7. 5.97  The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
  8. 5.82  The Hunger Games Trilogy – Suzanne Collins
  9. 5.70  The Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger
  10. 5.63  The Chronicles of Narnia – C.S. Lewis
  11. 5.61  The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
  12. 5.37  1984 – George Orwell
  13. 5.26  Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
  14. 5.23  Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
  15. 5.11  The Stand – Stephen King
  16. 4.95  Gone with the Wind – Margaret Mitchell
  17. 4.38  A Wrinkle in Time – Madeleine L’Engle
  18. 4.27  The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
  19. 4.05  The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – C.S. Lewis
  20. 4.01  The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho

Read more here.  And see how the same list varied in non-English-speaking areas here (spoiler alert: Harry Potter still rules…).

* Oscar Wilde

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As we turn the page, we might send leather-bound birthday wishes to poet, iconic bad boy (and, as readers will recall,  father of the redoubtable Ada Lovelace) George Gordon, Lord Byron; he was was born on this date in 1788.  Byron once famously suggested that “If I don’t write to empty my mind, I go mad.”  Still, history suggests, even then…

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

January 22, 2015 at 1:01 am

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”*…

 

From Susanna Wolff at College Humor,

Start at the beginning…

Or click through to a particular period…

More social history.

[TotH to EWW]

* George Santayana

 

As we slouch toward Bethlehem, we might recall that it was on this date in 1776 that five students at the College of William and Mary founded what has become the most prestigious undergraduate honor society in U.S. higher education, Phi Beta Kappa.  When the Revolutionary War forced William and Mary to close in 1780, newly formed chapters at Harvard and Yale took over Phi Beta Kappa’s development; by the time that the William and Mary chapter was revived in 1851, Phi Beta Kappa was active at colleges throughout New England.  By the end of the nineteenth century, the once secretive, exclusively male social group had transformed itself into a national honor society, open to men and women, dedicated to fostering and recognizing excellence in the liberal arts and sciences.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

December 5, 2011 at 1:01 am

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