Choose your own avatar in Horizon Worlds

The company Meta, formerly known as Facebook, sparked some criticism after it opened its keynote “Horizon Worlds” virtual-reality (VR) platform to France and Spain last week. According to an article in Slate, new European users were disappointed in the graphics, to say the least. And judging by the screen shots provided in the article, they have a point. Adjectives like “bland,” “cartoonish,” and “slightly weird” come to mind. In common with many VR systems, only the upper bodies of human avatars appear. I’ve never understood the reason for this myself, but one user speculated that it was so that nobody online can have sex.

At any rate, it doesn’t sound like the French are going to start holding meetings of the Académie Française in Horizon Worlds any time soon. But Mark Zuckerberg can live without the Academy’s 40 members if he can get several million mere mortals to join.

Meta has put a huge chunk of its colossal resources into its metaverse venture, some US$13 billion, and you can be sure the firm is not doing that for fun. Its vision is that as internet bandwidth and access increase, you will be able to don a VR headset and basically live life online: working, playing, even exercising (I suppose, but this might present problems unless you’re doing it on some physical treadmill tied to your VR system). As for sex, there’s plenty of that on the internet already, so maybe Meta is staying out of that area purely for business reasons.

There is a theory in the history-of-technology field called “technological determinism.” It basically says that technology has its own built-in direction, and once a technology develops into a feasible, marketable form, there’s no stopping it. Its development path and growth are intrinsic to the nature of the technology, and human factors and influences count for nothing. The term was invented mainly by people who didn’t believe in it to criticize those who appeared to support it, but I’ve never encountered a pure card-carrying technological determinist.

Nevertheless, a lot of stories of how technologies developed tend to make it seem inevitable in retrospect. I think this betrays a lack of imagination on the part of the storyteller, and some of the best histories of technology I have encountered look at failed technologies that might have succeeded if certain almost random factors had gone the other way.

With “Horizon Worlds” we are witnessing the first baby steps of a new technology which Meta, at least, hopes will inevitably dominate the internet and become as much a part of our lives as mobile phones—and all they can do—have become today. And, as any good public corporation will try to do, Meta intends to turn this into cash—lots of cash.

The Slate article quotes a University of Virginia professor’s dark prophecy that Meta hopes to “monitor, monetize, and manage everything about our lives.” While this is no doubt an exaggeration, it’s hard to deny that the picture conjured up by proponents of VR, especially the Meta-style of VR, seems to aspire toward a kind of totalizing, all-inclusive situation in which people would take off their VR headsets only to attend to physical needs, like eating, going to the bathroom, and (maybe) sex. And sleep, unless we manage to genetic-engineer our way out of that little necessity.

In promulgating his Meta vision, Zuckerberg and his colleagues suffer from a problem that they have in common with many tech-savvy leaders who combine awesome technical and business skills with the philosophical understanding of ten-year-old boys. There are various answers to the question, “What are humans for?” Different cultures and religions come up with different answers, but the worst response of all to that question is to ignore it altogether.

Any entity whose business operations affect millions or even billions of people, as Facebook/Meta’s does, should consider seriously what its model for human flourishing is. And the bigger the firm is, the more seriously it should consider that question.

Unfortunately, this rarely happens. Instead, a business like Meta is in practice avoiding two guardrails on opposite sides of a wide road. One guardrail is profits: if the firm ceases to make money going forward, something has to be done to avoid the guardrail of losses that kill the firm. The other guardrail is a combination of law and public criticism. Even a profitable business can go out of existence if its leaders end up in jail or become social pariahs, as the Weinstein Company did when its head Harvey Weinstein was accused (and eventually convicted) of sexual misdeeds. As long as a firm avoids hitting these two guardrails, its leaders will consider it a success, and will keep doing whatever they feel is necessary to keep going, regardless of the firm’s effects on the souls of its millions of customers.

Aesthetics are more than just a thing that has to meet minimum standards in order for people to use a platform like “Horizon Worlds.” Aesthetics is another word for beauty. In the past, advances in technology have led to the creation of beautiful things that make the world a better place. Advances in building technology led to artistic creations such as Chartres in France and Burgos in Spain. Cathedrals were designed for the ordinary human, just like “Horizon Worlds” is. But those who built the cathedrals of the Middle Ages were guided by a very specific vision of human purpose: to encounter, and eventually to love, the Divine. Their creations gained thereby a timelessness that motivates even a secular culture such as that of France’s today to reconstruct Notre Dame after its disastrous fire, at a cost of millions of dollars.

The metaverse can be a place of truth, beauty, and goodness. But those values can be achieved only if those designing it make these values intentional goals. On the other hand, if their guides are only the two guardrails of profit and avoiding jail or pariah status, they are likely to forge an erratic path that may lead millions of people to places they wish they hadn’t gone to.

Karl D. Stephan received the B. S. in Engineering from the California Institute of Technology in 1976. Following a year of graduate study at Cornell, he received the Master of Engineering degree in 1977...