Hi, everyone! Yes, I’ve been spending time reading documents as part of the Facebook Papers Consortium. But Plaintext readers are my first and best consortium. With no embargo!
The Plain View
Before Mark Zuckerberg spun his vision of the “metaverse” this week—something he believes in so strongly that he is rebranding the entire company around it—he gave a brief acknowledgement that the firm formerly known as Facebook was the focus of “scrutiny and public debate.” But he would not be addressing the substance of its current crisis. “I believe we’re put on this earth to create,” he said. “For many people, I’m just not sure there ever will be a good time to focus on the future.” Thus his keynote at the virtual Facebook Connect conference, conducted mainly via a prerecorded video from his home, would be about the future, whether it’s a good time or not. “As long as I’m running this company,” he said, “I will absolutely go for it.”
Then the instant founder and CEO of Meta, the company’s new name, began to rhapsodize about the future he wants to create—one where we’ll all be working, playing, and especially connecting in an artificial world, or at the very least dolling up our present world with a scrim of digital artifacts, many of which we’ll be paying for. There will still be a Facebook. But that “blue app” and its siblings, Instagram and WhatsApp, will hereafter be only half the company, albeit the half with more than 3 billion customers and billions of dollars in revenue every quarter. The other half, with a few million customers and a tiny fraction of the business, is the reinvention of the former hardware division, devoted to augmented and virtual reality. The main thing that has changed for Zuckerberg’s company is its roadmap.
But hold on, Mark. The Company Formerly Known As Facebook, which I will henceforth refer to as TCFKAF, can’t really move forward on that course until it repairs the vehicle that got it where it is. No matter what Facebook is called now, its crisis is ongoing. Every day new revelations spring from the thousands of documents that whistleblower Frances Haugen took with her when she left the company as a disillusioned product manager. The gist of that collection, known as The Facebook Papers, is that the company conducted voluminous research documenting the harm it caused to society, threatening everything from the mental health of teenage girls to democracy—and TCFKAF was insufficiently aggressive in dealing with it. The company’s core metrics hinge on growth and retention, and too often those have taken precedence over safety.
For years, Zuckerberg has been promising that Facebook would win back our trust. The Facebook Papers show that the job isn’t done. That has grave implications for his metaverse plans, because Zuckerberg can’t fulfill his vision without the confidence of his customers and partners.
Consider the issue of whether Meta is attempting to monopolize the metaverse. Zuckerberg insists that’s not the case. His company is not creating its own metaverse, he says, but making products and experiences for an open artificial infrastructure supported by multiple companies. The avatar you create for yourself—either photorealistic or one with the head of a lion—should work on multiple platforms. Those assurances would have had more credibility if Zuckerberg had announced a single major competitor that Meta was actually talking with to make that happen. Though I have heard some indications that he’s in discussions about this, it will be a heavy lift. Many of Silicon Valley’s top executives simply don’t trust Zuckerberg and don’t want to work with him. Meanwhile, despite those promises of interoperability, TCFKAF is moving on its own to create foundational metaverse technology. Would it be willing to discard those efforts to join a truly collaborative construction of an open mixed-reality platform—or does “interoperable” just mean that others can sign on to Meta’s vision?
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Also, if you want to send a message that you don’t want to own the metaverse, maybe you shouldn’t rename your trillion-dollar company “Meta.” Just sayin’.
There are also issues of privacy and security involved in moving our online activities from mobile phones to immersive artificial universes. Almost an hour into Zuckerberg’s keynote, TCFKAF’s head of global affairs, Nick Clegg, dropped in to assure us that Meta would work hard to keep us safe. Researchers are on it! Breathing easier? Later, we were promised that the company would build protections to prevent malefactors from stealing your avatar—which would be the ultimate identity theft, akin to stealing your soul. How convincing is that from a company that fails to prevent hundreds of millions of false accounts on its current platform?
A metaverse migration raises a ton of thorny issues that Zuckerberg’s keynote skated over, or just didn’t mention. If we have such a big disinformation problem now, what would it be like if everything around us—from clothes to real estate to, well, ourselves—was made of information? How can you justify building a whole new economy based on buying virtual products when so much of the world’s population can’t afford basic real-world products? Will targeted advertising—which one of the keynote speakers mentioned as a way to fund the project—be even more disturbing when it zeros in on our virtual selves?
Don’t get me wrong—I do applaud Facebook, uh, Meta’s, technology initiatives. TCFKAF has great engineers working in Seattle and Pittsburgh to push the envelope of the truly exciting science of mixed reality. But the world won’t buy into this next great adventure if it’s pushed on them by a company that they can’t trust. Zuckerberg must mend that problem by fixing his social network and addressing shortcomings in an aggressive, straightforward manner. The avatars can wait.
Instead of resurrecting some of my own work this week, I’m dedicating this section to Pamela McCorduck, a writer and educator who was an early and astute chronicler of artificial intelligence. Pam, who died suddenly this month, covered the implications of AI as well as the personalities behind it, beginning with her groundbreaking book Machines Who Think in 1979. Here’s a brief excerpt about the 1956 Dartmouth Conference, where pioneers Marvin Minsky and John McCarthy essentially invented—and named—the field that drives so much of our technology 65 years later.
A dispute occurred over what the new field should be named. Although the conference was officially called the Dartmouth Summer Research Project on Artificial Intelligence, many attendees balked at that term, invented by McCarthy. “I won’t swear I hadn’t seen it before,” he recalls. “But artificial intelligence wasn’t a prominent phrase particularly. Someone may have used it in a paper or a conversation or something like that, but there were many other words that were current at the time. The Dartmouth Conference made that phrase dominate the others.” McCarthy had not chosen accidentally to call the conference by that name … In his proposal and again at the conference he argued strongly for the term artificial intelligence to distinguish it from automata theory, though to this day there are persons in the field who object to it.
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“The word artificial makes you think there’s something kind of phony about this,” says Arthur Samuel [a machine-learning pioneer who programmed a computer to play checkers], “or else it sounds like it’s all artificial and there’s nothing real about this work at all. Neither Newell or Simon [respectively, Allen and Herbert, two early scientists in the field] liked the phrase and called their own work complex information processing for years thereafter. But artificial intelligence is the phrase that stuck. In my view it’s a wonderfully appropriate name, connoting a link between art and science that as a field AI indeed represents.
Ask Me One Thing
Tomas asks, “Have Apple products reached peak thinness?”
Timely question, Tomas. Some think that with the introduction of the new Macbook Pros, which are a bit thicker in order to include a set of ports that users have missed in the last few versions, represents a turnaround. Fanatic Apple observers opine that with the departure of design guru Jony Ive, the company is less willing to compromise usability in order to become even more svelte. Maybe there’s something to that. But I wouldn’t rush to conclude that from here on out Apple products will take on bulk. Apple will always believe it can’t be too rich or too slim.
You can submit questions to email@example.com. Write ASK LEVY in the subject line.
End Times Chronicle
Last but Not Least
I wrote about farewell badge posts from departing Facebook employees, many of which reveal how poorly the company was responding to the recommendations from its researchers.
Lauren Goode has more details about the Meta keynote and its metaverse vision.
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Can a name change help a company in crisis? Well, it kind of worked when Phillip Morris became Altria.
The writer who invented the term “metaverse” has a new novel about fixing the climate with solar geoengineering.
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