NOTE: Edited and added some new thoughts below.
I find it frustrating that nearly all the controversy over the Oculus acquisition by Facebook is focused on:
- Good games coming out
- Facebook rebranding Oculus
- Ads in the experience
These are superficial problems, firstly but furthermore they may not even be problems because 1) developers will still make products for this incredible technology, 2) Facebook never rebrands companies they acquire, 3) Facebook is smarter than to include ads directly. There is more value to them in having a happy, captive audience.
These pale in comparison to MUCH LARGER issues brought up by the acquisition:
- Data-mining virtual reality
- The creation of an information monopoly
- The nature of good ideas
These are BIG problems because 1) between head & iris tracking, in-game data, and Facebook’s incredible systems- there will be a plethora of information to mine along with the ability and intent to do it. It is infinitely easier to mine data in a completely simulated reality - Facebook will know where you’re looking, what you’re doing, and how long you do it. The data promised to them by VR (tele-conference meetings, games that portray our deepest desires, fears and fantasies) is everything they wish they could gather in the real world. When they cross-reference that with all the other information they already have on a billion people (faces, social dynamics, etc), suddenly there is one company with a lot of control. This brings us to problem 2) the creation of a personal information monopoly. The data (given by a consent that isn’t fully understood) isn’t pubilc and is actively being used as a way to make Facebook more revenue. 3) The deepest issue I find here stems from the way business is done in technology today: companies exist and operate only to get acquired. Instead of Oculus being their own specialized operation that could create it’s own goals and emergent desires, we now have a massive cultural force whose energy is being funneled (along with many others) to a singular entity who’s goals and desires have been long-since determined. The internet emerged a model of social capitalism where niche businesses can operate and grow naturally with a set audience, and then blast past them to wild proportions when a truly transcendent product is delivered. It may be a personal grievance, but the all-to-the-top approach this represents sits poorly with me. Cultural evolution is the most important thing in the age of information, good ideas can and should change paradigms. It is deeply upsetting to watch independently operating forces that create life-changing innovations get sucked into the old system just as they reach potential to break a standard model.
The promise of Oculus was the concept of unity through shared experience- shared escape to virtual worlds that we can explore, as we explore ourselves and each other. In Facebook’s vision of Oculus there is no escape – you won’t be reminded of that of course, but no matter how much fun you have or how deep your experience, you will always be under their eye sliding together down one giant funnel of information.
POST-THOUGHTS: I got an insightful email response to this post saying that while this is a shock, these issue are almost inevitable with VR- I’m inclined to agree. The reason I wrote this post in the first place was the confusion and frustration of seeing so many people upset about this acquisition for what I perceived to be the wrong reasons. The focus of the conversation is self-focused and short-sighted.The ‘larger issues’ I discussed are inevitable, yes - but they have been brought to the absolute front-burners with the most promising VR company being acquired by the world’s largest data mining operation. VR ethics is a conversation that has not even begun to happen, but with this news it has become clear that we need to begin writing it’s constitution immediately.