PLEASE NOTE THAT AN EARLIER VERSION OF THIS BLOGPOST CONTAINED INCORRECT INFORMATION. Please see the paragraphs in red below, thank you. I would also like to apologise to Ben Egliston.
A lot has been written recently about what some are calling the “Facebookening” of Oculus (a term used by Ars Technica in its coverage here and here): renaming Oculus as Facebook Reality Labs, and replacing the annual Oculus Connect event with last week’s Facebook Connect (where, of course, you had to have a Facebook account in order to view this year’s presentations).
Yelena Ratichsky, executive producer of AR/VR media at what is now called Facebook Reality Labs, tweeted:
What are you most excited about for tomorrow’s Connect?
To which I rather boldly replied:
I’m sorry, but I’m not excited. In response to the requirement that I have to set up a Facebook account to use my Oculus devices, I will be selling or giving away my Rift and Quest within the two-year window, and personally boycotting Facebook products and services from now on.
As part of my personal boycott of Facebook products and services, I have been trying to give away my Oculus Quest wireless VR headset to someone else in my family. I asked five of my relatives—and nobody wants it. One of my adult nephews specifically cited not wanting to set up a Facebook account in order to use it. (It looks like it will be donated to my sister-in-law’s workplace; she works at a program for adults with developmental disabilities.)
I have found that so, so much has changed from a year ago, when the first Oculus Quest was released, a product I eagerly bought and reviewed on this blog. I even went so far as to purchase a cable to try out Oculus Link, a PCVR solution for the Quest which worked flawlessly with programs like Sansar that were too graphics-intensive for the standalone headset.
At the time I was so excited by the possibilities of this new technology, and happy that Facebook was working to bring virtual reality to the average consumer. A rising tide lifts all boats, as I like to say. I used to naively think that what benefitted Facebook would benefit us all.
Now, today, I feel zero sense of excitement. Instead I feel a sense of despair, even dread—a deep, foreboding feeling about the future.
Stop and ask yourself why Facebook would decide to forcibly yoke together the Facebook social network with Oculus devices (something Oculus founder Palmer Luckey was promised would never happen when Facebook bought his company):
Oculus founder and Rift inventor Palmer Luckey says he “really believed” Oculus headsets would never need a Facebook sign-in to operate, based on promises made during his time at the company.
Yesterday, Facebook announced that, from October, first-time sign-ins to Oculus headsets would require a Facebook account. Pre-existing Oculus accounts will continue to function as normal until 2023, when Facebook will end support and users will lose unspecified features. When Facebook first bought Oculus in 2014, Oculus executives — including Luckey — gave multiple assurances that users would not need a Facebook account to use their headset.
Following yesterday’s news, Luckey took to Reddit, claiming that he “really believed” Facebook wouldn’t enforce such a requirement and that the company promised him as much on multiple occasions. “I want to make clear that those promises were approved by Facebook in that moment and on an ongoing basis,” Luckey said, “and I really believed it would continue to be the case for a variety of reasons. In hindsight, the downvotes from people with more real-world experience than me were definitely justified.”
While Palmer could hardly be faulted for being young and naive enough to believe promises by Facebook executives that nothing would change (only to be later shown the door), it has now become clear what Mark Zuckerberg’s grand strategy is, and why he spent 3 billion dollars to purchase Oculus in the first place.
It’s all about hopping on what Mark dearly hopes will be the next iPhone, the next big thing, the next must-have device. It’s all about power. It’s all about control. And it’s all about making ridiculous amounts of profit off your personal data.
And I believe that Facebook’s strategy is: to utterly dominate the nascent virtual reality market, to create a lucrative but ultimately limiting walled ecosystem, to crush potential competitors, and to strip-mine your personal data to build an ever more detailed and intrusive personal profile of you—your likes and dislikes, your network of friends, family and coworkers, even biometric data from your Oculus device usage, such as your eye movements—in order to strip-mine it and sell access to that precious data to corporations and campaigns. All with very little oversight.
UPDATE Sept. 21st, 2020 (PLEASE ALSO READ THE MARCH 17th, 2021 UPDATE AT THE END OF THIS BLOGPOST!)
As Ben Egliston and Marcus Carter have writen has written in an editorial for The Conversation, titled Facebook’s virtual reality push is about data, not gaming:
A VR headset collects data about the user, but also about the outside world. This is one of the key ethical issues of emerging “mixed reality” technologies.
As American VR researcher Jeremy Bailenson has written:
“…commercial VR systems typically track body movements 90 times per second to display the scene appropriately, and high-end systems record 18 types of movements across the head and hands. Consequently, spending 20 minutes in a VR simulation leaves just under 2 million unique recordings of body language.”
The way you move your body can be used to identify you, like a fingerprint, so everything you do in VR could be traced back to your individual identity.
Facebook’s Oculus Quest headsets also use outward-facing cameras to track and map their surroundings.
In late 2019 Facebook said they “don’t collect and store images or 3D maps of your environment on our servers today”. Note the word today, which tech journalist Ben Lang notes makes clear the company is not ruling out anything in the future.
Think that the collection and dissection of that sort of data won’t happen? I have news for you, sweetheart; in many ways, that data collection is already happening. Extending even firmer Facebook control over Oculus devices is simply adding to the existing store of data that Facebook can collect on you.
A little over a year ago, I wrote on this blog (and yes, I will quote what I said at length, because it is important and worth repeating):
Facebook has the resources to capably crush competitors. Strip-mining the data of the estimated 2.7 billion people worldwide who use Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, or Messenger each month has been extremely lucrative for the company. (The five billion dollar fine the U.S. FTC recently levied against Facebook for their privacy lapses was a mere slap on the wrist, given the income the company generates each year from advertising. Mark Zuckerberg probably found the money from his couch cushions.)
Which leads to the point of this editorial: in this evolving metaverse of social VR and virtual worlds, is too much power concentrated in the hands of a single, monolithic, profit-obsessed company? I would argue that Facebook is aiming for complete and utter domination of the VR universe, just as they already have in the social networking space, by creating a walled ecosystem with the Oculus Home and the Oculus Store that will have a negative impact on other companies trying to create and market VR apps and experiences. The field is already tilted too much in Facebook’s favour, and the situation could get worse.
Now, you can argue that Facebook has competition from other VR headsets such as the HTC Vive line of products and the Valve Index. And the Steam software distribution platform is an alternative to the Oculus Store. I understand that my purchased programs from the Oculus Store can still be played on an HTC Vive or Valve Index with the Revive software, which is somewhat reassuring to me (although I suppose there is nothing really stopping Facebook if they choose to block that avenue at some point in the future).
More concerning to me is that, at some point, I may be forced to get an account on the Facebook social network to use apps on my Oculus VR hardware. In fact, this has already happened with the events app Oculus Venues, which I recently discovered requires you to have an account on the Facebook social network to access.
Sorry, but after all the Facebook privacy scandals of the past couple of years, that’s a big, fat “Nope!” from me. I asked Facebook to delete its 13 years of user data on me, and I quit the social network in protest as my New Year’s resolution last December, and I am never coming back. And I am quite sure that many of Facebook’s original users feel exactly the same way, scaling back on their use of the platform or, like me, opting out completely. I regret I ever started using Facebook thirteen years ago, and that experience will inform my use (and avoidance) of other social networks in the future.
Yes, I do know that I have to have an Oculus account to be able to use my Oculus Rift and Oculus Quest VR headsets, and that Facebook is collecting data on that. I also know that the Facebook social network probably has a “shadow account” on me based on things such as images uploaded to the social network and tagged with my name by friends and family, etc., but I am going to assume that Facebook has indeed done what I have asked and removed my data from their social network. Frankly, there is no way for me to actually verify this, as consumers in Canada and the U.S. have zero rights over the data companies like Facebook collects about them, as was vividly brought to life by Dr. David Carroll, whose dogged search for answers to how his personal data was misused in the Cambridge Analytica scandal played a focal role in the Netflix documentary The Great Hack (which I highly recommend you watch).
We’ve already seen how social networks such as Facebook have contributed negatively to society by contributing to the polarization and radicalization of people’s political opinions, and giving a platform to groups such as white supremacists and anti-vaxers. The Great Hack details how Cambridge Analytica used Facebook data without user knowledge or consent to swing the most recent U.S. election in Donald Trump’s favour, and look at the f***ing mess the world is in now just because of that one single, pivotal event.
We can’t trust that Facebook is going to act in any interests other than its own profit. Facebook has way too much power, and governments around the world need to act in the best interests of their citizens in demanding that the company be regulated, even broken up if necessary.
Well, now we know how that went; you will indeed have to set up a Facebook account to use your Oculus VR devices, going forward. All the better to collect, dissect, and sell your personal data to the highest bidder, my dear…and if you think you can get around this niggly little detail by setting up a fake account, well then, don’t be too surprised if you find yourself losing access to your content, and locked out of your VR headset. Facebook expects your real name, and that real-name policy has already generated plenty of controversy, as this link to Wikipedia illustrates.
I am going to give the last word to British journalist Carole Cadwalladr, who was also part of The Great Hack documentary (which I highly recommend you watch on Netflix). She wrote, in a damning Guardian newspaper editorial two months ago :
In 2016, we didn’t know. We were innocent. We still believed social media connected us and that connections were good. That technology equalled progress. And progress equalled better.
Four years on, we know too much. And yet, it turns out, we understand nothing. We know social media is a bin fire and that the world is burning…
In Facebook’s case, the worst has already happened. We’ve just failed to acknowledge it. Failed to reckon with it. And there’s no vaccine coming to the rescue. In 2016 everything changed. As for 2020… well, we will see.
We have already been through the equivalent of a social media pandemic – an unstoppable contagion that has sickened our information space, infected our public discourse, silently and invisibly subverted our electoral systems. It’s no longer about if this will happen all over again. Of course, it will. It hasn’t stopped. The question is whether our political systems, society, democracy, will survive – can survive – the age of Facebook.
We are already through the looking glass. In 2016, a hostile foreign government used Facebook to systematically undermine and subvert an American election. With no consequences. Nobody, no company, no individual or nation state has ever been held to account.
Zuckerberg says Black Lives Matter and yet we know Donald Trump used Facebook’s tools to deliberately suppress and deny black and Latino people the vote. With no consequences.
And though we know the name “Cambridge Analytica” and were momentarily outraged by Facebook’s complicity in allowing 87 million people’s personal data to be stolen and repurposed including by the Trump campaign. A 5 billion dollar fine was paid but no individuals were held to account.
Will Facebook be used to subvert the 2020 US presidential election? Yes. Will Facebook be held to account? No. Are we looking at a system shock that will change America for ever? Yes. Because Trump will either win this election using Facebook or he will lose it using Facebook. Both ways spell disaster. On Sunday, interviewed by a Fox reporter, he refused to say if he would leave the White House if he lost the election.
America, the idea of America, is on the brink. And at the cold, dead heart of the suicide mission it has set itself on, is Facebook. Facebook and America are now indivisible. Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, these are now the bloodstream of American life and politics. A bloodstream that is sick.
And so the world is sick, because American capitalism has been the vector that has brought this infection across the globe. Algorithmically amplified “free speech” with no consequences. Lies spread at speed. Hate freely expressed, freely shared. Ethnic hatred, white supremacy, resurgent Nazism all spreading invisibly, by stealth beyond the naked eye.
This is Facebook’s world now. And we live in it. And if you’re not terrified about what this means it’s because you haven’t been paying attention.
Housekeeping Notes: This editorial was originally labelled Part I, because I suspect that this will be only the first of many editorials I will be writing about Facebook’s role in virtual reality on this blog. For example, Facebook’s decision to stop selling the Oculus Rift in favour of the Oculus Quest 2 is a topic for another day. The August 20th, 2020 Ars Technica editorial by Sam Machkovech, titled Why the Facebookening of Oculus VR is bad for users, devs, competition, raises so many fascinating ideas that it warrants a separate, detailed editorial all on its own. There’s no shortage of stuff to write about here!
And I’m quite sure there will be many other things to talk about as Facebook Horizon rolls out, including the Big Brother-like real-time observation of its users, and I hope that these editorials will spark some lively and informed discussion of the issues.
Will we see a David-versus-Goliath resistance rise up against Facebook in light of its recent policy changes and its ongoing business practices? Who knows what will happen. Facebook has deep pockets to spend on things such as advertising, lawyers, and lobbyists to get its own way. But it will be fascinating to watch it all unfold, nonetheless. We could well be seeing the first major ethical and ideological battle of the new age of the metaverse taking place.
So, what do you think? Please feel free to leave a comment below, or better yet, join the ongoing discussions, debates, and arguments about all aspects of social VR, virtual worlds, and the ever-evolving metaverse on the RyanSchultz.com Discord server. We’d love to hear your opinions on all this!
P.S. Yes, I still intend to take a break from social media and news media (well, as best I can, anyways) from now until after the U.S. federal election. I have no doubt my readers will alert me if something major happens over the next two months!
UPDATE March 17th, 2021: I would like to apologize to Ben Egliston, whom I did not know was a co-author of the editorial from The Conversation along with Marcus Carter. In the original version of this blogpost, I has mistakenly assumed he was not, and I am truly very sorry! It turns out that I was confused and misinformed. I have apologized to Ben for my serious error.