SAN JOSE — It is spring in California and the rains have finally returned after years of absence. The grass is green, the hillsides are coated in yellow and orange and blue flowers, and the reservoirs are full again, hallelujah. Yet while the spring rains may have washed away the drought, they have done nothing to alleviate the sense of existential dread — especially pervasive here in the techno-utopia of California —that the world we built has perhaps gone badly awry.
The proliferation of fake news and filter bubbles across the platforms meant to connect us have instead divided us into tribes, skilled in the arts of abuse and harassment. Tools meant for showing the world as it happens have been harnessed to broadcast murders, rapes, suicides, and even torture. Even physics have betrayed us! For the first time in a generation, there is talk that the United States could descend into a nuclear war. And in Silicon Valley, the zeitgeist is one of melancholy, frustration, and even regret — except for Mark Zuckerberg, who appears to be in an absolutely great mood.
The Facebook CEO took the stage at the company's annual F8 developers conference a little more than an hour after news broke that the so-called Facebook Killer had killed himself. But if you were expecting a somber mood, it wasn't happening. Instead, he kicked off his keynote with a series of jokes.
It was a stark disconnect with the reality outside, where the story of the hour concerned a man who had used Facebook to publicize a murder, and threaten many more. People used to talk about Steve Jobs and Apple’s reality distortion field. But Facebook, it sometimes feels, exists in a reality hole. The company doesn’t distort reality — but it often seems to lack the ability to recognize it.
The problem with connecting everyone on the planet is that a lot of people are assholes. The issue with giving just anyone the ability to live broadcast to a billion people is that someone will use it to shoot up a school. You have to plan for these things. You have to build for the reality we live in, not the one we hope to create.
While Zuckerberg has charted a statesmanlike evolution over the years, he and the company he helms too often have a blind spot for the way the world will react to products it unleashes on them. Certainly, that seemed the case at F8 today where a slightly rain-soaked audience groaned through Zuckerberg’s dad jokes and listened in anticipation as he teased what was to come. Then, abruptly, he shifted gears.
“Our hearts go out to the family and friends of Robert Godwin Sr.,” Zuckerberg said, referring to the 74-year-old victim. “We have a lot of work and we will keep doing all we can to prevent tragedies like this from happening.” Then, as quickly as he hit the somber tone, Zuckerberg returned to platform optimism.
Todays news was largely about the company’s push into AR — augmented reality. Think: digital layers we can place atop the real world. Facebook says there will be three main ways this will play out: the ability to display information on top of the world in front of you, the ability to add digital objects, and the ability to enhance or alter existing objects.
Executive after executive took the F8 stage to show off how these effects will manifest themselves in the real world. Deborah Liu, who runs Facebook’s monetization efforts, encouraged the audience to “imagine all the possibilities” as she ran through demos of a café where people could leave Yelp-style ratings tacked up in the air and discoverable with a phone, or a birthday message she generated on top of an image of her daughter, while noting that with digital effects, “I can make her birthday even more meaningful.”
And yet the dark human history of forever makes it certain that people will also use these same tools to attack and abuse and harass and lie. They will leave bogus reviews of restaurants to which they’ve never been, attacking pizzerias for pedophilia. If anyone can create a mask, some people will inevitably create ones that are hateful.
“With augmented reality,” Zuckerberg said, “you’re going to be able to create and discover all sorts of new art around your city.” Yes, someone can create a virtual painting, meant to beautify the city, or leave a virtual note to a loved one that reaches them at just the right moment, in just the right place. But someone else will probably leave a swastika. Because if there is anything to be learned about the modern internet, it is that if you build it, the Nazis will come.
But Facebook made no nods to this during its keynote — and realistically maybe it’s naive to expect the company to do so. But it would be reassuring to know that Facebook is at least thinking about the world as it is, that it is planning for humans to be humans in all their brutish ways. A simple “we’re already considering ways people can and will abuse these tools and you can trust us to stay on top of that” would go a long way.
Instead Facebook went into the reality hole. It touted Facebook Spaces, a new social virtual reality thing that helps you escape the world while experiencing it, too. As Rachel Rubin Franklin, who used to be executive producer of Electronic Arts’ “The Sims" game and now runs Facebook’s social VR efforts, said of Spaces: “When your friends and family join your space, it’s just like really being together.”
But it is not. Your avatar is not human, no matter how real it looks. The digital world is not flesh or blood, but it can have a tremendous effect on things that are.
When Facebook announced live video almost exactly one year ago, Zuckerberg touted its ability to tap into the raw and visceral moments of life. But it didn’t take long for those moments to become too raw, and too visceral. When Zuckerberg released a 6,000 word open letter in February, and sought to overtly inject values into the company’s mission, he said he had been moved by a suicide broadcast on Facebook Live. But of course, the suicides keep happening. Facebook can’t stop this, of course, any more than it can stop murder or mayhem or death.
But the company can acknowledge that these things will happen, and it can do a far better job of planning for them. It can make it harder to use its platforms to harass others, or to spread disinformation, or to glorify acts of violence and destruction. As it rolls out this slew of new tools to augment reality, here’s hoping that Facebook will also climb out of its reality hole and face the world we actually live in.
Mat Honan is the San Francisco bureau chief for BuzzFeed News. Formerly a senior staff writer at Wired, he has been writing about the technology industry and its impact on society for nearly 20 years.
Contact Mat Honan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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