upFront.eZine #1,131: Locating the Dystopia in Meta's Utopia
Opinion by Ralph Grabowski
Inside the Business of CAD | 30 May 2022
Nick Clegg’s 8,014-word manifesto “Making the metaverse: What it is, how it will be built, and why it matters” is confident that the metaverse will bend the arc of history towards a single future. It is, of course, what ought to be expected, when, from a plurality of outcomes, the final outcome — a metaverse of metaverses — is the sole destination under consideration.
That it took 8,014 words to say something that could have been said in 1,814 smacks, I think, of writing by committee. It seems to me that every committee member’s idea was to be included, and, as a result, similar ideas appear more than once in the manifesto — sometimes two and three times.
Here, in 1,814 words, is my response.
- - -
The VR people are frustrated. VR [virtual reality] has been around almost as long as desktop computers. While fat desktop PCs have progressed to thin laptops, all-day tablets, awe-inducing smartphones, and the ultimate in miniaturized communication devices, smartwatches, VR has remained clunky. Here, for instance, is what a VR headset looked like in 1989, as illustrated by a portion of the cover of that year’s December CADalyst magazine (at left).
I admit the monster computer and thick bundle of cables feeding the low-count-polygon scenes to the late-80s headset have given way to wireless connections and hi-res graphics, but the chunky part that rests in front of the eyes still rests boot-like in front of our eyes (at right, above).
- - -
I feel sorry for the manifesto’s author, Nick Clegg, the former head of England’s left-of-center Liberal Democratic party. As president of global affairs at Meta Platforms, it’s his job to justify the decision made by his boss, ceo and controlling shareholder Mark Zuckerberg, for Facebook to go all-in with XR (VR + AR = mixed reality) to the point of changing the corporate name to Meta.
Meta is Greek for “beyond/beside/with/after,” and in English it has come to refer to transcendence, such as metaphysics (beyond what physics can study) and metacharacter (outside literal programming code). I suppose someone at Facebook thought that if VR comes after R [reality], then “after” would be a good name for the company; even better, to Greek-ify it for greater gravitas.
Here is how all-in Zuckerberg put Facebook: there are nearly ten thousand employees in the division responsible for making the metaverse real, Reality Labs. Ten thousand is one-fifth of Facebook’s workforce, working on recreating the world in the image of Man.
As well as feeling sorry for Mr Clegg, I also feel bad for The Zuck. With Facebook faltering, what could he do for an encore, when 38 is too too young for someone to rest on laurels? He’d have gone looking for something that’s (1) next-gen, (2) as addictive as facebooking, and (3) able to generate far greater revenues than today.
- - -
But, getting back to the feeling-sorry-for-Nick-Clegg part. He has to justify the metaverse to a skeptical world that already rejected 3D TV. How skeptical? Second Life was the forerunner in proving there is little life in a second world. Meta’s Reality Labs lost $10 billion in 2021, after losing $6 billion the year before. (By comparison, investors gave barely more, $12 billion last year, to the more important topic of automated cars.)
On that day in early February, 2022 when Facebook announced its name change and the pivot to VR, the FB share price fell by 26%. The price of a share is what investors feel is the future value of the company; investors were saying Facebook had little future in VR. The share price has continued to fall since then, down 49% from its all-time high as I write this.
As someone once said, “This dog don’t hunt.”
- - -
In his manifesto, Mr Clegg patiently explains that just as we stepped from text-based Internet to pictures to streaming videos, the next step we take, naturally, ought to be into interactive environments; from 2D to 3D. (The step following this, I think transhumanists would argue, is Ray Kurzweil’s beloved The Singularity.)
What he didn’t note is that as we stepped from text to pictures to video, the form factor remained unchanged. The Netscape Web browser I used in 1994 is as familiar as the Opera one I use today; the UX [user experience] of the Palm Pilot I bought in 1996 is mimicked by my Android phone today.
The step he wants us to take — from streaming videos to interactive environments (VR) — is, in fact, blocked. He requires people to don bulky, expensive headsets, wrenching the familiar — Web browsers and smartphone interfaces — from our daily lives. It is, by far, a step too far.
He emphasizes the benefit of immediacy, where remote employees and clients are in the same virtual room. He misses the disappearance of immediacy when people physically in the same room wear headsets that deprive us of the subtleties with which we sense others in the room. As Epic ceo Tim Sweeney describes it, “It’s not very fun to sit around in 3D and just talk to people. It gets really awkward really fast.”
Mr Clegg mentions how Zoom made remote meetings normal, but didn’t take the next step in noting that people have come to despise Zoom. We CAD editors have written about how tired we are of remote conferences, and the pleasure we feel reacquainting ourselves with in-person events, even if they require ten-hour plane rides through nine time zones.
- - -
The human experiment is continuously undone by our lust for power, and power is effective only when concentrated in the very few. To counter the worry that Meta wants to make its metaverse as much a walled garden as it attempted with Facebook and Instagram, Mr Clegg promises his company will cooperate with all competitors to create a metaverse of metaverses — the multiverse. The problem, of course, is that competitors will want their gardens walled, well and tight.
He admits not all functions would necessarily be exposed by APIs (my wording), and not all competitors will want to cooperate with Meta; as well, users can create ’verses exclusive to themselves. The meta of metas becomes an unfulfillable dream well before eight thousand words are up.
We see this in our industry, as CAD vendors desire to silo their customers. Some isolate them from the larger CAD community through pay-to-play subscription billing and software kill switches; some make putative threats against dealers and customer who gaze elsewhere; many lack a serious interest in unified file formats; and some even force their customers’ files into central design databases designed to be inaccessible by outsiders.
- - -
The negatives Mr Clegg primarily sees in VR are the kinds a politician would see: Equitable metaverses for the (historically) disadvantaged! Subsidized headsets for the poor! $40 billion added to the African economy! Banning of undesirable behavior!
Mr Clegg does not consider the cultural barriers faced by a multiverse. Being from the western world, he probably favors some kind of secular liberal-democratic approach to ethics in VR Land. The manifesto does not take into account a Pentecostal Africa, a Catholic Latin America, an Islamic Middle East and Southeast Asia, a Hindu India, a Maori New Zealand. Their concepts of undesirable behaviors don’t necessarily coincide with his ideas regarding undesirable behaviors. They will be bemused at the white man’s attempt to enforce his secularism on their communities.
To reduce undesirable behavior between avatars, Meta recently added four-foot exclusion zones to keep others from bumping into you, deliberately or otherwise. In some parts of the world, distancing is considered safe, while in other parts, such as where males hold hands as a sign of good friendship, it is seen as exclusionary. In Meta’s VR Land, it appears we are going to be guilty until proven innocent.
- - -
Whereas Mr Clegg writes that the metaverse will be like real life through three key factors — ephemerality [short-lived], embodiment [tangible], and immersion [absorbed] —, Peter Franklin counters that “Clegg has missed the bigger picture, which is that the Internet has allowed us to move away from ephemerality, embodiment, and immersion.” In short, we want our privacy.
The manifesto does not broach a distinction between synchronous and asynchronous communications:
Synchronous. Phone calls and VR sessions require all parties to be present all the time. This is one thing making Zoom calls exhausting. The advantage, however, is immediate feedback: we know the other parties got the message; we can work our way to decisions interactively.
Asynchronous (not synchronized). Leaving messages on answering machines and sending emails make us independent of others, enhancing privacy and efficiency, but we wonder, Did the other person get the message;how many back-and-forths (a.k.a. telephone tag)?
In CAD, sending around markups is asynch communications; real-time simultaneous editing needs synch’ed comms.
Sometimes we phone, sometimes we email. Neither replaces the other.
- - -
Earlier in this piece, I wrote that Facebook thinks that VR comes after R, but in reality, VR is adjacent to R, being just one of many un-R options. I think about my son-in-law who loves bouldering: going up fake cliffs inside air conditioned gyms. My daughter converting the reality of pretty-good wedding photos into stunning ones with photo editing filters. And perhaps the ultimate in augmented reality, my son hiring and helping people who have a hard time figuring out the reality of life.
I suppose the most insidious part of the Zuckerman-inspired Clegg future is how VR ought to replace R: “The metaverse is coming, one way or another,” he warns. Novels like Neuromancer, which four decades ago predicted metaverses, described dystopias, not utopias; their authors understood the human condition.
In addition to solving the what-comes-after-facebooking problem, there is a second Meta motive. I haven’t mentioned autism yet, which is much more common in Silicon Valley than in, say, middle America. It leads programmers, who benefit from the concentration given to them by spectrums like Asperger’s syndrome, to think about worlds they can control, without having to interact with unpredictable humans made of flesh. As Christina Buttons, who has Asperger’s syndrome, explains, “The prospect of making an impact through arms-length electronic methods held considerable appeal” for her.
As a result, we have 0.5% of the population telling the 99.5% how, in the future, we ought to live.
- - -
There’s a reason sales of ebooks fell below those of paper books, and LPs have resurged: people prefer the real over the virtual, particularly after the hideous lack of human-to-human interaction forced upon us by that invisible virus.
Take lesson from the failure of 3D TV. It failed because (1) it required people to wear glasses in a glasses-averse society (not wearing them meant being ostracized from the social event); (2) it required people to replace their recently-purchased big and expensive flat-screen TVs with TVs that looked identical but cost much more. That particular dog also didn’t hunt.
Mr Clegg should instead look at which Meta products are the uber-popular ones, the growing ones: WhatsApp and Messenger. From my neighbors, I hear that Facebook Market is popular; it’s for selling stuff. What people want is to communicate with one another conveniently, effortlessly, cheaply; the metaverse is far removed from all three.
Mr Zuckerman ought be proud of what he has accomplished, and be content with what he has. More is unnecessary.
== 3D CAD & DCC Conversion
for MAXON's Cinema-4D Animation System ==
Okino (Toronto) and MAXON (Germany) celebrate 20 years of supporting MCAD data visualization through Okino’s PolyTrans-for-Cinema-4D conversion software.
MAXON's Cinema-4D is one of the world's most used and respected animation systems for MCAD data visualization. Okino’s PolyTrans software transforms ultra-massive 3D datasets into highly-refined models for fast, efficient, and optimized animation creation. All conversions are Load & Go, with no model rebuilding necessary.
Popular CAD data sources include SolidWorks, ProE/Creo, Inventor, AutoCAD, Revit, Navisworks, DGN, IGES, STEP, Parasolid, and JT. DCC data sources are Cinema-4D, 3ds Max, Maya, FBX/Collada, and many more.
Perfected over three decades, we know 3D data translation intimately, providing you with highly personalized solutions, education, and communication. Contact CTO Robert Lansdale at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And in Other News
“As I listened to the Autodesk Accelerate speakers, it became clear that ‘digital transformation’ as a buzzword is almost meaningless. It’s marketing-speak from vendors trying to sell the latest and greatest and, like many things marketed at us, both aspirational and demotivating.” More commentary from Monica Schnitger at schnitgercorp.com/2022/05/20/digital-transformation-lets-talk.
- - -
Matt Lombard reports on attending Realize Live 2022 at dezignstuff.com/realize-live-2022-report. I have always wondered how it came to be that Solidworks is the star in the Dassault firmament, while Solid Edge remains in the shadow of Siemens NX. Maybe it’s due to this: Solidworks benefits from being so different from Catia (and V6), but Solid Edge is too similar to NX.
- - -
Could mythic “Putin Tax” be starting to have an impact on CAD software prices? Dassault Systemes announces 5% price increases as of July 1, 2022 on all software license formats (including perpetual, maintenance, yearly and quarterly subscriptions) on all its software, such as Catia, Simulia, Enovia, and Delmia. Dassault had earlier said that Russia represents fewer than 0.5% of non-IFRS revenues in 2021.
Letters to the Editor
Re: Careful How You Do New BIM
I think that BricsCAD BIM is a kind of fresh breath in this area. You can model or import dumb 3D solids, and then run the pretty smart Bimify command.
It’s interesting that BricsCAD seems to be faster than Revit to open IFC files, and of course better than Archicad at making useful DWGs.
- Ragnar Thor Mikkelsen, Norway
- - -
A major issue underlying Dave Edwards’ editorial is, “Who/what has to get the design details right,” a.k.a. “Who is liable for errors?” Not architects, not software companies or software engineers, but definitely subcontractors and structural engineers.
We are not close to cramming all the knowledge of the diffuse players who end up taking responsibility for getting a building done right into software or other repository. Construction offers oh-so-many opportunities for errors based on minor details and arcane, highly specialized knowledge.
- Leo Schlosberg, USA
“Why does every bit of the [Facebook] metaverse look like the worst thing anyone has ever produced in all of human history and even within the realms of fiction and imagination itself.”
- Brendel (@Brendelbored)
Thank You, Readers
Thank you to readers who donate towards the operation of upFront.eZine:
R L Capper: “Enjoy your full-time retirement when the time comes!”
Uwe Redmer: “Good luck for the future and enjoy the complete retirement. Was always a pleasure to read your articles.”
To support upFront.eZine through PayPal.me, then I suggest the following amounts:
$25 for individuals > paypal.me/upfrontezine/25
$150 for small companies > paypal.me/upfrontezine/150
$750 for large companies > paypal.me/upfrontezine/750
Should Paypal.me not operate in your country, then use www.paypal.com to send funds to the account of email@example.com.
Or ask firstname.lastname@example.org about making a direct bank transfer through Wise (Transferwise).
Or mail a cheque (US$ or CDN$ only, please) to upFront.eZine Publishing, Ltd., 34486 Donlyn Avenue, Abbotsford BC, V2S 4W7, Canada.
upFront.eZine is published most Mondays. This newsletter is read by 4,700 subscribers in 70 countries. Read our back issues at www.upfrontezine.com.
Editor: Ralph Grabowski
Copy editor: Heather MacKenzie
Letter the editor are welcome at email@example.com. All letters sent to the editor are subject to publication, and may be edited for clarity and brevity.
To subscribe, click this link to sign up with with our mailer, Substack.
To change your address, send both your old and new email addresses to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To unsubscribe, click the Unsubscribe link at the end of this newsletter.
Copyright © 2022 by upFront.eZine Publishing, Ltd. All rights reserved.
Legal. All trademarks belong to their respective holders. “upFront.eZine,” “The Business of CAD,” “WorldCAD Access,” and “eBooks.onLine” are trademarks of upFront.eZine Publishing, Ltd. Translations and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by upFront.eZine Publishing, Ltd. By accessing this newsletter in any manner, you agree to settle disputes within ten days of publication date by arbitration within the city limits of Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada with the arbitrator selected by an agent acting on behalf of upFront.eZine Publishing, Ltd.
Our mailing address:
upFront.eZine Publishing, Ltd.
34486 Donlyn Avenue