Good Friday Morning and if you haven’t had caffeinated beverage yet if you’re one of the morning readers, a headline from Fox News should do it for you: “Republican Glenn Youngkin has moved ahead of Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the Virginia governor’s race, less than a week before the election. McAuliffe receives 45 percent to Youngkin’s 53 percent in a new Fox News survey of Virginia likely voters. Youngkin’s eight-point advantage is outside the poll’s margin of sampling error.”
That is a shocking, blockbuster number. I continue to believe this race is Terry McAuliffe’s to lose. Democrats have such built-in advantages in places like Northern Virginia. But it’s hard not to see some momentum behind Youngkin right at the finish line (Virginia elections are November 2).
McAullife is also preparing for the possibility of a close race, where he has to sue and challenge results. He recently hired Marc Elias from the Clinton circle. Elias is the reason lawyers have a bad name. And McAuliffe’s campaign accidentally sent emails to Fox News about trying to “kill” the story about hiring Elias. These are not the actions of a confident campaign. Youngkin has the momentum. Can he pull it off? We’ll see very soon. I’m leaning towards yes…
This week, I’m going to dive into some thoughts I had about alienation, community building, and more, all from reading about Facebook’s decision to change their parent company name to “Meta.” Links to follow.
Where you can find me this week
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It’s McAuliffe’s race to lose, and he’s doing a good job of losing it – The Conservative Institute.
Biden courts disaster while ignoring inflation – The Conservative Institute.
Facebook’s new name, and the next internet era.
Facebook renaming itself is one of those things that’s so audacious and, on its face, dumb. There’s some part of me that wants the Department of Justice to go ahead and announce antitrust proceedings against Facebook just for having a ridiculous name like “Meta.” It seems like something Ron Artest, aka Metta, would do. Or they are playing off Google/Alphabet’s playbook. It’s all I can do to stop my eyes from rolling out of my head.
Legally speaking, I get the change. On the legal side, the interesting move here is that it makes antitrust harder to pull off against Facebook because they’re claiming everything they’re building now is towards a new, cohesive product. For instance, lost in the coverage, “CTO Andrew Bosworth announced Meta was phasing out the Oculus branding. The Oculus Quest product line will become the Meta Quest line, and the Oculus App will be called the Meta Quest App. Those changes will begin to take effect in early 2022.”
Oculus is the headset technology that allows you to play virtual reality games. Some of those games, like Beat Saber, have become partially viral. It’s like a VR version of Rock Band, back when I was in college. This tech was the main attraction for Zuckerberg’s “Meta” concept in their main launch video.
I’m somewhat interested in how Facebook got the Meta trademark and naming convention. Due to the fact I’m a lawyer, and I’m forced on occasion to learn information that is utterly useless to any sane person but highly important to the cases I get involved with litigating, I learned several years ago about the Metamucil rebranding effort. They also use “Meta” for their various products. There’s META-mucil, Meta-biotics, Meta-bars, and more. I wasn’t the only one to notice this oddity.
Who is the real Meta? The company pitching the positives gastrointestinal health, or the company that causes it through stupid posts from the internet?
I’m writing about Facebook and Meta because I find part of their vision interesting. Zuckerberg starts his main letter by saying, “We are at the beginning of the next chapter for the internet…” That’s incredibly audacious, but I tend to agree with him on that point. The current version of the internet, ostensibly the 2.0 internet infrastructure, is aging and playing out. Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and others solved the great question of building a giant connected network. We’ve spent the last two decades building off of those ideas.
The question is, what’s next? I think Zuckerberg is right.
One of my jokes to Marxists is that Karl Marx was wrong because he lacked imagination. Marx was a man of his time. He was writing of the wrongs of the industrial age, and he saw capitalism as the effort to consume finite resources. His theory about capitalism was that industrialism would lead to wars between capitalistic countries because they’d fight over limited resources. If everything you know is farming, mining, or manufacturing, this makes some amount of sense.
When you can’t imagine anything past what’s in front of you, we might excuse you for not understanding how capitalism might handle the concept of finite. But of course, Marx’s predictions haven’t occurred.
The fascinating part of capitalism is that because it understands that scarcity principle, it instinctively seeks ways to expand its resources or use them far more productively. Marx was at the beginning of the industrial age. He couldn’t envision the generations to come because it was beyond him. For instance, we’ve become so productive at farming that we’re producing more food than ever before, on less land.
The other thing Marx could not have foreseen was the virtual economy. Instead of remaining in the physical world, capitalism created an invisible virtual world on top of the real one, where massive companies and profits exploded onto the scene, expanding the economic pie in the process. The very fact that you’re reading this right now is a testament to that fact. I’m not having to pay for paper and mail you this newsletter. You’re getting a free, virtual good.
This technological revolution, the computer/internet age, is far more productive than anything in the past. But it’s also the first iteration of the virtual economy. The next stage is some version of what Zuckerberg sees. He calls it the metaverse, but in reality, what he’s trying to do is make both augmented and virtual reality common-place:
The next platform will be even more immersive — an embodied internet where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it. We call this the metaverse, and it will touch every product we build.
The defining quality of the metaverse will be a feeling of presence — like you are right there with another person or in another place. Feeling truly present with another person is the ultimate dream of social technology. That is why we are focused on building this.
In the metaverse, you’ll be able to do almost anything you can imagine — get together with friends and family, work, learn, play, shop, create — as well as completely new experiences that don’t really fit how we think about computers or phones today. We made a film that explores how you might use the metaverse one day.
In this future, you will be able to teleport instantly as a hologram to be at the office without a commute, at a concert with friends, or in your parents’ living room to catch up. This will open up more opportunity no matter where you live. You’ll be able to spend more time on what matters to you, cut down time in traffic, and reduce your carbon footprint.
Think about how many physical things you have today that could just be holograms in the future. Your TV, your perfect work setup with multiple monitors, your board games and more — instead of physical things assembled in factories, they’ll be holograms designed by creators around the world.
Hence why he’s renaming Oculus and bringing it front and center into this new vision for the internet. He’s not the first person to envision something like this; it’s been tried in various ways for years. Nintendo capitalized on a version of this with their Wii entertainment system, allowing people to get physically involved with games in their homes. Google Glasses were a thing for a while, providing augmented reality wherever you were.
We’ve steadily moved into the era of the “internet of things, ” where everything from your phone to your refrigerator is connected to the internet with some kind of app or service available. Virtual reality gaming has finally hit some initial levels of mainstream success. The Oculus system came out and got quickly snapped up by Facebook. Sony’s Playstation and Microsoft’s Xbox system have fiddled with it (I own the Sony version), with varying degrees of success. There are distinct hardware limitations at the moment, but those will improve.
Loneliness, community, and the opening for Zuckerberg.
Whether or not Zuckerberg can bridge this gap, I don’t know. Every technology innovator has pointed in this direction for decades, and science fiction has spoken of it. We’re headed in that direction, and it’s just a matter of timing and what gets designed first. The global pandemic has sped up the adoption and demand for these kinds of services.
But what’s also interesting to me is the timing. The timing for this kind of thing hasn’t always been there, nor has the technology matched the moment. But we’re getting much closer technology-wise. I suspect culturally, people will want this, primarily because there is a void in community building.
I recently read the book “What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era.” It was written by the Washington Post book reviewer Carlos Lozada. In the slim book, he summarizes and talks through the similarities and differences of the 150 books he read and reviewed from 2016 – 2020. One of the themes he spoke about was alienation, which was pitched early on as a driving factor for some Trump voters (think back to the “White Working Class voter” debate).
One of the best books on this topic, both according to Lozada and myself, is Timothy Carney’s book, “Alienated America: Why some places thrive while others collapse.” The primary point of Carney’s book is that the easiest way to find a Trump voter was to look at data that showed whether the cultural institutions in a given town were thriving or non-existent.
For instance, in Carney’s hometown, he is a part of a thriving church. People have community groups that interact, and everyone is highly involved in the local schools and other similar institutions. It’s a sticky community, one built on real people with real connections. In contrast, when you visit the rust-belt towns where Trump voters appeared in droves in 2016, you didn’t find this at all. Communities were collapsing, churches had little influence, and people were not plugged in with their neighborhoods.
Carney’s thesis is similar to the famous 2001 book “Bowling Alone,” by Robert Putnam. In that book, 20 years old now, Putnam noted how simple things like bowling alley clubs were vanishing. People were doing fewer group activities together, and communities were falling into disrepair. And it’s not that places like churches are empty; usually, it’s quite the opposite. It’s the shift from a church being a cultural center that provides a cornerstone for the community to a church as an event. Instead of building a community, churches become either daycare or an event no different than a concert. Concerts are fun, but they don’t build communities (online fan groups aside).
Humans are social beings; we depend on and need that social interaction profoundly. Ironically, one of the great calamities of our time is that we live in the middle of a “loneliness epidemic.” It’s true for all generations, though it appears to be worsening with each successive age cohort. I can’t even recall how many conversations I’ve had with peers or teacher friends who interact with young students who see increasing isolation.
It’s hard to believe, on one level. We’re more connected than ever but also more isolated. I never fully understood this until I went to New York City for the first time in my life. I grew up in the country and the suburbs of small-town America. Big cities are not something I have a great deal of experience with and don’t fully understand how people live there. But standing in New York City, near the Empire State Building, walking down the street, I was struck with how many people were there and how invisible I was in that crowd.
We’ve done something similar with this new internet era. We’re connected, but we’re not. Passing updates and knowledge through a social media site gives you head knowledge, but not a relationship with a person. Men, in particular, are poor at this kind of thing. There are decades of research now showing how men do a poor job of maintaining friendships over time. The social media age is likely exacerbating the sense of loneliness in many men. However, I suspect this is also especially true of people with more extroverted personalities.
I tend to believe the internet age has also shifted how often friendships and relationships between men and women are forming. For instance, you’ll see people praising the drop in divorces; but it seems clear the reason for fewer divorces is that there are just fewer relationships, period. It’s not that people are merely living together, though, that exists. It’s that fewer people are meeting and getting married.
We could speculate some reasons why (add your own):
- Dating apps are useless.
- The cost of getting rejected has gone up (instead of simple “no’s,” you could now become a viral story on social media).
- The memetic culture we’ve built has made neurotic thought patterns more common (“imposter syndrome” is more common on the internet than real life, as an example) and more.
But the fact is that it exists.
In comes Facebook with the “Metaverse.”
It’s easy to think of the metaverse in terms of The Matrix, the game reality of the book/movie Ready Player One, or even the dystopian future set out in the Pixar movie WALL-E. The point is, in the past, we’ve viewed these virtual platforms as a given but also as not necessarily a positive development. If everyone can create a false reality they want to live in, have we encountered anything real if we get our own individualized Matrix built by Facebook/Meta? Or is it something that disconnects us even further from a real community?
I think the metaverse, or something like it, is coming. But I also think it’s coming because there’s a void, a need that needs filling. Tim Carney’s book is correct. We live in a version of an Alienated America. Carney’s solution is to rebuild the old institutions. That’s a pretty typical conservative notion, and I’m open to it. Scratch that; I would prefer to do that.
But I also know that if that doesn’t happen, the virtual world will get created by capitalistic entrepreneurs trying to fill that void. Zuckerberg is right in his vision; he senses that opening, like many before him. The name is dumb, but the concept is right. There is a void, traditional institutions are failing, and something needs to fill it. I guess I’m just trying to figure out what the real world looks like as we venture down this meta path. We’re a long way off from a Ready Player One or Matrix world, but probably not as far out as we might otherwise think.
And if the entire world is virtual, if people hate the real world, they’ll continue retreating further away from it. That will have ramifications, as we see continuing alienation from the real world, while a growing attachment to that which is virtual.
Links of the week
In Major Shift, NIH Admits Funding Risky Virus Research in Wuhan: A spokesman for Dr. Fauci says he has been “entirely truthful,” but a new letter belatedly acknowledging the National Institutes of Health’s support for virus-enhancing research adds more heat to the ongoing debate over whether a lab leak could have sparked the pandemic. – Katherine Eban, Vanity Fair
U.S. Economy Slowed in Third Quarter on Delta Surge, Supply Crunch: Factors that fueled spending faded, including an infusion of government stimulus, business reopenings and rising vaccination rates – WSJ
Is the U.S. Economy Headed toward a Recession? – Jim Geraghty, National Review
Twitter Thread(s) of the week
Satire of the week
Thanks for reading!