Facebook’s recent announcement that it is changing its company name to Meta and focusing on what it calls the metaverse was met with both criticism and derision. LSE PhD researcher Ludmila Lupinacci argues here that a critical phenomenological approach to social media could be helpful in terms of understanding its multifaceted impact on society.
Isn’t that the ultimate promise of technology? To be together with anyone, to be able to teleport anywhere, and to create and experience anything?
The quote above encapsulates the main promises and prognostics presented by Facebook’s founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, when introducing the company’s vision for an apparently inevitable technological future. During the launch of the company’s rebranding (which is suspiciously timely, given the recent scandals, leaks and hearings in which Facebook has been involved), the newly named ‘Meta’ invited us to imagine and anticipate a life in which devices of virtual and augmented reality are ubiquitous and habitual, and we can finally “experience the world with ever greater richness”.
This self-proclaimed Metaverse exemplifies how central the promise of experiential enhancement is to Silicon Valley ideology. That is, in providing us with tools to expand the reach of our bodies across time and space (for us“to be able to teleport anywhere”, as put by Zuckerberg), companies like Facebook claim to offer us greater opportunities for experiencing the world beyond our immediate geographical restrictions. And yet, while the concretisation of such dream requires sophisticated technical mediation (and, often, bulkier gadgets), big tech simultaneously try to make us forget the technology itself so that we can feel like we are “really there”. That is, it is expected from media technologies to, at the same time, enhance our access to the world, and to be transparent enough for us to stop noticing them. In focusing on this tension between desires of expanded experience and technological transparency, I demonstrate how a critical-phenomenological perspective could contribute to examining socio-technical matters that are so central to our everyday lives. That is, how studying lived experience – without losing sight of its social, technical, and political dimensions- can be productive to shed light on these contemporary issues and tensions.
In the Metaverse, says Zuckerberg, “we’ll be able to feel present like we’re right there with people no matter how far apart we actually are”. This is a vision of the world “beyond the constraints of screens, beyond the limits of distance and physics, and towards a future where everyone can be present with each other”, which promises to “unlock some pretty amazing experiences”. Ironic, to say the least, coming from the company that perfected a whole business model around the encouragement of ‘active engagement’ based on keeping people glued to their screens, liking and scrolling endless streams of content.
Yet there is nothing particularly original in these pledges and claims of expanded experience. Indeed, there is a vast body of literature in media studies detailing how transcending geographical, temporal, and corporeal constraints has been, historically, one of the main drivers of the development of communication technologies. It is not a coincidence that the introduction to the Metaverse strongly resembles past endeavours to develop digital open worlds and build an ‘online reality’, such as Second Life – they are all premised on the pursuit of experiential enhancement through technology.
Platform rhetoric is firmly rooted in the idea of overcoming time and space through immediacy and presence at a distance: Instagram claims to be “Bringing you closer to the people and things you love”, WhatsApp’s aim is to “Let people communicate anywhere in the world without barriers” and Facebook’s mission has been for the past four years to “bring the world closer together”. Long before last week’s announcement, improving human experience and surpassing the limits of our physical world has been at the core of what social media claim to deliver (even if in more subtle and dispersed ways). The adoption of such discourse as part of the corporate vernacular is usually framed as a benevolent response to existing popular demands – a common strategy that should be critically seen, as suggested by anthropologist Natasha Dow Schull “as part of a larger effort to guide those needs and desires”.
The proposed novelty is that this so-called Metaverse would finally afford a sensorially richer, more immersive technologically-mediated experience – an “embodied internet”, as put by Zuckerberg, in which, “instead of looking at a screen, you’re going to be in these experiences”. The miraculous solution, in case you are wondering, is supposed to come from a combination of superior VR headsets, highly customisable avatars, fine-tuned algorithmic systems, sophisticated neural interfaces, accurate sensors to capture voice, gestures, and facial expression, and smooth cross-platform interoperability. Through those artifices, Zuckerberg says, human interaction should finally become more “natural and vivid”. In this gadget-heavy version of mediated communications, “devices won’t be the focal point of your attention anymore. Instead of getting in the way, they’re going to give you a sense of presence, the new experiences that you’re having and the people who you’re with”.
The current manifestations of this longstanding tension – such as the infamous Metaverse –are ripe for critical-phenomenological examination. Phenomenology, in broad terms, focuses on how we perceive the world – how the world ‘appears’ to us through our senses. In this regard, I believe that contemporary social media are fundamentally marked by a phenomenological problem: their power (as well as the threat they are said to represent) is, at least partially, linked to the ways in which they control what and when we see of the world. The starting point of a critical phenomenology of social media, therefore, is the understanding that, in these platforms, ‘appearances’ are never neutral, natural, or organic, as they always reflect profit-oriented corporate interests. A critical-phenomenological perspective would address these issues whilst centring specifically what is so often framed as the driver of technical mediation: human experience. ‘Experience’, in this scope, is both what platforms (claim to) deliver, and the resource they cultivate, extract and exploit for profitability purposes.
Ultimately, for technology to ‘recede’ from our perception, it would have to become habituated – and the examination of the fluid dynamics of body-technology relations are a key phenomenological motif. Phenomenology, in short, affords analyses of mediation that are attuned to perceptual processes and to their observation in the context of everyday lived experience. Such an approach would also assume that embodiment is a basic condition of our being in the world – there is, therefore, no such a thing as a ‘disembodied’ internet to begin with, regardless of what Meta might try to make us believe.
A final, but certainly not less important point is that through the introduction of their vision for the next technological frontier (in which their companies are, of course, front and centre), platforms such as Facebook are informing and framing the ways in which we can dream and conceive of possible futures. As argued by Joachim Haupt, imaginaries and projections of the future are embedded in desirable values, which help the orientation, organisation and enactment of reality in the present. In setting the vocabulary and expectations for what the future of mediated communications ought to look like, as well as “the technology that needs to be invented” for the concretisation of these ambitious plans, Zuckerberg and his counterparts are also controlling the narrative of technological development in the direction that best favours their own interests, and supporting the endurance of their (meta) data-driven operation.
This article gives the views of the author and does not represent the position of the Media@LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.