Facebook buying Oculus is great business – and the start of terrible sci-fi

Facebook is buying Oculus, the maker of virtual reality headsets, for $2bn. Like with Whatsapp, that’s a lot of money (though a lot less money). Neither is overvalued, though we’ll hear plenty of it: the premium to what you might have expected them to pay, though, is where the insidiousness lies.

When Facebook buys virtual reality headsets, it’s really buying the opportunity to make a Facebook branded (virtual) reality. When it bought Whatsapp it was buying the opportunity to brand your whole social interaction with its friendly blue and white logo, in the same way it’s already done to your whole personality and social sphere. Facebook wants to re-make your entire world in its image – these new companies that it’s acquired, and the ones that are no doubt to come, are just the most recent signs of that.

Here are some choice quotes from Zuckerberg’s statement, ellipses mine:

The incredible thing about the technology is that you feel like you’re actually present in another place with other people. People who try it say it’s different from anything they’ve ever experienced in their lives.

Oculus’s mission is to enable you to experience the impossible. Their technology opens up the possibility of completely new kinds of experiences.

[…]

This is really a new communication platform. By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life. Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures.

[…]

Virtual reality was once the dream of science fiction. But the internet was also once a dream, and so were computers and smartphones. The future is coming and we have a chance to build it together. I can’t wait to start working with the whole team at Oculus to bring this future to the world, and to unlock new worlds for all of us.

* * *

For the time being we’re clearly not about to leap into the Matrix: Oculus’ rift headset and those like it are going to supplement not replace reality, at least at first. But just like Facebook has not just become a way of re-creating social interactions that you might have in real life but couldn’t, this is likely to become a whole parallel way of speaking to people: again, all Facebook branded, all of your conversations now in simulated-flesh form fed through its servers.

This is at least part of the reason that Whatsapp cost so much. What wasn’t part of the on-paper price was the value of owning people’s whole conversations. Even if that data isn’t used for advertising or anything more insidious, the very fact of conducting those discussions through the software, and now through Facebook, meant that they owned them. If Facebook changes its news feed, it changes who you speak to more often; it’s algorithms control your friendships, though in a much less exciting way than science fiction of old might have imagined.

Now it can do that for conversations conducted as close to face to face as we’re going to be able to virtually recreate, for the time being. And this will continue. Facebook is sitting on pots, bags, whole vats of cash, and can keep buying virtual recreations of every facet of your real life and online experience.

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One thought on “Facebook buying Oculus is great business – and the start of terrible sci-fi

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