The Mark Zuckerberg Aesthetic
With his plans for a virtual reality metaverse, the Facebook founder pitches himself as a cultural impresario of the internet’s future.,
What do you get for the man who has everything? How about a vivid fantasy world of his own design?
Last week, during a keynote presentation at Facebook’s annual virtual reality conference, Mark Zuckerberg appeared in a feature-length video detailing his plans for “the metaverse,” an immersive digital world powered by his own products. In Zuckerberg’s imagined realm, humans will teleport across the globe in hologram form. Virtual fish will swim in the sky. You’ll have a big virtual telescope in your house, and a floating cast-iron chiminea, and David Attenborough will be there. You’ll still have to spend your days on video conference calls for work, but now some of your colleagues will look like cartoons.
Zuckerberg’s metaverse will be influenced by his financial interests and his strategic impulses, but also by his tastes. In his world, he could become our architect, decorator, concert promoter, film distributor, fitness guru, curator and stylist, or at least their boss. It’s time to assess Zuckerberg not only as a corporate leader but as a cultural one.
What is the Mark Zuckerberg aesthetic? What does he even like? His nearly 20 years in public life provide few clues. We know that he has expressed interest in Morgan Freeman‘s voice and Vin Diesel‘s oeuvre. In 2015, he hosted a Facebook book club with an absurdly broad brief, selecting works by both Michelle Alexander and Henry Kissinger. He has streamed himself smoking meats on Facebook Live.
His personal style is expeditious. Like a comic-book character, he seems to have a closet full of unindividuated outfits, all dark jeans and subtly heathered crew-neck tees. His hair has been cut into the same shape, close-cropped and featuring the tiny bangs of a medieval squire, for more than a decade. At 37, his pale, oddly smooth visage lends him a vampiric quality. There is something unnerving about the static nature of his image, of its imperviousness to the passage of time and his own ballooning wealth. It is as if he has always been moving through the world as an avatar.
Some things, however, have changed. When we first met Zuckerberg, he was a hoodied dorm-room hacker improbably vaulted to power. “The Social Network,” David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’s 2010 interpretation of Facebook’s founding, pegged him as a socially frustrated nerd with girl problems. But as the company amassed global influence, he began to be seen as a kind of dark online prince, and he labored to restyle himself as a plausible civic leader. He started quoting Abraham Lincoln. His bearing may have been stiff and charmless, but now it was kindly, too, like an android programmed for a custodial role.
On Instagram, he presented as an aggressively normal dad, stocking his feed with images of his wife, Priscilla Chan, their children and their moplike family dog. He has twice posted a blurry, too-close nighttime selfie in front of the Louvre. His caption style is mechanical: “Happy Mother’s Day!”; “Here’s to a great 2019!”; “We hope you had a spooky Halloween!”
Back in 2017, Zuckerberg published a manifesto dedicating Facebook to crafting the “social infrastructure” for a “civically-engaged community.” He wrote of “spreading prosperity and freedom,” “fighting climate change” and “preventing pandemics.” (Oops.) When he referred to “building the world we all want,” he was talking about the real world. Now he has retreated to a place chiefly concerned not with democracy or planetary survival but what he calls “joy”: attending virtual concerts, playing virtual chess and head-nodding at colleagues in virtual offices.
Though the term “metaverse” suggests a fully articulated sci-fi realm, Zuckerberg is using it to glamorize a network of virtual and augmented reality apps and gear, like headsets, that he swears will one day create a seamless illusion of a “deep feeling of presence.” He is devoting $10 billion this year to these projects (and more in the coming years), assigning 10,000 workers to them and changing his company name to “Meta.” And he’s retooling his online persona, too, as he steps into another improbable role: that of virtual impresario.
In recent months, Zuckerberg’s Instagram feed has grown sleekly professionalized. He appears as a sportsman practiced in elite hobbies: foiling, fencing, rowing, spear throwing. In an Instagram video posted on the 4th of July, he cuts through the water on a hydrofoil, hoisting an American flag to the tune of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” This summer, paparazzi captured Zuckerberg in bizarre leisure scenes: heading into the jungle to hunt boar with a posse of friends, wearing tactical gear and knit sneakers; surfing in the ocean, his face covered in opaque white sunscreen like some kind of tropical mime. Recently he posted a series of videos shot through Facebook’s new smart glasses, inviting the viewer to see through his eyes as he pilots a boat or lunges in a backyard fencing match. Now, in his keynote presentation, Zuckerberg becomes our avatar for experiencing the whole metaverse.
The video begins in a home, presumably Zuckerberg’s own. Stock music thrums as he lopes through a beige expanse punctuated with knotty driftwood, ceramic vessels and fossilized sea urchins. When he beckons us into the metaverse (really, simulated images of a virtual reality product that does not exist), his living room dissolves into a grid, and a computerized fantasy version of his home appears. It features several globes, a bonsai growing from an urn and a row of costumes — a Spartan, an astronaut. Vast windows overlook the kind of nature images used in screen savers that come preloaded onto a computer: tropical islands on one side, snow-capped mountains on the other.
The most conspicuous item in Zuckerberg’s fantasy home is a slim television mounted to the wall. “You can do anything you can imagine,” Zuckerberg says. “You will experience the world with ever-greater richness,” he promises. And yet mostly he foresees us consuming content in ever more elaborately antisocial ways.
He stages a virtual concert followed by a virtual after-party featuring virtual swag, all of which may be experienced from a slackened position on a living room couch. In his keynote monologue, he speaks reverently of the “virtual goods” that we will treasure in the metaverse, holding them close as we trudge from app to app. He refers incessantly to “experiences,” an idea that has become a buzzword signaling the commodification of life itself.
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And yet the aesthetics of the metaverse, with its ghastly translucent holograms, evoke the specter of death. Its schedule of activities reads like an advertisement for a virtual retirement community where isolated millennials can live out their final days, gazing at what Zuckerberg calls “a view of whatever you find most beautiful” as advertisers conceive of new ways to drill advertisements directly into their skulls.
It’s enough to make you long for a truly eccentric billionaire, someone who will at least offer a thrilling spectacle in exchange for becoming entrapped in his thought prison. Sadly, Zuckerberg is not the only internet tycoon building a new world to his bland specifications: While Zuckerberg moves to colonize the mind, Jeff Bezos is extending his influence into the cold reaches of space, where he plans to construct a private space station pitched as a “mixed-use business park.” Together they have slain our childlike fantasies of space exploration and virtual reality adventure, redirecting our imaginations into sealed corporate environments that can be exploited for profit.
The “Social Network” portrait of Zuckerberg as driven by romantic resentment never felt quite right. It felt too human. Even his hobbies and personal habits reek of transaction. On his Instagram account, he embodies the “work hard, play hard” ethos, ruthlessly converting leisure time into opportunities for technical mastery. When he posts images of his children on the platform he assures the populace that there is nothing troubling about plugging their own private lives into his products. He has said that he wears the same thing every day “so that I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything except how to best serve this community,” as if acting less like a person could possibly benefit the rest of humanity.
Given the disquieting events that Facebook has been accused of facilitating, some people are naturally skeptical of the idea of transforming the platform into an immersive playground where we might experience, say, racist screeds or body dysmorphia even more vividly. Instead Zuckerberg has offered up a different kind of horror: a frictionless world where nothing unpredictable, or unmonetizable, ever occurs. His metaverse is inhabited by smoothed, presumably neutered cartoon figures who converse in phrases like “Yo,” “This is wild” and “Let’s get together real quick for a debrief.” And if that all becomes overwhelming, Zuckerberg assures us, we may “teleport to a private bubble to be alone.” Alone in a bubble: This is the dream of the future. The reality will surely be much worse.