I Don't Want To Go To Work In The Metaverse

Today Facebook has announced Workrooms, a VR-based working space that you access using an Oculus Quest headset. Zuckerberg’s extended press push involved him saying empty puff statements like how he wants Facebook to be a metaverse company, with a glowing CBS This Morning interview taking place partially inside the app. It is one of those ideas that hasn’t existed yet not because it’s impossible to do, but because it sucks - a classic solution in search of a problem. The Verge’s Alex Heath was needlessly positive about the whole thing:

Even with the bugs and relatively scaled-back graphics of the Quest compared to my MacBook screen, I still felt more present in Workrooms than I normally do in a traditional video conferencing setup like Zoom. Native arm and hand tracking, down to the movements of individual fingers, certainly helped. A larger factor is the Quest’s spatial audio. When someone talked in one corner of the room, it sounded like their voice was coming from that direction. At one point the seating chart was changed and I felt as if someone sitting behind me in VR was actually speaking from behind my head.

While I get what he’s saying, I also have to add - who cares? This looks and sounds terrible. Other than the fact that the graphics look like a YouTube-only cartoon series, it also doesn’t seem to be particularly conducive to actual…work?

There is a lot of discussion about how this is an “immersive” experience, but I do not know how that’s possible. It looks awful! It’s janky, it’s ugly, and if a company that wasn’t worth a trillion dollars wasn’t putting it out there, they’d get at best ignored and at worst publicly ridiculed. There’s a bit in the video I just linked where the reporter puts his elbow on the table and his entire body contorts - it’s just bad, flat out bad, and I do not know how anyone could possibly view this and say, “oh wow, that’s how work is going to be in the future.”

There are so many problems, but the most obvious of them is that the technology is not there yet. For something like this to work and be used at scale, it has to be equal parts flawless and easy, and Workrooms is awkward and full of weird glitches. It’s not even about the cartoon avatars, or the questionable utility of any of the features - it’s that the immersion is broken the moment anything looks or sounds weird, which appears to happen constantly. If this is supposedly a thing to immerse your team and bring them closer, it has to be perfect, which VR is not. It’s meant to be something that makes us feel more human and more connected, but somehow manages to disconnect us even further, turning us from talking heads on a screen to weird cartoons that sort of mimic what a human being might do in a meeting scenario.

As one of my followers on Twitter said, how is this even as good as Teams or Zoom? If anything, it enhances the feeling of disconnection - it cheapens communication by making your serious business meeting into a weird cartoon, and strips everybody of their identity in the process. Meetings become a weird, jerky mess that requires everyone to attach something to their head and use two little controllers in their hands. Who is this for!? Who is the customer!? Why is any single outlet treating this with even an infinitesimal amount of respect, rather than laughing at a huge company putting out something that looks and feels terrible? I realize the reason is “access journalism,” which is embarrassing.

We Don’t Need To Be Consumed By Work

I also resent the idea that we need to “go” to work. Why do we need to be immersed in a meeting? Is the idea that we’re not immersed enough right now, and we’re not doing our work properly? The problems we have with endless Zoom calls are not something that will be solved by putting on a VR headset and being able to see each other waggle our fingers. Even if this entire system was perfect, and every gesture was exactly as we made it in person…why do I need that? How does that make me feel closer to people? Why do I have to show every aspect of my physicality to people to do a job, and what utility does being in the same physical (or metaphysical) space actually have?

If my concerns about going to the office are around people being trapped there and surveilled, they are multiplied a hundred times over by the potential creep of this technology. Putting aside the obvious concerns about Facebook, this technology opens up the chance for terrible managers and bosses to start monitoring things like eye contact and “attention” - a whole new way to micromanage and antagonize people for not being “team players” in a way that doesn’t actually benefit the company. The ability to track whether someone was looking in the “right” direction or “looking at the presentation” is definitely there, and will definitely be used by the wrong types of people to reach the worst conclusions.

In fact, Horizon Workrooms has the chance to recreate the absolute worst of the office, with an entirely new level of optics-driven evaluation of your work product. Nothing about it appears to be beneficial to the office, but so much of it lends itself to the surveillance and control mechanisms of workplaces run by egoistical monsters. Of course they want you to put on a special helmet to work - that way they can know how “engaged” you are with it.

Leaving behind the office is a way in which we can finally separate our labor from our physical presence, meaning that we’re evaluated on the stuff we do rather than the places we are. The idea of a professional metaverse is a return to the problems of the office, framed as a chance to be “closer” to people that we don’t really need to be close to.